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Free America! Early Songs of Resistance and Rebellion
The Boston Camerata/Anne Azéma (mezzo-soprano)
rec. La Ferme de Villefavard en Limousin, France, no date HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902628 [59:45]
“Torn from a world of tyrants,
Beneath this western sky,
We formed a new Dominion,
A land of liberty;
The World shall know we’re masters here,
Then hasten on the day,
Huzza huzza huzza huzza
For free Americay.”
Although the United States has no officially-sanctioned calendar of political saints and martyrs, the writer of the above text, Dr. Joseph Warren (1741-1775), would qualify for inclusion were such a list to be compiled. A physician and Major General of the Continental Army, Warren chose to serve alongside his men in the ranks at the Battle of Bunker Hill. This fatal display of hardy democratic spirit cost Warren his life, but provided the United States with one of its first national heroes. The words he composed for the old song “The British Grenadiers” betray the exuberance, pride, and sense of wonder that many Americans of Warren’s era must have felt at the creation of this new nation. Those qualities can be found in every piece on this well-curated album from the Boston Camerata.
These songs and instrumental pieces of the Revolutionary War and immediate post-war eras have been drawn from a variety of sources, the majority of those sources being collections published in a later period, specifically the decades preceding the American Civil War. In the many years of tension before that horrible conflict burst forth into fire and blood, it must have been of great comfort for music lovers on both sides of the coming divide to page through these songs of union.
We hear Shaker songs, slave songs, patriot songs, religious songs, ballads, and war marches. Every imaginable facet of early American musical culture is placed on display. The booklet notes attempt to shunt the works into five distinct categories (All Unite!/Gone for a Soldier/Repentance, etc.), but these groupings seem artificial when one hears the entire disc straight through. The fear may have been that including 29 disparate short tracks on a CD would confuse non-specialists (and thus order must be provided!), but the reality is that the music and its performances are bold, touching, energizing, and ultimately profound. As a result, no organization is needed other than the knowledge of these songs and instrumental works as emblematic of the shared American experience.
It is moving to hear this original setting of William Billings’s Chester [Track 5]. Billings is a composer mentioned in passing in most university music appreciation courses, but he is usually dismissed as an unkempt primitive, a sort of Revolutionary-era, musical Grandma Moses. The Camerata maintain his harmonies and voice-leading, but add some instruments to fill out the texture. The result makes it clear that Billings knew what exactly he was doing. What more stirring war song exists than this one? “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.” Mezzo-soprano Anne Azéma (director of the Boston Camerata) sings the mystical Trumpet of Peace [Track 24] with a fine touch of ecstasy, her unique tone embracing Ann Lee’s Shaker tale of deliverance from religious persecution. The familiar Yankee Doodle [Track 29] includes some bawdy verses not taught in U.S. public schools. The male soloists deliver the text with laughter as well as the bit of snarl and sneer demanded by the appropriation of the tune from the mocking British.
Although this is overall a very rewarding collection, it should be noted that there is a heavy emphasis on smoothness of ensemble and vocal production, a smoothness that often robs the music of its vitality. Two examples of this are Jolly Soldier [Track 7] and Rise, Columbia! [Track 28]. The initial section of Jolly Soldier is sung with sol-fa syllables, utilizing Andrew Law’s shape note system that would later feature in the famous The Sacred Harp collection published in 1844. True shape note singing is raucous and joyful, the raw energy fervor of the performers being a feature of the music itself. That is not the case here; the Camerata’s well-trained vocalists carefully pat down the rough edges, delivering a cold, calibrated performance which is not true to the words or the spirit of the rambunctious naval song. Rise, Columbia! borrows the tune of Arne’s Rule Britannia, with appropriately jingoistic text provided by Robert Treat Paine, the prosecutor of the British soldiers responsible for the Boston Massacre. The performance heard on the CD lacks anything approaching the passion or self-confidence found in even the most lackluster performances of the Arne. One cannot imagine the Sons of Liberty merrily appropriating the British anthem in a bar, staggering out onto the streets, and singing the song in such a buttoned-down manner. Given Azéma’s belief that the tunes collected here reflect “a youthful society full of vigor,” one would have hoped for more of the latter throughout.
Every member of the Camerata is a gifted musician, but several of the performers must be singled-out for their excellent work. First, the violinist, Eric Martin. It is rare to hear an instrumentalist associated with a classical outfit such as the Camerata capable of such a relaxed, natural approach to what is in essence folk music. Every one of his solos is a joy (sample Captain Robert Kidd [Track 6] to hear his work highlighted): one can see in the mind’s eye Martin’s relaxed bow grip and wrist, with that peculiar loose-limbed yet core-filled sound that only the best fiddlers possess. John Taylor Ward sings Didn’t my Lord Deliver Daniel? [Track 16] with effective simplicity. Percussionist Andrea Wirth’s teeth-rattling tattoos on the drum rim provide a wonderful shove to the more martial numbers.
There are few collections of this nature available to the public. Although this compilation might prove an annoyance to loyal subjects of the Queen, it is a wonderful gift for Sons of Liberty and other musical Yankees. Huzza for Free Americay!
Camila Parias (soprano)
Deborah Rentz-Moore (contralto)
Timothy Leigh Evans (tenor)
John Taylor Ward (baritone)
Joel Frederiksen (bass and guitar)
Jesse Lepkoff (flutes and guitar)
Eric Martin (violin)
Reinmar Seidler (violoncello)
Sarah MacConduibh, Paul Joseph (fifes)
Andrea Wirth (percussion)
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