A new choral work by Associate Professor of Music Vineet Shende will premiere at Studzinski Recital Hall at 7:30pm on May 4-5, 2017. “E Pluribus Unum, Non Ex Pluribus Divisum” will be performed by the Bowdoin Chorus and the Mozart Mentors Orchestra, under the direction of Anthony Antolini ’63. Shende said two factors spurred him to write this piece:
First, I have long puzzled over why the music to our country’s national anthem was taken from To Anacreon in Heaven, the official song of a men’s social club in eighteenth century London. The original song, which celebrates the intertwining of sex and alcohol, seems to be a curious choice to base a national anthem on. Also, when Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner, we were at war with the song’s country of origin (indeed, the White House and the Capitol building had been burned to the ground by British troops just a month prior).
Second, I have become deeply troubled by the rising level of xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric in our recent political discourse. Such rhetoric strikes me as being deeply un-American—with the exception of our Native American brethren, we are all either immigrants or descendant of immigrants to this country. These thoughts have inspired me to wend the melody and text of The Star-Spangled Banner with counterpoint, harmonies, and textures that allude to the music of people who actually want to be here, and music that celebrates freedom, liberty, and the strength in diversity embodied in our national motto “E Pluribus Unum.”
The first verse combines the melody of The Star-Spangled Banner with various Mexican songs. The folksong De Colores, which celebrates the beauty and diversity of the colors of the world, is featured prominently. Other songs used include Juventino Rosas’s Sobre la Olas waltz, and Chucho Monge’s pastoral México Lindo y Querido.
The text of the second verse juxtaposes a haughty foe and a fitful breeze (symbolizing freedom) that strengthens as it comes in contact with our flag. Acute ears will notice another country’s national anthem (set in a polymeter against our own) trying to disrupt our anthem’s progress. The “fitful breeze” uses the Syrian folksong Skaba, which in recent years has become a song of mourning for victims of the Syrian conflict. As it grows in strength, I use Zaki Nassif’s song Tallou Hbabna, whose lyrics discuss the refreshing breezes that blow and the happiness that follows the arrival of beloved newcomers.
Slaveowner Francis Scott Key’s original third verse dealt with his rage over slaves who escaped from their masters during the confusion of war. Though this verse was regularly sung during the first third of our country’s existence, it is rarely acknowledged today. Racism is a cancer that is still unfortunately with us, and I believe that simply ignoring cancer does not lead to a healthy outcome. My hope is that by including this verse, listeners will reflect on racism’s endemic existence in our country and what they might do to address it. I use uncomfortable dissonance to depict the text’s cruelty and the hypocrisy of including a stanza defending slavery in the anthem for “the land of the free.”
For the last verse, I have used Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.’s Civil War era verse for The Star-Spangled Banner. This text argues that the promise of America will remain viable only as long as we are committed to freeing and uniting with the oppressed. In this last section, I incorporate James and John Johnson’s inspirational hymn Lift Every Voice and Sing, a song often referred to as the “Black American National Anthem.”
Finally, I am extremely grateful to Anthony Antolini, the Bowdoin Chorus, and the Mozart Mentors Orchestra for all of the work done on making the performance of this piece a reality. The final edits were completed just a week ago, and it is not an easy piece. The commitment and dedication they have all shown (particularly Tony) is truly humbling, and I want to thank them all from the bottom of my heart.