January 2021 marks the 80th anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech. Having just been re-elected to to the presidency for a historic third term, FDR addressed congress and the American people on January 6, 1941 about the progressing threat of World War II in Europe, and the moral imperative Americans faced to defend democracy around the world.
Composer David Evan Thomas beautifully adapted this speech into his piece for vocal quartet and piano, "The Four Freedoms," which Fourth Coast Ensemble performed with pianist Mark Bilyeu on our 2018 Americana concerts.
This nation has placed its destiny
The song begins with all four voices in unison: evoking the mutual responsibility that citizens of a democracy share. Then, rich four-part harmony breaks out as the singers proclaim, "Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere." This line is repeated again as if to drive home the meaning of those words even further.
The four freedoms are laid out clearly by each of the four solo voices – bass-baritone, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and soprano – and the singers are spurred forward by an increasingly insistent piano part. This moment dovetails into a glorious a cappella section, and my personal favorite part of the song. The voices soar, simultaneously independent and inter-dependent. Beautiful melismas weave together and apart in satisfying harmony as we hear the four freedoms repeated again and again.
Piano and singers join together to conclude in agreement: "This is no vision for a distant millennium. It is attainable in our own time."
The song is an encouraging and uplifting reminder of our democratic ideals. It also invites each of us to reflect on what we are doing to further these goals as citizens today. Whether through social activism, getting an education, performing charitable work, or exercising your democratic right to vote, you can join your voice in the harmonious chorus of democracy. I invite you to take a moment in the coming days to appreciate the exciting power and responsibility we share as Americans: This is no vision for a distant millennium. It is attainable in our own time.
Today Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lies in state in the nation’s capitol, the first woman to be so honored. She spent her career advocating for women’s rights and gender equality and leaves behind a legacy that has inspired countless citizens.
This past week I have reflected fondly on the times that I was fortunate to personally interact with Justice Ginsburg. A well-known lover of opera, she made regular pilgrimages to the Santa Fe Opera where I was lucky to perform over several summers. She was also involved in a number of panel discussions concerning opera as it relates to the law, and I count myself blessed to have taken part in one of those sessions. (There is nothing quite like performing a Gilbert & Sullivan song only to have its contents immediately dissected by a justice of the Supreme Court!) It is an experience I will always treasure.
This week’s Art Song Fix looks back on our American Woman concerts, which celebrated many of the civil rights advancements that Justice Ginsburg tirelessly worked for over a period of decades.
American composer Jennifer Higdon utilizes texts from the Civil War era in her song cycle Civil Words, among them an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Lincoln speaks to a nation at war:
With malice toward none, with charity for all…let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.
The mood is somber, the piano part thick and plodding, the harmonies searching desperately for resolution. Higdon paints a vivid picture of the sixteenth president: a leader seeking to inspire hope and reconciliation in a country entrenched in battle. As the United States continues to experience civil unrest in the present day, Lincoln’s words seem as timely as ever. May we soon achieve a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Rest well, RBG.
Lincoln’s Final was recorded in November of 2019 at St. Paul and the Redeemer in Hyde Park, and features pianist Maria Sumareva.
Hello, and welcome to the blog! We are Fourth Coast Ensemble, Chicago's classical vocal quartet. Join a different member of our ensemble each week for insights into our favorite art songs, links to archival and new recordings, and reflections on why we value and continue to come back to this musical medium. We proudly present, your weekly #artsongfix!