Patriotic Piano (CRC 3958)

Kirsten Johnson, piano

  1. John Philip Sousa: The Washington Post March
  2. James Hewitt: Nine Variations on ‘Yankee Doodle’
  3. Charles Grobe: Variations on ‘Dixie’, op. 1250
  4. Ludwig van Beethoven: Variations on ‘God Save the Queen’, WoO 78 (‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’)
  5. John Philip Sousa:  Semper Fidelis March
  6. John Knowles Paine:  A Funeral March in Memory of President Lincoln
  7. Louis Moreau Gottschalk:  Union
  8. John Philip Sousa: The Stars and Stripes Forever
  9. Kirsten Johnson:  Patriotic Medley, includes ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’, ‘America The Beautiful’, ‘Anchors Aweigh’, ‘The Army Goes Rolling Along’, ‘The Marine’s Hymn’, ‘Taps’
  10. Charles Grobe:  Variations on ‘Oh Susanna’, op. 124
  11. Stephen Foster: Old Folks at Home (‘Swanee River’)
  12. Charles Grobe:  Variations on ‘Columbia Reigns Over The Ocean’, op. 100
  13. Samuel Coleridge Taylor:  Deep River, op. 59, no. 10
  14. Thomas ‘Blind Tom’ Wiggins:  Battle of Manassas

This is the original, full-length version, of the CD jacket notes, which was then shortened for publication.

Three marches by John Philip Sousa (1854-1932), in their original piano versions, are included on this disc.  All three are famous band pieces and well-loved tunes which permeate the American psyche. The Washington Post march, written in 1889 at the request of the Washington Post newspaper, opens with unison octaves. These herald a boisterous, rollicking tune which dances around G major. Sousa moves into C major with a less raucous melody in the middle register of the piano. Fortissimo octaves then lead into a fulsome rendition of this melody, celebratory and triumphant.

James Hewitt (1770-1827), English by birth, was a composer, conductor and violinist who came to live in America in 1792. His Nine Variations on ‘Yankee Doodle’ was published in 1810. The famous melody is stated simply in D major, before Hewitt launches into the first variation, eighth-note decoration of the tune in the right hand. Each succeeding variation explores various permutations of the theme. Hewitt moves into D minor for the fourth variation, an Adagio. Here he creates a different sound world by freely exploring the nuances of the Yankee Doodle against a steady broken-chord accompaniment.

The eighth variation is a March.  Hewitt begins quietly and builds in volume, using dotted rhythms and blocked chords to give this sprightly variation edge. In the concluding variation Hewitt begins by placing Yankee Doodle in sixths in the right hand, accompanied by octuplets in the left. In the second half, the melody starts in thirds, then becomes more chordal as the piece reaches its zenith.

Charles Grobe (1817-1879) emigrated to the U.S. from Germany.  He was head of the music department at Wesleyan Female College, Wilmington, Delaware from 1840–61.  Grobe was a prolific composer of around two-thousand works, writing over five-hundred pieces for piano. Dixie’s Land with Brilliant Variations, op. 1250, was composed in 1860.  “Dixie” was originally composed by a Union sympathizer, Dan Emmett, but spread across the country and became known as a melody of the Confederacy. The original version opens with “Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton” and finishes with “In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand, to live and die in Dixie. Away, away, away down south in Dixie.”

Grobe wrote flamboyantly: the piece opens with a terrific introduction which lays the ground for the statement of the theme.  The first variation uses repeated chords and sixteenth-note patterns to embellish the melody.  The Finale, or second variation, moves into 3/8 and is waltz-like in nature. Alternating octaves conclude this exuberant piece.

The patriotic song, ‘My Country ‘tis of Thee’, beloved of Americans and taught to children from a young age, is based on the British National Anthem.  Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote his Seven Variations on the Folksong ‘God Save the King’, WoO78, in 1803.  I have included it here as a fine set of variations on ‘My Country ‘tis of Thee’, a bit of poetic license on my part, but music can transcend national boundaries and indeed unify countries through the sharing of a common musical folk heritage.

