As an American composer, my inspiration often comes from the landscapes where I have lived. Growing up in New Orleans, Louisiana, I am accustomed to living in a city that feels like it is simultaneously in the past, present, and future. I am inspired by the living history in this fascinating city. During my years living in the Midwest and East Coast, and visits to the West Coast, I have been inspired by the landscapes to hear different sounds and explore new possibilities.
When Katharine Lee Bates composed the poem “America the Beautiful,” originally entitled “Pikes Peak” (1895), she drew inspiration from the beauty of the Pikes Peak region of Colorado Springs, illustrating an idealistic vision of the United States of America. Describing “spacious skies,” “amber waves of grain,” “purple mountain majesties,” and the “fruited plain,” she wrote a request for God to “shed his grace” on the country and to “crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.” The beauty of the natural landscape could represent the potential beauty within the country among its citizens, brothers and sisters.
The potential of what America can be at its best has been inspiration for American artists over the decades. Writer James Baldwin wrote, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” In 1938, poet Langston Hughes’ “Let America be America Again” appealed to the ideals of America while addressing the challenges America must overcome to reach its potential.
In the same decade Bates wrote her poem, writer James Weldon Johnson, in 1899, wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” set to music by his brother, composer J. Rosamond Johnson. The final stanza acknowledges the perils of the past while pressing on towards better days. This stanza is addressed to God, praying that God, “keep us forever in the path,” and that,
“Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.”
While composing “White Gleam of our Bright Star,” a phrase borrowed from Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” I musically meditated on the themes of sister/brotherhood, freedom, and equality.
— Courtney Bryan