Tuesday, May 10, 2011

In review--A Musical Journey through American History

Joel Frederiksen
Ensemble Phoenix Munich
Rose of Sharon (100 Years of American Music 1770-1870)
Harmonia Mundi

I often wonder what early American music would sound like, especially since I’ve done my share of listening to early European music.  I expected the fife and rat-a-tat snare drum which you hear on Joel Frederiksen’s The Rose of Sharon.  And of course you would expect renaissance polyphony and baroque influences to play a role which you can hear in the "Father of American Choral Music" section.  The musicians provided extensive liner notes which come in handy and they divided the selections into 6 sections including, "The Battle for Freedom" (which feature religious text) but are related to the American Revolutionary War, "The Father of American Choral Music", William Billings, "Shape Notes and Singing Schools," "Shaker Spirituals", "Music from the Civil War" and "Revival Meetings and Spirituals".

With the exception of The Battle Hymn of the Republic I’ve not heard any early American songs before listening to this recording and the only Shaker tune I had heard was be 'Tis a Gift to be Simple which also appears in Aaron Copeland’s ballet Appalachian Spring.  There’s actually a stunning musical range on Rose of Sharon, from the fife and drum tunes mentioned earlier, to a cappella polyphony, from the jaunty Shaker spirituals to the American baroque pieces with ethereal flute.  While most of the songs feature religious text, songs such as The Army of the Free (Civil War tune) features secular text, though not entirely, then we have the patriotic song Maryland, My Maryland sung to the tune of “Old Tannenbaum” so if you don’t listen to the text closely you think you’re hearing a Christmas tune!  The love ballad Lorena also stands out.

 I’m not a religious person so the listening experience of old American ballads and songs needs to offer something else to my ears beyond Christian fervor.  Remarkably Rose of Sharon offers a unique historic perspective of the tunes some of our ancestors sung (not mine though).  It also reveals the bridge between European music and the music of the fledgling United States, during a period between two major wars, the War of Independence from England and the Civil War.  Frederiksen and his ensemble take us back to the birth of a nation, but to its musical roots.  For some folks this journey will delight while other folks will find the journey too full of puritan sentiments.  But with an open mind the journey proves worthwhile.


  1. Nice piece. I love your writing voice.

  2. Thanks Shelly. I have a writing voice? Cool. When I read about people discussing their writing voices, I thought I might not have one...