Revolutionary music

On this Revolutionary day in my country, I thought to search my iTunes on “Revolution”. This netted an album America Sings by the Gregg Smith Singers, which has sections of secular and sacred music from the time of the American Revolution; the American Fife Ensemble’s Music of the American Revolution, with a pile of patriotic songs from the period; “Revolution 1” and “Revolution 9” from the Beatles’ White Album (I’ve never gotten reconciled to “Revolution 9”, and am at this very moment skipping over the damn thing); two recordings of Chopin’s “Revolutionary Étude”, Op. 10 No. 12 in C minor (on the occasion of the Cadet Revolution, or November Uprising, or Russo-Polish War, of 1830-31, in what is now Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine), performed by Murray Perahia and by Jean-Yves Thibaudet; the 20th-century American protest/folk song “Spirits of the Revolution” (“We who are the spirits of the revolution, / We will not fit in, / And we will not give in”), sung by Larry Estridge; “Revolutionary Rock” by The Clash; “Children of the Revolution” by Bono; and 19th-century music performed by John Eliot Gardner’s Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique.

Nothing here of the music of the French Revolution, though there was plenty, most famously “La Marseillaise” (I seem not to have a recording of it).

But this keyword search misses lots of stuff from the American Revolution, in particular William Billings’s “Chester” — d’ya remember William Billings? — and what is now treated as a children’s song, “Yankee Doodle”.

The Songwriters Hall of Fame site on Billings explains that

A passionate advocate of the Revolution, Billings adapted many of his hymns as war songs with new lyrics. The biggest success of Billings’ career, “Chester”, became America’s first war song and a favorite for the Patriots. “Chester” is significant in the scope of American popular song because it marked the beginning of a new musical movement toward the military song.

The hymn version, from 1770 (Sacred Harp #479, which is where I sing it from):

1. Let the high heav’ns your songs invite,
These spacious fields of brilliant light,
Where sun and moon and planets roll,
And stars that glow from pole to pole.

2. Sun, moon and stars convey Thy praise
Round the whole earth and never stand,
So when Thy truth began its race,
It touched and glanced on ev’ry hand.

(I have three recordings of this version on my iTunes.)

The patriotic version, ca. 1777:

1. Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And slav’ry clank her galling chains.
We fear them not; we trust in God,
New England’s God forever reigns.

2. Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton, too,
With Prescott and Cornwallis joined,
Together plot our overthrow,
In one infernal league combined.

3. When God inspired us for the fight
Their ranks were broke; their lines were forced
Their ships were shattered in our sight
Or swiftly driven from our shore.

4. The foe comes on with haughty stride,
Our troops advance with martial noise;
Their veterans flee before our youth,
And generals yield to beardless boys.

5. What grateful off’ring shall we bring?
What shall we render to this Lord?
Loud Hallelujah let us sing,
And praise His Name on ev’ry chord!

Rather than end with beardless boys (our brave and fearless young men), Billings added a non-martial stanza of praise to God.

Then there’s “Yankee Doodle”, which goes back at least to the French and Indian Wars, starting out as an anti-American slur (those stupid rustics) but got turned against the British in our Revolutionary War. I don’t seem to have a “straight” version on my iTunes, though I do have two wonderfully over-the-top versions, Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “The Union” (Op. 48), a concert paraphrase (for the piano) “on the national airs Star Spangled Banner, Yankee Doodle, and Hail Columbia” (played by Cecile Licad), and Henri Vieuxtemps’s “Souvenir d’Amérique — Variations burlesques sur Yankee Doodle” (Op. 17), for an unhinged violinist (Joshua Bell, in this case).

On with the fireworks!

4 Responses to “Revolutionary music”

  1. Ned Deily Says:

    There is also organist Cameron Carpenter’s revolutionary version of the Revolutionary,, along with his revolutionary version of the Sousa forever favorite for the Fourth:

  2. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Ned on the fabulous Cameron Carpenter clips: O. M. G.

    CC wins the Organ Prize for Pedal Dexterity in Glitter and Platform Shoes (All-White Division) as well as a Special Citation for Runway Model Organists.

    I wept with pleasure.

  3. Star-spangled banners and my country « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] took on revolutionary music in general last year, here, with references to music from various revolutions, including music by William Billings (for our […]

  4. Burlesques, parodies, playful allusions « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Revolutionary music (link) and 7/2/11: Star-spangled banners and my country (link); reference to: Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s […]

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