My Last Sesquicentennial Hurrah

Deon Megan Ian
three history students participate in a scene drawn from letters between soldiers and their wives

Last night, we presented Civil War Songs and Stories: Commemorating Emancipation, a concert I organized and designed with a friend and colleague in the UNCP Music Department, Dr. Jose Rivera. This was a big production for a school our size — Jose’s choir, the University Chorale, with about 50 members, plus a student brass quintet, a guest band, a slideshow of period photographs and images, and twelve speakers drawn primarily from History Department students and faculty (although we brought in one ringer from Theatre). I’m guessing we had about 250 people in the audience.

four of my colleagues imagine what a presidential debate might have looked like in 1860
four of my colleagues imagine what a presidential debate might have looked like in 1860

I did enjoy watching my colleagues yell at each other. Even better, our students really stepped up and did a tremendous job. All the speakers inhabited their characters quite well — and most managed to do their lines from memory. The vocal soloists were fantastic. They sang difficult repertoire (Kurt Weill’s setting of O Captain! My Captain!, Harry Burleigh’s Steal Away, Jon Kander’s A Letter from Sullivan Ballou) with both precision and emotion. The choir was wonderful as well. And everyone was pleasant to work with — even if I probably drove them nuts at some point in the proceedings.

General Butler (my good friend, Dr. Ryan Anderson) contemplates his contraband policy
General Butler (my good friend, Dr. Ryan Anderson) contemplates his contraband policy

We closed the concert with a big chorus from Kirke Mechem’s opera John Brown, featuring a baritone soloist as Frederick Douglass, with text compiled from his speeches in England in 1846. It may seem strange to end with an antebellum text, but it culminates in the choir quoting the Declaration of Independence:

Douglas: “What do we ask of America? We only ask that it complete its own Revolution! That revolution which declared to all the world — We hold these truths, to be self evident …” And then everyone repeats the early lines from the Declaration, concentrating heavily on “all men are created equal.”

I thought it was a nice counterpoint to the segment from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural we had just used. In both the Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln spoke of unfinished business, and subsequent generations of commemorative speeches at Gettysburg have taken their cue from Lincoln as well, defining that “unfinished business” as the persistent problem of inequality in American society. Different speakers have highlighted different types of inequality, but the theme has remained consistent, and I thought it was a good one to highlight at the end of our program.

This concert was UNCP’s last sesquicentennial event. I started the Civil War series in the fall of 2010, and I certainly plan to continue it, but I don’t plan on doing anything this large or complex for quite some time. But it was a great evening, and I can’t wait to see the video.

Jose conducting as the male singers make their entrance to The Battle Cry of Freedom
Jose conducting as the male singers make their entrance to The Battle Cry of Freedom

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