Hymn to the Earth

“Hymn to the Earth” is a suite in three movements derived from a larger symphonic work entitled “Roundings: Musings and Meditations on Texas New Deal Murals.” The first performance of the complete work was given on April 8, 2000, conducted by James Setapen with the Amarillo Symphony, which commissioned it for its 75th anniversary. The first performance of this suite took place on October 4, 2001, by the Seattle Symphony, Gunther Herbig, conducting.

The music of this suite is essentially meditative and contemplative, reflecting upon the mystic, the mythic, indeed, the almost sacred role played by the earth in the sustenance of all life. The opening movement, also entitled “Hymn to the Earth,” plants the seed, both musically and philosophically, for all that follows. It is a disarmingly simple piece, setting up a wide sonic frame in the string section, within which the winds intone slow chords moving in whole steps. These chords set up relationships which are explored in the following movements.

The central movement of the suite, “Plow,” is a short set of variations on an old Protestant hymn tune, entitled “Dresden,” which opens with the words, “We plow the fields.” It is a sturdy tune, staunch and strong, and the triadic intervals and majestic scales of the tune itself paint a picture of the dedication and painful effort which is required for successful tilling of the land (and metaphorically, for all living things to struggle and endure). Prompted by the name of the hymn tune, I have also utilized in this movement the famous Dresden Amen as part of the thematic material. After an introduction in the lower winds, the opening statement of the hymn tune is sung by the ceremonial trombones. Their phrases are balanced by allusions to the Dresden Amen (in a trio of solo cellos) and to the recurring chordal motive introduced in the first movement. Now follows a variation, characterized by a dotted-rhythm accompaniment figure (in the brasses) that depicts great physical exertion, which, before the development of modern tractors, was always associated with plowing. In this variation the hymn tune changes its pitches, following the dizzying distortions of tonal center to which the accompanying chords lead, creating an identifiable yet strongly varied statement of the tune, sung in full voice by the string section. Just before the second (and final) variation the sound of an old John Deere tractor can be heard, and we move symbolically to the modern era. The brasses proclaim the chorale tune this time, while the woodwinds and strings, starting from a single central pitch, expand and contract, creating a sonic approximation of the expanding parallel lines of the remarkable mural which inspired this movement as well as an aural illusion of the tractor pulling its disk harrow now close, now back to the far reaches of the field, then forward again, over and over in a great cyclical motion.

Transitional music featuring the solo cello then leads to the last movement of the suite, which is based on a passage from the book of Ecclesiastes, those incandescent words which reflect on the cyclical aspects of life: “Generations come and generations go, while the earth endures forever. The sun also rises and the sun goes down; back it goes to its place and rises there again. The wind blows south, the wind blows north, round and round it goes and returns full circle.” (Eccl. 1:4-6.) A string quartet becomes an important protagonist. After a statement of its music, which reflects the rhythm of the words of the movement’s title, the quartet is vehemently interrupted by the voice of the Preacher (the writer of Ecclesiastes), his characteristic message (“Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!”) heard first in brass instruments. But the quartet continues peacefully and deliberately, stressing its moderating message. Eventually even the Preacher’s admonition is seen itself as vanity, and what remains is an abiding faith in the importance of life itself, and of its Source. This is portrayed musically by the gradual orchestrational weakening of the Vanity motive, until it is finally integrated into the overall fabric of the work itself, as part of its accompaniment. The coda restates once more the Dresden Amen, with a final statement of the circular tonality, the whole-tone scale, which has been the basic structure of the suite, leading us back affirmatively to where we began.

Program Notes by Samuel Jones