Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Singing Our History, Part II: The Civil War to World War II

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Singing Our History, Part II: The Civil War to World War II

Article excerpt


ON DECEMBER 20, 1860, A LITTLE more than six weeks after Lincoln's election in November, South Carolina seceded from the Union, soon to be followed by six more states. On April 12, 1861, Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, and the war whose reverberations are with us to this day had begun. On September 28, Harper's Weekly published Walt Whitman's great poem of response to the advent of war and its horrors visited upon the people, "Beat! Beat! Drums!" The poem was set by Ernst Bacon and also by Richard Pearson Thomas as the first song in his song cycle of Walt Whitman poems, Drum-Taps.1 The Pearson Thomas setting opens with voice alone, a call to arms; then a roll of the drums in the piano part; another solo call to arms, and then the drumbeat of recruitment begins in earnest. It is a stirring, dramatic song built on various drumbeat patterns and bugle calls in the piano under the strong declamation of the vocal line.

Beat! beat! drums!-blow! bugles! blow!

Through the windows-through doors-burst like a ruthless force,

Into the solemn church and scatter the congregation,

Into the school where the scholar is study'ng;

Leave not the bride-groom quiet-no happiness must he have now with his


Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field or gath'ring his grain,

So fierce you whirr and pound, you drums, so shrill you bugles blow.

Beat! beat! drums! blow! bugles! blow!

Over the traffic of cities-over the rumble of wheels in the streets;

Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses? no sleepers must sleep in

those beds,

No bargainers' bargains by day-no brokers or speculators, Would they


Would the talker be talking? would the singer attempt to sing?

Would the lawyer rise in court to state his case before the judge?

Then rattle quicker, heavier drums-and bugles wilder blow.

Beat! beat! drums! blow! bugles! blow!

Make no parley-stop for no expostulation;

Mind not the timid-mind not the weeper or prayer;

Mind not the old man beseeching the young man;

Let not the child's voice be heard, nor the mother's entreaties. Recruit! Recruit!

Make the very trestles shake under the dead, where they

lie in their shrouds awaiting their hearses.

So strong you thump, O terrible drums-so loud you

bugles blow.

By April of 1862 the war had been raging for a year with famous battles already fought. On April 6 and 7 in Hardin County, Tennessee, near the Shiloh country church, a fierce battle was fought in which 23,746 men were killed, wounded, or missing. Herman Melville (1819-1891) commemorated the Battle of Shiloh in his poem "Requiem (April, 1862)." In his song cycle, Soldier Songs, Hugo Weisgall set the poem under the title "Shiloh: A Requiem. April 1862."2 The slow circling motion of the music evokes the skimming and wheeling of the swallows over the now quiet battlefield, while the shifting lightly dissonant harmonies reflect the utter incongruity of the peacefully circling birds over the place of such pain and dying. The chromatic vocal line turns downward at the end of each section, to end low in the register at "And all is hushed at Shiloh."

Skimming lightly, wheeling still,

The swallows fly low

Over the field in clouded days,

The forest-field of Shiloh-

Over the field where April rain

Solaced the parched one stretched in pain

Through the pause of night

That followed the Sunday fight

Around the church of Shiloh-

The church so lone, the log-built one,

That echoed to many a parting groan

And natural prayer

Of dying foemen mingled there-

Foemen at morn, but friends at eve-

Fame or country least their care:

(What like a bullet can undeceive!)

But now they lie low,

While over them the swallows skim

And all is hushed at Shiloh. …

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