Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was commissioned by the Shenandoah County (Virginia) Bicentennial Committee and received its first performance on August 12, 1972 by the Shenandoah Valley Festival Orchestra, the composer conducting. It has subsequently been performed countless times throughout the country and abroad, and it has been recorded by the Houston Symphony. According to ASCAP, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men enjoys the distinction of having been played more often during America’s bicentennial year than any other work expressly written for that occasion.

This work borrows its title from the famous passage in the Apocrypha (Ecclesiasticus 44:1-15) which begins, “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.” The title is ironic, however. Although the first verses of this passage pay respect to the memory of great heroes of the past, the final section eulogizes the countless numbers of the forgotten, those who lived without achieving fame but whose lives provided the continuity for and the inheritance of the human race. It is in this sense—that of a memorial to the common man and woman—that James Agee used these words as the title for his and Walker Evans’ greatly admired study of poor Southern tenant farmer families in the 1930’s. I acknowledge a philosophical debt to that powerful book as a major source of inspiration for this work.

Several choral settings have been made of this passage from the Apocrypha, most notably by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Daniel Pinkham. I have endeavored, however, to translate the spirit of this great literature (both Agee’s words and those of the sacred writings) into music for symphony orchestra alone. There is a choir, but it is a choir of ghostly off-stage flutes, symbolic of voices returning across the years.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is based on seven Southern folk-hymns, reflecting the fact that the Shenandoah Valley in the last century was a great center of publishing and promotional activity for rural church music. The old hymnals published at that time received wide dissemination and frequent use. All these used the shaped-note “fa-sol-la” notation, a tradition which is still alive in parts of the deep South through the most famous of them, The Sacred Harp.

George Pullen Jackson, the ranking authority on shaped-note hymnody, has proven that many of these old hymn tunes were actually secular folk songs of the British Isles, transported here and kept alive by memory and later adapted for church use by singing schoolmasters. The hymn tunes I have used in this work all belong to this category. Almost certainly they were known and sung—on both sides of the Atlantic—during the time of our nation’s founding. These tunes, and others like them, form a rich heritage for the use of the serious composer, and their continued vitality through the centuries provides its own memorial to the lives of the forgotten forbears who sang them and passed them on.

The seven hymn tunes I used either had some relationship to the Shenandoah Valley or else they have some subjective interest to me personally, including one tune (“Murillo’s Lesson”) which I remembered from my grandmother’s singing it to me when I was a young boy. I have not merely arranged the tunes, however; rather, I have used them as material for an original tonal structure, frequently combining them in contrapuntal juxtaposition in the style of the 15th century quodlibet.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is scored for full orchestra with the above-mentioned offstage choir of flutes. The work begins with solo viola intoning “Davisson’s Retirement.” “Murillo’s Lesson” follows, an active tune, but here treated as something of a funeral march with seven variations. The music leads to a sustained chord from the orchestra over which the offstage flutes make their spectral appearance with the tune “Montgomery.” Faster and more lively music ensues, built from the tunes “Leander,” “Mississippi,” and “Pisgah,” with “Virginia” appearing as bass underpinning about midway through. The fast motion is interrupted by “Davisson’s Retirement,” sung this time by the bassoon, then by the entire string section, and the final lines of “Murillo’s Lesson” bring the work to a quiet and poignant close.

One might note the preponderance of the number seven in this work: seven hymn tunes, seven variations on “Murillo’s Lesson,” the motivic use of the seven notes of the descending major scale, derived from “Murillo’s Lesson.” This was not accidental: from the beginning of my work on this composition I was preoccupied with that number because of the seven fabled bends of the Shenandoah River. It was my intent, however, that the music depict much more than the local color of a single region. I wanted to make this music reflect the universal qualities of struggle, of joy, and of devotion which characterize our predecessors.

Program Notes by Samuel Jones