(English) by David Lang, after Sullivan Ballou, Stephen Foster and Abraham LincolnStaging
May be choreographed, staged or sung in concertMovements
1. I'll Be a Soldier
2. A Father's Love
3. Tell Me
4. As I Would Not Be a Slave
5. Beautiful Dreamer
Movements may be sung individually. Movements 1, 3, and 5 (the Stephen Foster movements) may be sung grouped together as a separate piece: after stephen fosterComposer note:battle hymns
is a large scale collection of songs about war.
Commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and Leah Stein Dance Company for a performance in an old armory in Philadelphia, it was intended to be something that would both take from and return something to its environment. Because of the connection to an armory I chose to make a piece out of texts that in some way had something to do with the American Civil war, not to portray the battles or show one side’s feelings about the other but to explore feelings that people of that time might have felt. I deliberately avoided texts that were too sentimental, or too dogmatic. I didn’t want anyone to get a message about this war, or about war in general. I did however want to see if I could put myself in a position to think contemporaneous thoughts.
There are five separate pieces. One is a setting of one of the most famous Civil War letters, the Sullivan Ballou letter. It is a heartbreaking letter by an officer to his wife, to be sent home only if he was killed in battle. Of course, it was sent. To keep this text from becoming too overpoweringly emotional I took every phrase from his letter and then alphabetized them, changing the text from a sorrowful narrative to a catalogue of hopes and memories and fears. Another text is a simple statement of Abraham Lincoln’s, about why slavery is wrong. Surrounding them are lyrics I have rewritten that are from songs written during the Civil War by Stephen Foster. Two of these Stephen Foster songs know that there’s a war going on; I can’t help but feel that avoidance of the war in the third, Foster’s most famous lyric and song, is a secret attempt by Foster to escape it, acknowledging the important of the war by avoiding it entirely.