by George F. Root/arr. Anthony O’Toole (Grade 4.5, 2:30)
One Hundred and fifty years ago, while our great nation was divided and engaged in a war with itself, American composer and songwriter George Frederic Root of Illinois was creating some of the most iconic tunes of the era. His songs; ‘The Vacant Chair’, ‘The First Gun is Fired’ and ‘The Battle Cry of Freedom’ were huge hits, and not just for the North. ‘The Battle Cry of Freedom’ is undoubtedly the most famous tune of Root’s wartime musical output of 35 songs. This work is a rousing call to arms, an anthem for stirring feelings of patriotism and devotion to the cause of freedom for all.
In my setting of this tune, I chose to treat the material differently than a typical march style as, it was conceived originally by the composer, instead drawing my inspiration from the more subtle aspects text. The work begins by setting the musical atmosphere of staggered entrances in the winds of open intervals (4ths and 5ths) outlined by the harp and percussion. These sounds are reminiscent of a distant memory of the sounds of bugles on the battlefield. Amidst this texture, brief solos by English horn then French horn introduce a fragment of the melody. The first full statement of the tune is presented by the solo clarinet and bassoon. The melody is embellished only slightly with meager harmony before blossoming into a fuller statement with more expansive harmonies. This portion of the work is inspired by the following line of song’s text:
“And although they may be poor, not a man shall be a slave…”
This one line embodies seemingly everything this war and this country is built on – the concept that all men are created equal. To oppress anyone for any reason is morally reprehensible and a country that endorses slavery is not holding true to one of the most important principals of its creation. Although many will conjecture as to the reasons for the American Civil War, it is clear that slavery was the largest issue. An entire race of people subjugated, for financial gain, to work and live without freedom and treated as subhuman, enduring some of the most horrific conditions. It is the most basic of rights – freedom – and it’s inalienability despite an individual’s social and economic status, religious beliefs, ethnicity or skin color. It’s a very simple concept, but it is so very crucial.
After the full statement by the woodwinds and horns, the key changes and the orchestration shifts to the brass, as they intone the next verse inspired by the following line of text: “We are springing to the call of our brothers gone before…”
The full brass marked ‘full and rich’, create a noble sound yet play at such a low dynamic creating a somber mood which I associate with military funerals. This portion of the phrase, although elegiac, serves as a testament to the comradery unique to those that serve our country in these tragic times, and that a death in the defense of our social and moral principles is never a loss in vein. Our country was made possible by the bravery of its patriots and men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice so that countless generations may continue to thrive. Another key change brings us to the next strain of the tune, with more active contrapuntal lines accompanying it. This section is inspired by the following text of the song: “We will welcome to our numbers the loyal, true and brave…”
At rehearsal marking 35, the texture of the orchestration consists of fluttering flutes and piccolo accentuating the subdued metallic keyboard percussion (bells and chimes) which allude to church bells in the distance. During the Civil War many church bells we used for their metals and repurposed into artillery, leaving many houses of worship without. At the conclusion of the war church bells resounded in every town to celebrate the long awaited end to a conflict that had devastated the country and had affected nearly every family.
The piece then transitions into a tremendous build from the depths of the ensemble, with statements of the tune staggered every other beat, arriving at a full ensemble declaration of this melodic fragment.
“Yes we’ll rally round the flag, boys, we’ll rally once again…”
Everyday people answering the call to arms…soldiers rallying to the symbol of the Stars and Stripes…The flag embodies all those great qualities that make up this great American nation; carrying with it the emotions and patriotism of every loyal citizen. On April 15, 1861 President Abraham Lincoln requested of the north 75,000 volunteers to fight for the Union cause. His request was exceeded and Lincoln is credited with rallying almost half a million volunteers!
The guttural attacks of the drums sling us forward into the heroic fanfares and flourishes of the brass and woodwinds. This section depicts the heroisms of battle, with the material foreshadowed in the very beginning now played with great force by the horns against the bold fanfares of the trumpets and trombones. The drums interject with hard blows and the metallic percussion revive the church bells from earlier, along with fast flourishes by the upper woodwinds and harp. The music unifies and builds towards the climax of the work as the tune is stated by the entire ensemble. Trumpets proclaim the tune while the low brass descends in scalar fashion, to the beat of the drums marching cadence and the upper woodwind fife-like decorations. The horns play a counter melody that morphs into quotations of ‘Dixie’ and ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, specifically ‘Glory, Glory, Hallelujah’ in celebration of the war’s end.
The piece ends the way it began, echoing the textures and fragments presented at the onset of the work, gradually fading into the final gesture from the triangle, harp and metallic percussion; leaving a sense of the infinite with the audience and affirming the belief that even if an American nation no longer exists – which it almost didn’t – the principals of its existence remain universal. The United States is often referred to by historians as ‘The Great Experiment’; it is a country like no other, and the progress its founding enabled was revolutionary in the advancement of human rights and society. And although we may still struggle with equality and human rights, the principals for which the American Civil War defended serve as our guiding light in our ‘great experiment’.
– Anthony O’Toole
top of page
bottom of page