This project has been a long time in the making, but its guiding spirit took on more special meaning for me as I worked on it over the past nine months (parallel in so many ways to giving birth!) during this unprecedented moment we are living through together. America has been shaken by concurrent crises across its social, racial, political, economic, cultural, and health sectors. In spite of these many challenges, however, I am grateful for the time that the pandemic has afforded me - to dedicate myself to exploring the sound worlds of so many wonderful American composers, and the profound diversity of backgrounds and styles they represent. I am humbled that they have agreed to contribute to this dream vision of mine and that they have entrusted me to bring their music to life.
The voices of these "United Composers of America" form a powerful chorus, a collective musical snapshot that I'm sure will reverberate far beyond the present moment. I can't wait to share this project with you, and I hope it helps to remind us, in spite of all the difficulties we face, that there is still so much beauty in this country of ours.
While some of us baked bread, sewed masks, or doom-scrolled through the latest “Breaking News,” internationally-celebrated pianist, arts advocate and educator Min Kwon was busy Zooming with American composers, from aspiring young students to Pulitzer Prize winners, from as young as 20 years old to as old as 93, inviting them to come together and contribute their unique, individual talents—to create something altogether new—much like the American experiment itself. Though it would end up both enabled and shaped by it, the idea of bringing American composers together to write variations of “America the Beautiful” wasn’t born of the pandemic. Inspired by the famous Diabelli’s variations written over 200 years ago in Vienna, Kwon already had the vision to create something fresh for the 21st century before the pandemic hit in March. Almost a year later, she has a compendium of over 70 variations on what’s often been called “the national hymn.”
Like Diabelli’s original waltz, America the Beautiful is a simple melody and harmony—full of possibility, making it a great choice for variations. “The challenge for these very highly sophisticated musicians who studied Beethoven and Mahler was to have to look at this very simple melody and do something new,” says Kwon.
The original song itself was effectively collaborative. The young feminist poet, Katherine Bates, penned the lyrics after her hike up to Pike’s Peak just after climbing out of her own deep depression. Two years later, it was published as "America" on the Fourth of July in 1895. She added the lines, "And crown thy good with brotherhood / From sea to shining sea in 1904, and it wasn’t until 1910 that it was published together with Newark church organist Samuel Ward's tune "Materna," and titled, “America the Beautiful.”
Kwon researched the composers to make sure their music resonated with her, and spent time getting to know them. “As a composer, you try to capture your emotions and aesthetics into black and white notes on a piece of paper, and then the rest is up to the performer.” That is a responsibility she takes seriously. Not only did the composers have to trust her, but in some ways, they had to cede their own egos to participate in the project. “It’s not about each individual, but making a bigger and collective statement about America, and I am grateful that these inspired creators trusted me to be the messenger of their art and their heart”, she says.
A project on variations is ultimately an exercise in contrast. The individual pieces vary in tone, texture, and mood, but ultimately, form a united whole—much like the United States of America. Like our nation, the call for variations was full of possibility, requiring mutual trust and respect.
Artists have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, with concert halls closed indefinitely. In giving them the assignment, Kwon, an arts advocate and founder of the Center for Musical Excellence, was hoping the project could propel them forward. “It’s evidence of what artists are able to do in a very difficult, challenging time that felt like a dead end,” she says.In the end, she’s produced a meaningful, poignant, and powerful record that speaks of the resilience and invention of all Americans during this time.
When Beethoven wrote his famous 33 variations for Diabelli, he used the German word “Veränderungen” rather than the traditional German word, “variationen.” It meant not only variation, but “transformation.” Kwon’s project, also, touches upon the transformative. “Life itself is a variation,” she says, “because every day there are common denominators, but then things and events would vary. We ourselves evolve. Nothing stays the same, and so taking what’s there—the skeleton of the music, the foundation, and to expand upon it...it’s a very beautiful process of creation and recreation.”
Even her creative process evolves as she learns and masters the pieces. “I would play and then put it away, the piece continues to grow in me while I may be physically away from it. It’s like getting to know a person, and it takes time. Every time I approach it, I’m also different,” she says.
Launching on February 15th, the project will premiere on July 4th, 2021 with four days of streaming concerts, and two days of what will hopefully be live concerts in New York City. “My desire and goal for the project is that it’s going to live a very long life,” says Kwon. She hopes to see the piece take many forms and visit many different venues from concert halls to veteran homes—from the expected to the unexpected.
Part of Kwon’s hope for the project is for future generations to have a record of this time—besides what they’ll read in textbooks or articles—in the form of recordings and sheet music. So many of the events of the last year were beyond language, but the musical variations kept arriving for Kwon. During some of the darkest months in our history, she says, “America the Beautiful was always on my mind, and I knew America would be beautiful again one day, and it will be.”
Grace Church in Newark, whose edifice has occupied the intersection of Broad and Walnut Streets since 1848, has been influential in many ways. Founded in 1837, Grace Church was the second parish of the Episcopal Church organized in the City of Newark. It has played an important role in Newark and the Episcopal Church over the years. It has long been a prominent parish musically, as well. It had a boy choir by 1854, when a letter to the editor of an unidentified publication praised the boys’ “accuracy of time and tune.” However, the most famous contribution Grace Church has made to the world of music has little to do with the organ or boy choirs. It is in the form of a patriotic song.
Samuel Augustus Ward became well known for his composition of the hymn tune “Materna,” which is now the tune most commonly paired with Katherine Lee Bates’ poem, “America the Beautiful.” Ward was a native son of Newark, born in 1847, and served as organist and choirmaster at Grace Church in Newark from 1880 until his death in 1903. He was known for his ability to engage a choir and for his spontaneous organ improvisations, though not much known as a performer at the organ. He received fairly little musical training. According to Edward Batailles’ Grace Church in Newark: the First Hundred Years, his only formal training was in harmony with a Professor Algar.
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We are grateful to Grace Church for generously hosting the filming of many of the America/Beautiful videos.
"America the Beautiful" is an American patriotic song. The lyrics were written by Katharine Lee Bates, and the music was composed by church organist and choirmaster Samuel A. Ward at Grace Episcopal Church in Newark, New Jersey. The two never met.
Bates originally wrote the words as a poem, "Pikes Peak," first published in the Fourth of July edition of the church periodical The Congregationalist in 1895. At that time, the poem was titled "America" for publication. Ward had originally written the music, "Materna", for the hymn "O Mother dear, Jerusalem" in 1882, though it was not first published until 1892. Ward's music combined with the Bates poem was first published in 1910 and titled "America the Beautiful." The song is one of the most popular of the many U.S. patriotic songs.
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!
O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!