Sunday, July 4, 2004

Music marches on

Patriotic songs stir emotions and are an essential part of this holiday

By Janelle Gelfand
Enquirer staff writer

Erich Kunzel, conductor of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, will lead his 15th A Capitol Fourth concert, broadcast live from the West Lawn of the United States Capitol today. (8 p.m.; repeating 9:30 p.m., Channels 48,16).
Patriotic music - it's as much a part of July Fourth as cookouts, parades and fireworks.

Those familiar, flag-waving tunes give a lot of us goose bumps. So what is it about those lump-in-your-throat hits that move us, inspire us and bring us together?

"We are a country that loves its country, and we're very proud of it," says Cincinnati Pops conductor Erich Kunzel, who will lead his 15th A Capitol Fourth concert, broadcast live from the West Lawn of the United States Capitol today (8 p.m.; repeating 9:30 p.m., Channels 48 and 16). "No matter if we're fighting in Iraq, we still rally around the troops. They're our sons and daughters."

Throughout American history, patriotic music has been rooted in conflicts and loyalty to country.

"It started with 'Yankee Doodle,' when we were fighting the British, and it's marched forward ever since then," Kunzel says. The War of 1812 spawned "Columbia the Gem of the Ocean," he notes. The Civil War had "Dixie," "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Johnny Comes Marching Home."

Medleys such as "The Armed Forces Salute" make one think about the people who have served, agrees James R. Cassidy, music director of the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra.

"There's a nostalgia as well as a pride aspect to it, a pride of who they are and their sacrifice," Cassidy says. "You get a lump in your throat when the old men from World War II stand up."

Songs such as "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America" tie love of country to love of God, he adds. "The texts are very profound and they're what have made them great, beginning with Irving Berlin and 'God Bless America,' up to the national anthem."

Words pack the punch

It's all about the lyrics for John Morris Russell, associate conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, who conducts the Pops Orchestra's annual July Fourth concert today at Riverbend.

"I find the songs and the tunes that most affect me are the ones that speak eloquently about the land itself, and point to the fact that we are all stewards of that land," Russell says.

No. 1 on his hit parade: Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land."

For Carol Dunevant, music director of Cincinnati's Frank Simon Band, march king John Philip Sousa exemplifies patriotism.

"What makes 'Stars and Stripes Forever' patriotic? It has lyrics, but people don't know them. If you read the lyrics, it showed how much (Sousa) cared about the U.S. The words are stirring."

It's a snappy march. But more inspiring than that, she believes, it's got a great title.

" 'Stars and Stripes Forever' has that immediate image of the flag. 'Black Horse Troop,' and 'The Liberty Bell' - it's so American," she says. "For 'The Liberty Bell March,' a lot of people might say, 'that's the Monty Python song.' But other people find it equally as stirring simply for the word 'liberty' being in the title."

Stories behind songs

Many patriotic gems have dramatic tales behind them. In 1814, as dawn broke over the bombarded Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key noted that the shell-torn flag was still waving, and penned his famous words. Later, "The Star-Spangled Banner" lyric was set to a popular English drinking song by John Stafford Smith ("To Anacreon in Heaven"). Congress made it the national anthem in 1931.

In his autobiography, Marching Along, Sousa tells the story of how he wrote "Stars and Stripes."

"He's on a steamship, and this melody keeps playing in his head; when he got into port, he wrote it down, lyrics and everything. He never changed a note after that," Dunevant says.

There are cases, such as Berlin's "God Bless America," where the words and music are inseparable. But more often than not, songs were created by up to three individuals, such as the national anthem, says Kunzel, who once supported a bill in Congress to change the national anthem to "America the Beautiful."

Kentucky's Cassidy believes the texts have become wedded to the songs.

"To be honest, I think the texts are inseparable from all of them, otherwise they wouldn't have lasted," he says. "As tunes go, they're OK, but you don't go around humming those (patriotic) tunes without singing the words."

OK, so explain why Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture is played every Fourth of July?

"Because (former Boston Pops maestro) Arthur Fiedler did it for our Bicentennial in 1976 on the Charles River Esplanade, and we've been doing that sucker ever since," says Kunzel, whose two Telarc recordings of the 1812 have sold nearly 800,000 copies.

True, it is one of the few classical pieces with cannon fire called for in the score (Beethoven's Wellington's Victory is another, Kunzel points out). But Tchaikovsky's music, imbedded with "God Save the Czar" and "La Marseillaise," hails Napoleon's retreat from Russia in 1812, and has nothing to do with America's battles with the British.

Cannons might add to the spine-tingle quotient. But it's the music that speaks about freedom and embraces a diverse society that is the most moving, Russell says.

"I paint in wide swaths - any piece of jazz, rock and roll, bluegrass and musical theater is patriotic, because these are the musical forms that were born on our soil," he says. "That's the thing that makes America strong. We have people from all over the world who revel in our free society and the blessings that we've been given here."


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