By Dr. Steven Seigart
Director of Music/Organist
Prelude and Fugue in F major (“Little”), BWV 556
—J.S. Bach (1685–1750)
The Road Home
—PROSPECT, hymn from Southern Harmony (1835)
Arr. by Stephen Paulus (1949–2014)
Sung by the Meeting House Virtual Choir
Text by Michael Dennis Browne (b. 1940)
Suzanne Karpov Seigart, soprano solo
The Star-Spangled Banner
—John Stafford Smith (1750–1836)
Arr. by Virgil Fox (1912–1980)
To begin this Sunday, we’ll have a popular prelude and fugue pair by Bach (though some suggest these eight pieces are by his student, J.L. Krebs), that probably originated as improvisations. The writing is light and airy, never dense (even in the fugue), and already showing elements of the Rococo (or “Galant” in musical terms) that emphasized harmonic clarity and simplicity—this would be the style composers like Gluck and Mozart would pick up in the decades after Bach’s death.
And today’s postlude, in an odd connection, is celebrity organist’s (if there is such a thing!) Virgil Fox’s arrangement of our national anthem, written by British composer John Stafford Smith, who is considered the first serious collector of manuscripts by J.S. Bach.
In our online format, I can write a bit more at length about the pieces and would love to share a larger context and analysis of today’s anthem, “The Road Home.”
It has a complicated backstory that helps tell one narrative of American history. The tune, PROSPECT, is first seen in Southern Harmony in 1835, one of the most influential Shape-Note collections. Like NEW BRITAIN (“Amazing Grace”) and LAND OF REST (“Jerusalem, my happy home”), it is pentatonic (only five notes in the scale instead of seven)—resembling Irish, Scottish, and even Native American music.
The first widely known text associated with the present tune is Watts’ “Why should we start, and fear to die,” but is better known today with Henry Richard McFadyen’s “The Lone, Wild Bird.” Minnesota native Stephen Paulus tells this story about the genesis of his adaptation:
In the Spring of 2001, I received a commission from the Dale Warland Singers to write a short “folk” type choral arrangement. I had discovered a tune in a folk song book called “The Lone Wild Bird.” I fell in love with it, made a short recording and asked my good friend and colleague, Michael Dennis Browne to write new words for this tune … . It is pentatonic and that is part of its attraction. Pentatonic scales have been extant for centuries and are prevalent in almost all musical cultures throughout the world. They are universal. Michael crafted three verses and gave it the title “The Road Home.” He writes so eloquently about “returning” and “coming home” after being lost or wandering. Again, this is another universal theme and it has resonated well with choirs around the world … . It is just more evidence that often the most powerful and beautiful message is often a simple one.—Stephen Paulus, 2013
Paulus died on October 19, 2014, months after suffering a severe stroke. I’ll never forget singing this piece on the stage of the “Shed” at Tanglewood in August 2014—it felt, maybe more than ever, like a prayer—for Paulus, for each of us singing together. The last lines have always lingered in my heart, “Rise up, follow me, come away is the call; with the love in your heart as the only song. There is no such beauty and where you belong; rise up, follow me, I will lead you home.”
Don’t forget to record a video of you and your family singing along to the “Amen” response at the end of the service! Find out more at opmh.org/amen.