From the New World to a New Nation
Plots from the 16 - 18th Centuries
Interest among composers in colonial American history has generated few
plots for the musical stage. America, understood here as “the
Americas”, was the setting for only 4 staged works between 1945 and
1990: Sessions’ Montezuma (1963); Ward’s The
Crucible (1961); Bernstein’s Candide (1956); and Hoiby’s The
Tempest (1986). A fifth work, by Old Dominion University music
student June Nan Miller entitled Matoaka and
based on the life of the Indian woman commonly known as Pocahontas,
was composed in 1986 for her Master of Arts in Humanities degree, but was
Old Dominion University's Adolphus Hailstork may have renewed the dramatic
energy expended on Colonial subjects in 2004 with his cantata "Crispus Attucks".
Since then, the Jamestown
2007 organization commissioned works inspired by
the Virginia colony from Hailstork ("Settlement"), John Corigliano ("Jamestown
John Duffy ("Indian Spirits"), and Jennifer Higdon ("Spirit"),
which the Virginia Symphony, under the baton of JoAnn Falletta, will premier
on May 11, 2007, in Jamestown.
Plots from Spanish Colonial History
Spain’s colonies serve as backdrop for the both Montezuma and Candide.
Roger Sessions’ Montezuma chronicles
the conquest of the Aztec empire of Central Mexico by the troops of Hernán
Cortez in 1520. The
title of the work aside, Borgese’s libretto focuses on the story of
La Malinche, the Aztec woman who acted as interpreter between Cortez and
Moctezuma. An outcast in her own society, la Malinche became pregnant
by Cortez, earning her the coarse epithet in Spanish 'la Chingada'. Mexicans
to this day call themselves ‘hijos de la Chingada’, a reflection
of both their mixed racial makeup and their rough treatment at the hands
of the colonizers (See Octavio Paz's interpretation of La Malinche as mother of Mexican culture in The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950)).
Score of Session's Montezuma
Leonard Bernstein, composer of Candide
Leonard Bernstein’s musical Candide,
based on Voltaire’s ironic epic of the same name, puts the young anti-hero
at one point in the land of El Dorado, a legendary place of fabulous wealth
based on a real ritual witnessed among Muisca Indians in which the leader
covered himself with gold dust.
A production of Bernstein's Candide
Plots from English Colonial History
Both Lee Hoiby and Stambler use episodes from the English colonial period. Hoiby’s The Tempest (libretto by Mark Shulgasser) sets to music the plot of the Shakespeare
play, which was inspired by wreck of the ship Sea Venture in the Bermudas
Robert Ward’s The Crucible (libretto by Bernard Stambler)
is also based on an earlier play by the same name, by noted American playwright
Arthur Miller. The setting here is Salem, Massachusetts, during the
1692 witch trials.
Scenes from Ward's The Crucible
Scene from Hoiby's The Tempest
Adolphus Hailstork's cantata "Crispus" sets a poetic text by Herbert Martin.
The text recounts the story of the Crispus Attucks, a black man who was
first casualty of the Boston Massacre and consequently of the American
Revolution. Attucks, whose father was black and whose mother was Nantucket
Indian, has been credited with leading the attack on the Customs House
and is widely hailed as both a patriot and martyr of the Revolution.
Early Draft of 'Crispus'. Adolphus Hailstork Collection, Old Dominion University, Diehn Composers Room, Norfolk, VA
The Jamestown Settlement
The Jamestown colony and mid-Atlantic American Indian culture have inspired
the non-dramatic works featured this year by the Virginia
Festival of the Arts. According to David Nicholson, John Duffy's "Indian Spirits" draws
from the John White drawings created during the English experiment at Roanoke
Island in 1587-88. These drawings were engraved by Theodor De Bry in 1590
and form an integral part of his Briefe and True Report of the New Found
Land of Virginia, now available in a new facsimile edition from the
Mariners' Museum / University of Virginia Press (see the entire article here).
Nicholson also says that Adolphus Hailstork found inspiration in the physical
location of Jamestown Island and Jamestown
Settlement's museum galleries.
Copyright © 2007 Old Dominion
Diehn Composers Room