Each of the variations follows the binary form of the opening theme. The first variation is that of a decorated, but still recognizable melody, with subtle harmonic nuance. The next variation is in the style of a two-part invention, the left hand leading in running sixteenth notes. The third variation continues with finger-work but is quieter and with right-hand syncopation.  Loud repeated chords move up the piano in the fourth variation, creating a nice contrast. The fifth variation moves into the relative minor, C minor, and is marked con expressione.  A march follows, taking the theme into 4/4 and using dotted rhythms. The final variation stays in 4/4and uses sixteenth-note filigree patterns to enhance the material. The brief chordal Adagio acts as an introduction to the coda, a concluding section which juxtaposes groups of four sixteenth-notes in the left hand against groups of six in the right, building to a fantastic culmination of this set of variations.

Sousa was leader of the Marine Band from 1880 – 1892. His Semper Fidelis march (1888) was dedicated to the ‘officers and men of the Marine Corps’. Semper Fidelis (‘always faithful’) is the Marine Corps motto. As my father was a U.S. Marine, I grew up hearing this march regularly. Following a similar pattern to the other marches on this disc, it begins with two sections in the tonic, and then moves to a quieter section in the sub-dominant. A final, bravura, section brings the march to an electrifying finish.

John Knowles Paine (1839-1906) founded the music degree at Harvard University and was America’s first professor of music. Of the Second New England School, Paine wrote his A Funeral March in Memory of President Lincoln in 1865, after Lincoln’s assassination.  In B-flat minor, Paine portrays a solemn procession marching on through use of dotted rhythms, triplet drum-like patterns and, later, repeated left-hand ostinato.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), born in New Orleans, was a gifted American pianist who featured his own compositions in concerts. Union is a tour-de-force, showcasing Gottschalk’s formidable technic within the framework of a medley of patriotic songs. Union was composed in 1862, during the American Civil War. Although a southerner, and having had a slave look after him when he was young, Gottschalk was against slavery. He performed this piece for President Lincoln and for many Union troops.  He also played the work in a memorial service for President Lincoln after his assassination.

The piece opens with thundering octaves, a recurring theme reminiscent of cannon and the roar of battle. After an extended introduction, beautiful passagework ushers in the first melody, the National Anthem.  ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is presented simply with eighth-note chordal accompaniment.  The octave bombardment returns, this time followed by a bugle call which introduces several verses of ‘Hail Columbia’.  Snare drums, played low in the bass of the piano, accompany the third verse.  This drum motive continues, hypnotically creating a picture of soldiers marching into battle. The drums lead us into ‘Yankee Doodle’, played high in the right hand, and accompanied in the left hand by ‘Hail Columbia’. The merging of these two melodies is interrupted by another bugle call and more octaves, before leading to the finale: ‘Yankee Doodle’ and ‘Hail Columbia’ played fortissimo, bringing the piece to a rousing conclusion.

Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever, composed in 1896, is the National March of the United States of America. It is a splendid piece, a festive celebration of allegiance to the U.S. flag, the Stars and Stripes. Opening in E-flat major, the first half is made up of two spirited sections, full of vim and vigor.  Sousa then moves into A-flat major and a new, quieter melody is introduced. There follows a short developmental section which ushers in this tune in fortissimo octaves, marked grandioso.

I wrote the first version of Patriotic Medley when I was a Rotary scholar and needed a piece for an event in July 1992. I then reworked the piece for my father’s memorial service in 2010.  After an introduction in the style of a trumpet voluntary, the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ enters quietly. The next melody is ‘America The Beautiful’, placed over running patterns in the left hand.  It is between the phrases of ‘America The Beautiful’ that three of the service melodies are interspersed: ‘Anchors Aweigh’ [Navy], ‘The Army Goes Rolling Along’ [Army], ‘The Marine’s Hymn’ [Marine Corps]. ‘Taps’ then gives tribute to the sacrifices made by many women and men in service to their country. The piece finishes with ‘Taps’ rising in the bass against ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ in the treble.

Grobe’s Variations on ‘Oh! Susanna’, op. 124 was written in 1849. Stephen Foster, had written the song the year before, and it immediately became a hit.  In Grobe’s variations, a simple introduction precedes the presentation of the theme.  Four variations follow, exploring various interpretations of ‘Oh! Susanna’ in running figuration; march-like chords; a minor key; and a lively waltz as Finale.

