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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

Canonical American Songbook (2005)
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Year Composed
15 Minutes
Programme Note
John Harbison Canonical American Songbook (2005)

Composer's Note:

In 2004 I composed Songs American Loves to Sing, a collection of ten treatments of traditional songs scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. It was David Alan Miller’s suggestion that some of them might be arranged for chamber orchestra, for the Albany Symphony’s American Heritage, American Dreams series. The original version alternates solos and canons; since the latter have fuller textures I chose them for expansion, thus the punning title, Canonical American Songs.

Just how canonical the songs are is debatable. The idea of the piece is to embed familiar material in inventive musical environments (strict against free, the chorale-prelude principle), with familiar tunes acting as guides through unfamiliar terrain.

From performances of Songs American Loves to Sing (the original conception), I have learned that these tunes are no longer widely known. Veterans of the Civil Rights movement remember “We Shall Overcome.” Survivors of the ‘50s and ‘60s recall a famous pop singer singing something resembling “Aura Lee.” Folkies can conjure up “Careless Love.” It is like a musical excursion down Rte. 66, once America’s main highway, now off the beaten track. In each movement I seek to place the tune (and its remembered words) in a colorful album page.

1. “Careless Love.” The melody is a phantom backdrop (first in the harp) for the canons (rounds at the octave).
2. “Aura Lee.” The old Scotch ballad is projected like wallpaper, the “update” version entering later, at various speeds.
3. “St. Louis Blues.” An elaborate piece, a double inversion canon in thickened lines, over a free bass line.
4. “We Shall Overcome.” Early music, as in, when shall we overcome?
5. “Anniversary Song.” First my five-year old sister Helen, weeping at her birthday party; later something more celebratory.

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