The Testament of Freedom
Randall Thompson (1899-1984) ranks as one of America’s greatest 20th-century choral composers, along with his one-time student Leonard Bernstein. His 1940 anthem, Alleluia—one of several Thompson works Naperville Chorus has previously presented, (which also include Frostiana, Ode to the Virginian Voyage and A Peaceable Kingdom)was the best-selling choral work in this country in 1968. Educated at Harvard, Thompson studied in the US with Ernst Bloch and in Italy with Gian Francesco Malipiero. In 1941 he became chairman of the music department of the School of Fine Arts at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. In 1942, the University asked him to compose a work for its April 13, 1943 “Founders Day”, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Jefferson, whose founding of that University in 1819 has been described as the greatest work of his retirement. Thompson chose to set texts from Jefferson’s own writings: The opening, “The God Who Gave Us Life”, is from his seminal 1774 pamphlet, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America”. The second and third parts consist of lengthy passages from his “Declaration of Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms”, written two days after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence to convince the last holdouts that war with Mother England was inevitable. The final section quotes from a letter written in Jefferson’s declining years (1821) to John Adams—once a bitter enemy of Jefferson’s, who would die within hours of Jefferson in 1826—and concludes with repetition of the opening statement.
This work has been criticized for its “jingoism”. At the time of its composition, however, the American public was just beginning to sense an advantage in the four wars in which it was engaged: In early 1943, the Russians finally triumphed over the German invaders, but at great cost; Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps had been pushed back into Tunisia but were still putting up a terrible battle; the British had beaten off the Blitz, but the Axis hold on almost all of Europe, from Norway to Sicily and from the Atlantic to the Bosporus, was undiminished; and Japan, though defeated at Midway and in its attempt to take New Guinea, still held sway over 100 million people. At home, there were stringent controls on travel, rationing of food and fuel, civilian defense initiatives—it was still feared that Japan, at least, might attack the US mainland (they had already landed in the Aleutians)—and a singleness of purpose in manufacturing, agriculture, education, and government, all directed solely to the war effort. In that environment, patriotic expression was not only tolerated, but promoted— contrary expressions, including pacifism, were regarded as subversive. Small wonder, then, of the positive reception in 1943 to Jefferson’s words, written to propel his countrymen toward war with the nation which, ironically, as the work was being performed one hundred sixty-seven years later, was the US’ greatest ally. And today, when those principles Jefferson thus espoused may be seen as again threatened, who can dismiss his sentiments as irrelevant?
J. R. Fancher