In truth, much of our classical and sacred music is still “imported,” but I would argue that there is more uniquely American art-music (both sacred and secular) than is given credit. On Sunday, our service begins with an improvised organ prelude. This prelude is uniquely American as it comes from my mind – an American mind steeped in knowledge of Europe’s traditions but raised on a steady diet of American hymnody and traditions. The processional hymn is, How firm a foundation, a grand English text sung to an American tune, Foundation. This tune fist appeared in The Sacred Harp, one of the grassroots hymnals of our nation. In it, American folk melodies, largely of anonymous origin, are brought together to create a seminal document of our American tradition.
At Sunday’s offertory, two soloists from the Cathedral Choir will present a duet arranged by Helen Campbell, a member of Mobile’s own Bella Voce Women’s Chorus. The original tune, written by British composer, Gustav Holst (1874-1934), and coming from his famous orchestral work, The Planets, has long been used as a hymn and paired with the text, I Vow to Thee, My Country. These beautiful lyrics lift our minds and hearts toward the heavenly country. Like My country ‘tis of thee, this hymn is borrowed from mother England, but it certainly has become our own in this local arrangement.
Our recessional hymn, God of our fathers, is an invocation of blessing upon our nation, complete with trumpet fanfares! This hymn is an Episcopal hymn and an American hymn through and through having been written for the 1876 Centennial of the U. S. and being first included in the Protestant Episcopal Hymnal.
Finally, we will sing the National Anthem after the dismissal followed by an organ postlude based on America (My country ‘tis of thee). This postlude is by one of America’s first truly original composers, Charles Ives (1874-1954). Ives was a composer to be proud of. While you may not be able to tell from this jolly postlude, he was the one American composer who did the most to open the door for truly American classical and sacred music.
The story of America’s sacred and classical music continues to evolve and even struggle to find its voice, but we can stand proud of the depth, breadth, and diversity of what we have created. Just like our nation and our church, our American music creates a symphony of individuality and freedom, and while it may not speak with the same clear voice as its European counterparts, it creates an amazing artistic fire in which to forge new and greater music to the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.