Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Today: an American symphony.

John Trumbull: The Declaration of Independence

Today, considering the day, I think I'll take the time to listen to a recording of one of America's finest symphonies, the First Symphony (in One Movement) by Samuel Barber (1910-1981). One of America's finest composers, Barber wrote his first symphony in 1936 when he was twenty-six years old.

Barber composed the symphony as a formally three-partitioned, yet sonically seamless, sonata. He beginss with an expansive grand theme that sounds like an aural painting of an American West vista.

Leaving Rifle
At the eight-minute mark,
the orchestra takes off on an easy gallop, but not without some reluctant Alan Ladd-like heroics.

Just past twelve minutes in,
an oboe sings a lover's theme, lovely but elegiac, over strings.

At about seventeen minutes,
a passacaglia (think waltz without schmaltz) takes the opening theme on a dignified march that grows in urgency.

Barber brings all to a conclusion around the twenty-minute mark,
with string and woodwind crescendos building to several terse blasts, brassy and tympanic, like affirmations of what once had been American can-do and American must-do, virtues seemingly quaint in today's America.

For me, Samuel Barber's First resounds like a discovery of wide-open spaces: dangerous yet promising. Parts brooding yet lacking bathos, parts brash while contemplative, the whole expressing a contradictory character that, heretofore, had been perceived as quintessentially American.

Today, while listening, I think I'll take the time to drink a fine American beer, pure and true, without artifice.

And enjoy our Independence Day.


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  • The performance above is of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, recorded in 1998, conducted by Neeme Järvi. Järvi emigrated to the United States from Estonia in 1980 and became an American citizen in 1987. He was Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra from 1990 until 2005. The music label NAXOS has uploaded the performance to YouTube, thus all is copacetic to embed it.

  • The 4th of July is celebrated in the USA as Independence Day, commemorating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776. However, the painting above, The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, by John Trumbull (1756-1843), actually ...
    depicts the moment on 28 June 1776 when the first draft of the Declaration of Independence was presented to the Second Continental Congress. The document stated the principles for which the Revolutionary War was being fought and which remain fundamental to the nation. Less than a week later, on July 4, 1776, the Declaration was officially adopted. It was later signed on August 2, 1776.

    In the central group in the painting, Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration, is shown placing the document before John Hancock, president of the Congress. With him stand the other members of the committee that created the draft: John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Benjamin Franklin. This event occurred in the Pennsylvania State House, now Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

    Working in Paris, France, in the 1780s, young John Trumbull began an ambitious series of paintings depicting key moments in American History, including the story of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson - then the American minister to France - enthusiastically supported the project and advised, along with John Adams, that all of the Congressional delegates be shown, a total of 56 people! Trumbull spent decades obtaining accurate likenesses, making portraits from life of 36 delegates, and copying others from paintings by other artists. Some participants remained elusive - the finished work contains 47 individuals (42 of the 56 signers plus 5 other patriots).

    Trumbull later used the image shown here, measuring only 20 x 30 inches, as the basis for a monumental 12 x 18 feet version which today hangs in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C.
    —Via The Library of Congress.

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