Guest blog post: Towson University's Carl B. Schmidt on Randall Thompson's 'Allelulia'
For young musicians a "Rite of Summer" is the opportunity to compete for admission to great music programs such as those at Aspen, Interlocken, Meadowmount, or Tanglewood. The latter, originally called the Berkshire Music Center at the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the inspiration of conductor Serge Koussevitzky, is celebrating its 70th anniversary.
Koussevitzky founded the Center in 1940, and, only a few weeks before the opening ceremonies on 8 July, he asked Randall Thompson (1899-1984) to write a short work to be sung by the entire student body of nearly three hundred including, among others, Leonard Bernstein and Lukas Foss.
His insistence on an American work by an American composer set the tone for numerous future commissions premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood.
Thompson wrote his celebrated "Alleluia" — a five and a half minute a cappella work that has now sold more than three million copies world-wide — in just five days, and copies arrived for the singers at Tanglewood less than three hours before the opening ceremony was history!
To bring scholarly attention to a composer whose choral works including "Testament of Freedom," "Last Words of David, "and "Frostiana" are favorites, Betsey and Carl Schmidt have embarked on a multi-year project to create a catalogue of Thompson’s music, plus other articles and books including a biography. Carl, a former student of Thompson, was invited to present
Inspirational talks by John Harbison (Composition Program Chairman) and Michael Tilson Thomas (Conducting Faculty Member) were given, between which mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, accompanied by Alan Louis Smith, performed three songs from Aaron Copland’s "Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson."
Thompson’s "Alleluia," as is tradition, was then sung by all the assembled students under John Oliver’s direction, concluding the exercises. It was absolutely thrilling to hear the students' enthusiasm and to realize that they all know a summer at Tanglewood will be, as it has been for generations of students, a life-changing experience.
Among the guests at Schmidt’s lecture were twenty-five members of Randall Thompson’s family, including six great-grandchildren, and longtime Baltimore-area resident Ellery Woodworth, whose father conducted the first performance of "Alleluia." At the conclusion of his lecture, Schmidt signed copies of his new book "The Story of Randall Thompson’s Alleluia Revisited: A Facsimile Edition with Commentary" (Boston: ECS Publishing, 2010) for those attending.
Last year Schmidt had lectured on Thompson at Towson University, where Director of Choirs Karen Kennedy led students in singing "Alleluia." And this past season, Melinda O’Neal conducted three Thompson works, including "Alleluia," with the Handel Choir of Baltimore, celebrating Board Member associations with Thompson.
Readers may hear Thompson’s "Alleluia" on YouTube (though these versions are sung too fast). Excellent available commercial CD recordings include those by the American Repertory Singers, Leo Nestor conductor (Arsis CD 103) and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Craig Jessop conductor (MTC 0005). There's also an interesting jazz piano trio arrangement by Canadian Andrew Gilpin.
-- CARL B. SCHMIDT