Stephen Foster’s (1826-1864) Old Folks at Home is also known as ‘Swanee River’.  This set of variations was published in 1851.  Foster, a prolific song composer, was opposed to slavery. He wrote this song as if sung by a fictional slave who had been sold to a new plantation and missed his family.

Way down upon the Swanee River,
Far, far away,
That’s where my heart is turning ever,
That’s where the old folks stay.

All up and down the whole creation,
Sadly I roam,
Still longing for the old plantation
And for the old folks at home

Chorus: All the world is sad and dreary everywhere I roam.
Oh Lordy, how my heart grows weary,
Far from the old folks at home.

Grobe’s Variations on ‘Columbia the Gem of the Ocean’, op. 100 (1847) is a larger-scale work, with a fulsome introduction, comprised of an Allegro risoluto and an Andante, followed by the theme and five variations.  Columbia was a popular nickname for the U.S. in the 19th century.  Grobe transforms this favorite patriotic song in three virtuosic variations before changing mood and tempo in a slower, more introspective, fourth variation.  The Finale is in the style of a polonaise, a dance of Polish origin.

‘Deep river, my home is over Jordan, Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into camp ground.’ The words to this spiritual are at the top of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s (1875-1912) transcription. The melody and lyrics permeate African-American culture, referencing the history of slavery and the longing those slaves had for freedom. Coleridge-Taylor, an English composer, wrote this arrangement in 1905. The famous soulful melody opens the work, expressing a cry from the heart. Motives are expanded, developed and decorated, with octaves and tremolos leading us through various sonorities. The opening section returns, again pleading to be taken away from the present turmoil and pain and into heaven, or ‘camp ground’.

Thomas ‘Blind Tom’ Wiggins (1849-1908) was a slave owned by the Bethune family of Georgia.  An extraordinarily gifted pianist with a prodigious memory, from the age of 8 he was toured around the country and Europe, including playing for President Buchanan at the White House. After the Civil War, Wiggins was not freed but remained in the control of the Bethune family. Even in 1887, after legal action, when he, the so-called ‘Last American Slave’, was ‘freed’, he remained in the guardianship of the Bethune family and they continued to make thousands from his performances.

Wiggins devised the Battle of Manassas (published 1861) as a musical rendition of the First Battle of Bull Run, an early Confederate victory in the Civil War. The piece opens with drums portrayed low in the bass against the right-hand’s ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’.  The score notates ‘fife’ next to the melody.  This imitation of a boy soldier playing his fife comes very quietly as from a distance, and then louder as the Confederate Army approaches.  Next we have the entry of the Union Army represented by ‘Dixie’, leaving Washington and marching into battle, with the music getting louder as the troops get closer.

Both armies reach their positions and there follows an Adagio marked ‘The eve of the Battle’.  After resting, we hear the clatter of ‘arms and accoutrements’ building through tremolos in the right hand, leading to a trumpet fanfare announcing General Beauregard’s Confederate troops.  Next, we hear Federals heralded by General McDowell’s trumpets in the distance, marked pianissimo.

Cannon explode and battle commences. ‘Yankee Doodle heard through the noise of battle and cannon’ annotates the score. The sound of cannon is achieved by playing as many notes as possible with the left hand (or both hands if the right is available) as low as possible on the piano.

Wiggins next uses ‘The Marseillaise’, the French National Anthem, popularized in the U.S. with new words, followed by the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, both continually interrupted by cannon.  ‘Dixie’ returns, symbolizing the efforts of the Federal troops. Then Confederate reinforcements arrive under General Kirby Smith with ‘The Marseillaise’ accompanied by the pianist saying ‘chu, chu’ on the beat to imitate the sound of the engine pulling the train of cars bringing the soldiers to Manassas. The score notates an option for a high ‘C’ to be whistled, played by this pianist on a tin whistle.

‘The battle rages more furiously’ explains the score as ‘The Marseillaise’ becomes frantic and cannons boom more ferociously. The final section, ‘The Retreat’, sees the Federal troops clambering back to safety in a volley of octaves up and down the piano.