"Paul Revere's Ride" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (E)
“The fate of a nation was riding that night,” observes the innkeeper who, in Longfellow’s “The Landlord’s Tale” (better known by its subtitle, “Paul Revere’s Ride”), recounts for his guests “the midnight ride” that set the American Revolution in motion.
Awareness that our nation’s fate was again in jeopardy was very much in mind as I undertook my musical setting of this beloved poem. Like all Americans, I had been shaken by the World Trade Center tragedy. Shaken and more: Living in Greenwich Village, a scant mile and a half from “Ground Zero,” I was viscerally affected by the catastrophe and its aftermath. Daylong and nightlong, just a half-block from my home, every manner of recovery vehicle traveled ceaselessly, taking firemen, policemen, demolition crews and other emergency workers to and from the grim site. As well, crowds of people lined the highway “24/7,” usually cheering and waving flags, but at times more quietly holding candles. Flags also appeared in many windows, including my own, and I saw that it angered me to see windows without flags. For the first time in my life, I was bursting with a feeling of patriotism - that powerful emotion akin, it seemed, to religious frenzy. (In fact, I emblazoned the first page of my score with the words, “Written in Memory of the Victims of 9/11 - Especially the Firemen.”)
In the spring of ’02, commissioned to write a series of anthems for unaccompanied treble choir, I first chose “Paul Revere’s Ride” for my finale and quickly did a sketch of the music. But then I thought, “This small choir is too limited a resource for such a great poem; this music would explode a treble choir!” So I set the Ride aside and, for the smaller choir, turned to a more modest text.
The following spring, I traveled to Atlanta to hear Robert Spano, soprano Lisa Saffer and the Atlanta Symphony perform my Ecstatic Alice. At one point or another, I happened to mention my “Paul Revere” setting to Bob, and in a flash, he said, “I want it!” With a full symphony orchestra, the renowned Atlanta Symphony Chorus and an amplified soprano soloist, I realized I was being offered grand musical forces - resources befitting the subject matter. And thus spurred on, I set about recasting, expanding and orchestrating my Ride - and dedicating the work (naturally enough) to conductor Robert Spano.
About the Music
Paul Revere’s Ride lasts approximately 30 minutes. Beginning in an over-the-top fashion (a siren sounds as early as the fourth measure), the music continues at breakneck speed - fiery, breathless and without pause between the various sections of the work.
Part I: The Call
The martial summons (in a 12/8 meter, allegro con fuoco) moves forward in E-minor against persistent syncopation. While the chorus mutters agitatedly, the soprano soloist sings the words spoken by Paul Revere to his friend.
Part II: The Wait
The friend waits in a church tower to light the signal (“one, if by land, and two, if by sea”). A new, slower theme evokes the spooky graveyard lying below. There is a musical focus upon the line “All is well!” - whispered by the wind as it passes between the headstones.
The scene changes: Paul is “impatient to mount and ride.” The music veritably champs at the bit, but progress is suspended as the patriot waits for the signal light (or two). The moment he sees the second lantern, the music roils, returning to the 12/8 rhythm of the opening.
Part III: The Ride
He is off! Riding frantically from place to place, Paul arouses the citizenry to defend their homes. The music begins as a recapitulation of Part I, but goes quickly to more distant harmonic places and is more elaborately developed. Much is made of the clock striking (12 … 1 … 2). The frantic pace climaxes in a grand choral outburst on the words “Pierced by a British musket-ball.” And then, the music subsides.
The Finale is in three parts: Fugue, Chorale and Epilogue.
The energetic and virtuosic Fugue pits “Rule, Britannia” against our own “Yankee Doodle.” Yankee Doodle of course triumphs, with appropriate clamor.
After an orchestral interlude, the Chorale is a whispered prayer of massed sounds, gradually growing in intensity and patriotic ardor.
The Epilogue reprises the famous opening verse of the poem, with the soprano soloist bidding Paul and his compatriots farewell above a murmuring chorus. Birds twitter. The valedictory mood is so benign that now, for the first time, the opening music returns in the major. Steadily and inexorably, however, the music quickens and grows until an enormous climax is reached.
The end - a surprise - recalls the Ride’s beginning (and 9/11 also?) with a violent, crashing minor chord.
“…an exuberantly melodramatic setting”
New Music Box
“…subtle beauty and idiosyncratic wit…”