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In an interview on NPR, shortly before the inauguration, Amanda Gorman said: “Everything is political. Especially art.” How true. In graduate school the same idea was drilled into my brain by Herbert Brün, brilliant composer, computer music pioneer, and one of my professors at the University of Illinois.
I grew up listening to my father speak about politics. A New Deal Democrat from Georgia, when it was still a solid Blue state, he would be very pleased with Georgia’s two new Democratic senators, one of them Black. With the passage of time my mother became a Republican, for reasons I have never understood. In his final years, the two of them dutifully went to the polls every election, casting ballots that cancelled each other out.
My high school, Indian Springs, just south of Birmingham, Alabama, was a hotbed of political and educational controversy. Lively discussions about all things political were characteristic of my high school years, my undergraduate years in Tuscaloosa, and graduate school at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne.
My father’s favorite subject in school was history. “That’s where you find out what people are really like.” How right you were, Daddy. With my disputatious nature, good training in history, and an awareness of politics that I share with everyone I know who grew up in the South, I probably would have become a political composer anyway. But Herbert Brün made sure I was a self-conscious, deliberate one.
My first full-length opera, Americana, or, A New Tale of the Genii, is an allegory of the American Revolution. My rock opera The Plague: A Commentary on the Work of the Fourth Horseman is about the political ramifications of epidemic disease. My most recent major work (2013-18) is a two-hour dramatic oratorio entitled Circular 14: The Apotheosis of Aristides. It tells the story of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a diplomat in World War II. In 1940 he was the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux. He saved countless lives (including thousands of Jews) by issuing illegal visas, against the express orders of Prime Minister Antonio de Oliveira Salazar.
In late spring, 2005, in direct response to a question from my close friend and mentor, the composer Henry Brant, I set the United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights to music. We had been walking in his neighborhood in Santa Barbara; Brant was under doctor’s orders to walk an hour a day. Out of the blue he asked, “Neely, what can we as composers do about the terrible political situation?”
I thought for about thirty seconds and said “I’m going to set the First Amendment to music.” In less than two days, working in Henry’s studio, I had the manuscript in hand. I was exhilarated, and on a roll. Why stop with the First? The Second and Third Amendments are short, and concern the military — I concatenated them to make a choral march. Back in Middletown, CT, I continued with the rest. The Seventh and Eighth Amendments were combined, like the Second and Third. In two weeks the job was done.
The result is a secular oratorio, The Bill of Rights: Ten Amendments in Eight Motets.
A public reading took place at South Congregational Church in Middletown that July, followed by the first public performances at Wesleyan University on September 17, 2005, Constitution Day. Over the years I have added instrumental parts, an overture, and six interludes.
This composition takes just over a half-hour to present. It is my most often performed large-scale work — 35 complete performances, and a number of performances of individual numbers, including over 60 performances of the First Amendment. Venues include Judson Church in Manhattan; Unitarian churches; the Newseum in Washington DC; and several repeat performances at Wesleyan, most notably in 2012 in conjunction with a lecture by the late Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.
Almost from the beginning, friends and acquaintances urged me to set more than the original ten amendments to music. One person even said I should set all 27 of them! (That will not happen.) But in the fall of 2019, to celebrate the centennial of women’s suffrage, I set the Nineteenth Amendment to music. Many performances were scheduled, but because of the pandemic, only one took place — in the Vermont State Legislative Chamber, on February 5th.
Over and over it was suggested that I set the Fourteenth Amendment to music. I always said no. It is the longest of the amendments at 435 words. Perhaps because it sought to effect a complex historic transformation in what it meant to be a citizen, it is not elegantly written. In contrast, The Bill of Rights is ringing, sonorous prose that approaches poetry. It was penned in an age when public documents were often read out loud. The first ten amendments have an excellent sense of rhythm, and full, emphatic cadences. When we enter the rhetorical world of these documents they almost sing themselves. The contrast with more recent amendments is striking: most of the twentieth century amendments are prosaic in the extreme.
I have never contemplated setting to music a more plodding, less colorful document than the Fourteenth Amendment. However, as more and more people wanted me to write this piece, intriguing performance possibilities opened up.
