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Choral Work Based on US Civil War Premieres in Washington - 2003-06-07


A new concert work by an up-and-coming American composer recently had its world premiere with the Choral Arts Society of Washington at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Such Was the War, by composer James Grant, is music based on poet Walt Whitman's essays about the 1860s Civil War. What the composer did not expect was to be simultaneously influenced by America's involvement with the war in Iraq. For more than 20 years, composer James Grant has been commissioned by individuals, choruses and orchestras to write concert works that have been performed in countries all over the world. Last year, Choral Arts Society music director and founder Norman Scribner asked Mr. Grant if he would write a new symphonic work for a 180-piece chorus, saying it could be about "anything he wanted." Mr. Grant said he would write something with an American sound.

"So I began looking at American writers and poets - [Henry David] Thoreau and [Ralph Waldo] Emerson were on my short list, as was Walt Whitman," he said. "I came across a story of Whitman as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War and the letters he wrote to all his friends and family about what he was witnessing on the battlefield and in the hospital. And after I pulled together what is a fairly extensive collection of texts from his poetry and his prose and his correspondence. Without sounding too mystical about it, as a composer what I did was to listen."

As his composition progressed, and as America entered a war with Iraq, James Grant says he was at once inspired by the prose of Walt Whitman's Civil War essays as well as the impact of round-the-clock news coverage of a very real and current war.

"It was uncanny at times," said James Grant. "There were times I would be working on one of the texts describing a wounded soldier in the hospital and a news flash would come over talking about wounded American soldiers being flown to Germany. So there were many instances like that. In a very real sense, for all artists no matter what the discipline, current events affect the work of art that is in the process of being created. And in this case, it was just a very strikingly and ironically similar the text of what was going on in the real world as it rhymed, as it were, with the text that was going on with the piece of music that I was creating."

Choral Arts Society music director Norman Scribner says that in Such Was the War, James Grant has achieved the American sound he wanted and says there are echoes of other American composers at play. That isn't to say his music is derivative, he adds, but is the result of the same process that composers through the ages have gone through to come up with a sound that is uniquely their own.

"Any great composer among the pantheon of great composers of the past like Bach and Handel and Beethoven, they all drew their language from their contemporary setting," said Norman Scribner. "So if I say that there are echoes of [Benjamin] Britten and [Aaron] Copeland and maybe William Schumann in there or David Diamond or maybe a little of Leonard Bernstein and a little bit of popular music, when they come out, through Jim's notes, the music is Jim. You can see what has contributed to his language."

The Choral Arts Society of Washington, now in its 38th season, is one of the country's major symphonic choruses and was recently recognized for its innovative programming with the ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) Award for Adventurous Programming. Music Director Norman Scribner talks about the importance of promoting new music while paying homage to the past.

"The whole purpose is to treat music as an ongoing thing. And the living cycle involves three elements: the creator of the music, the performers of the music and the listeners to the music," he said. "And we want to show that the cycle is not broken, that it can be kept healthy and alive, the kind of music which is more than just entertainment but has profound messages for people.

"More and more, people are writing music which gets right to you right away, and yet is not just simply a student duplication of a particular composer from say 200 years ago or something," added Mr. Scribner. "It draws from all the languages and just makes it better and better, and Jim Grant is probably in that camp. And I, as a promoter of new music, am solidly in that camp too."

Paired with James Grant's Such Was the War, the Choral Arts Society of Washington concluded their concert with 20th century French composer Maurice Durufle's Requium, a tribute to the fallen of all wars.

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