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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

Songs America Loves to Sing (2004)
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Works for 2-6 Players
Sub Category
Pierrot Ensemble (no voice)
Year Composed
25 Minutes
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Programme Note
John Harbison Songs America Loves to Sing (2004)
Camerata Pacifica

Composer note:

It is a distant, quaint vision: the family around the piano singing familiar songs, a Currier and Ives print, an album of sepia photographs. But I remember it well (or did I imagine it?). The album which our family sometimes used may have been called Songs America Loves to Sing. The present collection of solos and canons on some of these still familiar melodies is dedicated to my sister Meg (of five singers, now only two left).

Ideally many of the tunes will still be recognizable. In the chorale preludes of the German baroque common melodies are embedded in the composer's invention (strict against free); if we know the tunes our enjoyment of the pieces is enhanced. It is my hope that choosing well-known musical material will make these settings transparent.
Solo: Amazing Grace
In 1972 I made a virtuoso set of variations for solo oboe on this tune. This simpler version is an exploration of the overtones of the primary chord. The accompanying strings offer a foretaste of the canonic principle, framing the soloist with slower versions of "Amazing Grace."

Canon: Careless Love
The melody is presented as a ghostly backdrop in the accompanying piano. A series of pensive octave canons serve to introduce the ensemble, in pairs, to the listener.

Solo: Will the Circle be Unbroken?
The song has a visionary presence, and suggests very little harmonic change, a fact emphasized by the obsessive piano signal. The solo begins rhapsodically, then is pulled into the pulse.

Canon: Aura Lee
The piano ostinato is an abstract wallpaper of the tune which is presented at various speeds by the others. In the '50s a famous entertainer produced a hit record of a song that very much resembles "Aura Lee."

Solo: What a Friend We Have in Jesus
We are at the heart of the cycle, two numbers touching upon the gospel and blues traditions. Here the piano offers increasingly fervent glosses on the tune. The accompanists are not drawn in, but cast a reverent shadow.

Canon: St. Louis Blues
The most elaborate of the canons, actually a double inversion canon over a free bass, with certain elements treated as "thickened lines" (a fine descriptive jazz theory term).

Solo: Poor Butterfly
The pristine melody is first presented as a cadenza, filtering though only if the listener remembers it well. Then, as a reminder, it is played simply by the accompanists, while the soloist continues an embroidery derived from the tune.

Canon: We Shall Overcome
We enter a political sequence here, two songs that never lose currency. The early music vocabulary for "We Shall Overcome" says that the goals it furthered have not been achieved. The contentious diminution canons suggest that social struggles and disjunction continue, inevitably.

Solo: Ain't Goin' to Study War No More
I know no sturdier expression of the hope for peace than this spiritual. In the setting an undercurrent of unease is present in the fanfares heard during the second stanza. As the accompanists join the soloist in a collective jam session, the conflicts recede. (A parallel version of the piece was my contribution the Albany Symphony Spiritual Project.)

Canon: Anniversary Song
In a photograph of her fifth birthday party my sister Helen sits in front of her cake, surrounded by her friends, in a perfect party dress, weeping inconsolably. From that image of her indelibly melancholic temperament comes the initial canon; birthdays can be daunting. At the end a more hopeful version of this tune, similar to a (perhaps) still copyrighted melody takes over.
Songs America Loves to Sing, for the so-called "Pierrot" combination, was commissioned jointly by the Atlanta Chamber Players, with funding from Cherry Logan Emerson, and the Da Capo Chamber Players, with an award from the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition at Brigham Young University. As in an earlier piece, Fourteen Fabled Folksongs (in which I invented all the tunes), the pattern is all-important — the key scheme, contrasts, pacing of the sequence — so pauses between movements must be minimal. Paradoxically I would permit separate performance of any part of the music with very different purposes in view. The entire pieces lasts about twenty-three minutes.

— John Harbison

  • Ensemble
    Camerata Pacifica
    Harmonia Mundi:
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