Ante Bellum Rhapsody for brass band
Dedicated to our beloved "Tante Maria" the power, grace and beauty behind
"That Amazing Mr. Leidzen"
1. Midnight Funeral
2. Prayer Meetin' In The Woods
3. Death, Where is Thy Sting?
4. The Rattling Chains of Freedom
5. Specters of War
The tragedy of human slavery clearly predates written history. While paper laws from President Lincoln's time prohibit it in America, there is little doubt that it would be re-instituted in a heartbeat today by many, if allowed. Strangely, it was in the 20th century that it became illegal in Africa. Abolitionist movements date to the 1500's in Europe. What is called the Ante Bellum period in America dates from 1784 to 1860 - "before the Civil War." I am indebted (among others) to Ken Davis for his counsel and generous loan of the rare book Slave Songs of The Georgia Sea Islands. Other than Slave songs there is sparse record of secular songs about the growing political conflict of the period. However, the war itself created a veritable explosion of musical output. As many as 750 pro-South songs were printed in that five-year period, while over 9,000 were printed in the North supporting Abolition! It was from this vast mix that Erik Leidzen could choose for his immortal Post Bellum Rhapsody. Virtually all of "the Battle Hymns" post-date the Ante Bellum period.
Consequently, it is with a healthy mixture of trepidation, great respect and even a sense of futility that I embarked upon the task of writing a prequel to Mr. Leidzen's masterful Post Bellum Rhapsody. To tread where he trod (in any sense!) is indeed to walk on hallowed ground. However, it is into such a daunting realm that I ambled. The elements of deep respect were, to be sure, for Mr. Leidzen, but greatly less than that for the subject of this discourse - American Slaves. The trepidation was/is that one cannot from the distance of a thousand miles and a century and a half begin to grasp the events that caused our nation's most horrible event, The Civil War. Sitting in a stuffed leather chair sipping a mug of hot tea is not the catbird seat for understanding the demonic depravity of slavery. Can you say that you really understand how a bullwhip feels across your back . . . across that of your mother? Without rehearsing the rest, it can be said that the whip was an almost tolerable routine compared to much that took place. What my research uncovered was vast and interesting. Controversial to be sure, but the fact of slavery was not simply an indifferent cruelty of the landed gentry toward Negroes, it was a relatively dispassionate economic reality. They wanted money and the Slaves could provide the means. However, the greatest revelation was found in the attitudes of the Slaves toward whites. It was not universally angry (as manifest itself a century later); it was generally charitable and demonstrated reliance on Christ Jesus. "Nobody knows, but Jesus" and "Glory Hallelujah!" are not phrases born of anger, but of charity. Slaves, for the most part, did not retaliate against their masters after the war but simply and happily tried to live the American Dream. This charity of spirit, above all things, is what research unveiled and personal experience has proven to be the hallmark of this noble people.
A rhapsody is a free-formed piece of an heroic, national or rhetorical nature. In this case I have elected to use mostly (now) well-known tunes to illustrate prevalent attitudes of the period leading to the American Civil War - Ante Bellum. While all of the songs were apparently written before the war actually broke out, at least The Battle Cry of Freedom was not actually published until after the start of the war and gained most of its popularity thereafter. I use it and Dixie merely as a ghostly foreboding of things to come. Someone actually set different words to The Battle Cry of Freedom, making it a campaign song for Mr. Lincoln in 1864. I could have elected to use songs that were popular in the pre-war time but few are known today. (Still fewer have the musical/textual elements I seek!) Like Mr. Leidzen, I wish to write this one for the little old lady in the last row. Almost all the tunes selected are well known and clearly represent various mind-sets of the Ante Bellum period. So, this piece is about Ante Bellum thinking, not about period songs.
After an attention-arresting timpani roll, the familiar "Pharaoh . . . Pharaoh . . . let my people go!" is heard as a plaintive bass trombone solo. The hammer-blows of the timpani set the stage for Midnight Funeral, the piece's first section. This dirge represents the sad reality that Slaves often had to secret their dead into the woods for clandestine burials. The "Massah" would not often permit funerals during the workday, and then frequently the graves (if known) were disrespected by mischievous paid staff. While the whip was clearly not present at these covert services, the memory of it never retreated - even when laying little Toby to rest in stealth. The basses repeatedly intone a fragment of Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen, while the drudgery of life is illustrated by the incessant hammering of the timpani and the gloomy glissandi in the bass trombone. The one almost-bright moment comes from the trombones' triumphant "Glory Hallelujah!" The word, "Jesus", from Nobody Knows is heard accompanying this threnody.
The funeral fades into another section of the forest and Prayer Meetin' In The Woods ensues. Steal Away To Jesus is not only a Negro Spiritual, it was a fact of their lives of triumph over barbarism. Soon the trudge back to their shacks resumes with a sense of even deeper foreboding as the timpani brings back the dirge.
The quickening tempo indicates that Slave-dreams were upbeat and of A Balm in Gillead and that Sweet Chariot that would one day descend to "Carry Me Home". The third section is Death, Where is Thy Sting? Indeed. "To Heal The Sin-sick Soul" was clearly a phrase they aimed at themselves in the song, and it was underscored with "But Then The Holy Spirit, Revives My Soul Again." One can wonder at what might constitute the sins of faithful Slaves, but . . . The indomitable spirit of the Christ-centered human being was never more profoundly manifest than among American Slaves.
One can historically and politically reconstruct and rationalize, but the fact remains that tens of thousands of Americans died in the most hideous of circumstances so that these good people could be free, if not equal. The Rattling Chains of Freedom is intended to give a sense of the growing conflict of ideologies. Here a now lesser-known but then very popular Slave song is presented as well: "Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel? Then why not every man?" The wrenching of a nation ripping itself in half is not a felicitous event. Brother against brother . . . father against son . . . At least some were right. None were happy. There is an old saying that "no soldier remains un-scathed in war." Nor does a nation - America has clearly not altogether healed from the War Between The States, even now. As freedom "rattles her chains", the final section, Specters of War blends Ante Bellum tunes of the day which supported segments of a country divided against itself. The Battle Cry of Freedom dominates Dixie musically as it did historically. However, Dixie seems to be getting the upper hand toward the end, but it is not to be. Go Down Moses' "Let my people go!" was almost the National Anthem of Slaves and is heard at the beginning, throughout and as the Final statement - strangely but aptly juxtaposed with the song-fragment " . . . and crown thy good with brotherhood . . ." Look for no easy resolution in this music . . . as it is yet to come. If there is triumph in the end, it is the triumph of the human spirit, which never resided more nobly than within broken black bodies of those days of Ante Bellum. The piece gradually picks up speed and volume from the beginning to the end as a symbol of this indomitable spirit - a freed spirit - as a nation emerges from the frigid fog of slavery.
God bless you, and our nation!
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