Then, in the fall of 2019, inspiration struck. Instead of just the Fourteenth Amendment, why not set all three of the Reconstruction Amendments to music? The result would be a secular oratorio, like The Bill of Rights, for mixed chorus and string orchestra. The Thirteenth and Fifteenth Amendments are full of eighteenth century rhetorical excellence. Each is short, with a single, crucial idea. The Thirteenth abolishes slavery; the Fifteenth guarantees the newly freed slaves (male, not female) the right to vote. To express in music the profound sadness of slavery and the hope that accompanied its abolition; to express in music the sheer excitement of being able to vote — these are concepts a political composer can work with.
I wrote an a cappella version of the Thirteenth Amendment very quickly. It went into rehearsal early in 2020. A first performance was scheduled in April for the Musical Club of Hartford, along with the Connecticut premiere of the Nineteenth Amendment. That was not to be, of course. But the pandemic, and its attendant isolation, gave me time to finish the job. If I could crack the compositional nut of the Fourteenth Amendment the entire work would be complete.
But what style?
I am a relentlessly eclectic composer. The Bill of Rights is modeled on the works of William Billings, our first great composer and an active patriot during the Revolution. The Nineteenth Amendment is in a modified late-nineteenth century style, something like parlor music. The Thirteenth was composed with echoes of spirituals rolling around in my head, especially tunes in the magnificent 1867 collection Slave Songs of the United States.
Eclecticism came to the rescue when I tackled the 435-word, unmusical, rhetorically bland Fourteenth. The Thirteenth Amendment is almost a lament — long, overlapping melodic phrases in the key of F minor. A complete contrast was needed. I decided to set the rhythm of the Fourteenth, with no attempt to make it melodic, or harmonically complex. It is inexorably pandiatonic, using only the seven notes of the F major scale. All four parts sing the same rhythm, one note per syllable, fast — but not too fast. This results in a uniform texture, devoid of contrapuntal interest. The form of the piece is determined by the five sections of the text. These are articulated by a monotone drone on the pitch F; first in the altos, then in the tenors, then in the sopranos, then in the basses. The fifth section of the text (to which I will return shortly) has everyone singing the F together, alternating with a tight cluster of notes: C, D, E, and F. The result is an energetic, post-modernist, quasi-minimalist machine that lets the text speak for itself.
And the style of the Fifteenth Amendment? Returning to F minor, I wrote a quasi-Handelian fugue. The subject is long, and can be manipulated in clever, and sometimes expressive ways. The text itself is the most exciting of the three. I hammer out “the right… to vote…” at crucial points, and individual words can bear a bit of word painting. “Servitude” can be remembered intently and with a feeling of pain; the word “color” can be an unexpected bit of harmonic color; “shall not be abridged” can be musically extended; etc.
A three-movement work took shape — an intense, mid-nineteenth century lamentation; then a chunk of twentieth century musical gamesmanship; then Handel arrives.
As I edit my composition, each of the Reconstruction Amendments has made its appearance in current events. The resurgence of contemporary white supremacy raises the specter of slavery: the Thirteenth Amendment has not abolished the racism that permitted the peculiar institution for so long. The notorious exception to abolition, enforced labor for the incarcerated, still exists and is being questioned anew. Just what is “Insurrection” or, “Rebellion?” And the 2020 election in Georgia is a brilliant example of what can happen if everyone votes — especially Black Americans. Thanks to the vision, organizational skills, and ten years of hard work by Stacey Abrams (and others), a majority of Georgians finally spoke their minds, profoundly altering the Senate of the United States — and helping to elect a Democratic president for the first time in decades.
Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, one of the most committed and tenacious of the nineteenth century abolitionists, labored long to make these amendments law. He lived to see the beginning of compromises that eventually blunted them as instruments of profound reform.
But Sumner had great hopes for the future. These three amendments, he said, were sleeping giants. One day they would awaken. Perhaps that day has come.
Neely Bruce is the John Spencer Camp Professor of Music at Wesleyan University. He is a composer, performer, and scholar of American music. His opera Americana, or, A New Tale of the Genii, was premiered in 1985 by the American Music/Theatre Group and Orchestra New England, under the baton of James Sinclair. Major works include CONVERGENCE; The Portals of St Bartholomew; and the dramatic oratorio Circular 14: The Apotheosis of Aristides. His setting of the Bill of Rights for chorus and chamber orchestra, in the style of William Billings, has been performed 35 times.
Additional links to Neely Bruce’s music can be found throughout this essay.