I grew up watching and listening to my Dad compose music on the grand piano in our family house. Over the years, memories of what pieces he was working on start to blend together, but a few stand out. One of those is To Be Certain of the Dawn. My Dad approached writing this piece with a particularly deep level of compassion and empathy that made an impression on me even as a young teenager at the time. The connection between Stephen, his long-time collaborator and librettist Michael Dennis Browne, and Father Michael O'Connell from the Basilica of St. Mary who commissioned this work was particularly strong throughout the entire process. They all seemed to profoundly understand the importance of this piece and its potential impact. Given the tremendous energy that went towards bringing this piece to life it has been wonderful to see it receive over 20 additional performances across the world since its premiere by The Minnesota Orchestra and conductor Osmo Vänskä in 2005.
Stephen did not get a chance to write a personal reflection on this piece, but below is a video interview with Stephen and Michael taken in 2011 as well as note from the librettist, and a video of a recent performance by the Corvallis-OSU Symphony and OSU Chamber Choir. For those on the west coast, there will be two performances this weekend from San Diego State University Symphony Orchestra on Saturday April 25th (tickets here) and the Festival Chorale Oregon on Sunday, April 26th (tickets here).
This oratorio was commissioned by Fr. Michael O’Connell, rector of the Basilica of Saint Mary, and intended as a gift from the Christian community to the Jewish community. The first performance was at the Basilica in November 2005, a year which marked the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the death camps and the fortieth anniversary of the Vatican document Nostra Aetate (In Our Time), which had much to do with the renewal of dialogue between Jews and Christians. The twentieth and twenty-first performances of the work are being held in San Diego and Salem, Oregon, in the month of April.
In Part One (Renewal), we hear from the chorus Christian grief at their failure to support Jews in the terrible ordeal of the Shoah and for many centuries of “the teaching of contempt.” We hear their desire for teshuvah—repentance, atonement, a return to the spiritual roots of their faith in Judaism. We also hear four blessings sung by the children: this is an example of the impulse to praise God, daily, frequently, even while storm clouds are gathering. We also hear from the cantor the Sh’ma and phrases from the Kaddish, as well as the introduction of the recurring theme “You should love your neighbor as yourself.”
In Part Two (Remembrance), the soloists sing dramatizations of four photographs taken from Roman Vishniac’s book Children of a Vanished World—glimpses of what Geoffrey Hartman calls “a vanished life in its vigor.” The chorus continues with more expressions of Christian remorse together with a wish to “grow and be known by our love.” We also hear quotation from the Nuremberg laws of the 1903s with their inhuman constrictions upon Jewish life. The section concludes with Hymn to the Eternal Flame, which is based on the children’s memorial of multiple reflected flames at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
In Part Three (Visions), several themes are woven: the desire for Jews and Christians to walk together in solidarity of interfaith in “the country of justice,” however scarred the world; divine promises as revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures; quotations taken from interviews with three Minnesota-based survivors and the daughter of one survivor. At the conclusion, both choruses, together with the cantor, sing “You should love your neighbor as yourself” in Hebrew, and we hear the sound of the shofar, with which the work began.
-Michael Dennis Browne
For those who may be interested in performing To Be Certain of the Dawn there is also a set of performance guidelines to ensure a successful performance that you can download here. It describes everything from context for the piece to a cue sheet for the photos that are projected during the piece.
If you are interested in purchasing a recording you can find a CD of the premiere on Amazon here.
If you are interested in learning more about To Be Certain of the Dawn or purchasing study scores, piano/vocal scores, a children's chorus score or the excerpted Hymn to The Eternal Flame you can buy digital scores from our website or purchase paper scores from our partner distributor Subito Music here. If you have any questions about performing this piece please feel free to email email@example.com.
This is the second in a monthly series of stories on the works of American composer Stephen Paulus. For last month's inaugural story on Pilgrims' Hymn click here. Stephen wrote a a small number of personal reflections on some of his better known works, one of which being The Road Home, which is included below.
In the Spring of 2001 I received a commission from the Dale Warland Singers to write a short "folk" type choral arrangement. I had discovered a tune in a folk song book called "The Lone Wild Bird." I fell in love with it, made a short recording and asked my good friend and colleague, Michael Dennis Browne to write new words for this tune. The tune is taken from The Southern Harmony Songbook" of 1835. It is pentatonic and that is part of its attraction. Pentatonic scales have been extant for centuries and are prevalent in almost all musical cultures throughout the world. They are universal. Michael crafted three verses and gave it the title "The Road Home." He writes so eloquently about "returning" and "coming home" after being lost or wandering. Again, this is another universal theme and it has resonated well with choirs around the world as this simple little a cappella choral piece has become another "best seller" in our Paulus Publications catalogue and now threatens to catch up with "Pilgrims' Hymn." It is just more evidence that often the most powerful and beautiful message is often a simple one.
In the spring of 2001, Stephen received a commission from Dale Warland to write a new arrangement of an old or traditional melody, and he asked me to write the words. He played the notes for me on the piano, I recorded it, and in the following weeks played the melody over and over while I formed some words to fit its shape. When I went for walks with the dog, which was often, I sang the notes quietly to myself. (I had done something like this a couple of times before, notably with “Pilgrims’ Hymn” from The Three Hermits.)
All I knew about the tune was that it was from the Southern Harmony songbook of 1835 and that it had been performed under various titles, including “The Lone White Bird,” and that Brian Wren had written some words for it. I also knew that I found it haunting, and I welcomed the (huge) challenge to come up with words in some way worthy of it.
I did what I needed to do: spent a lot of time with the melody and tried to see what it might be trying to say. I was between visits to England, where my beloved sister Angela had become ill, and I was certainly thinking, on one level, of “the old country” which I left in 1965 to come to the United States. I could also hear in the first three notes the beginning of “Loch Lomond,” a song I had sung and loved since I was a child.
What I was looking for was a significant simplicity, something memorable and resonant and patterned, but not as complex as poems can often be, need to be; I wanted something immediate. Little by little, the words came. I thought of the speaker as a persona rather than myself, though of course there needed to be a “personal vibration” to it (to use Robert Lowell’s term). I was also trying to suggest the consolation that can come to someone of faith, in times of great stress, as a result of prayer and an abiding belief in divine mercy.
In a short essay called “Words for Music,” I have written of lyrics for music as “boats on sand” when they appear on the page. In writing words for “The Road Home,” I was writing something to be heard as many voices carrying the stirring melody and not as something self-reliant, to stand on its own the way a poem must do. In doing so, I was aware of steering close to the sentimental and, as I said in my essay, I would never present the words as a poem in a poetry reading, though I have spoken them on occasion as an example of the kind of writing I have done for music.
The song has proved popular—not quite as popular as “Pilgrims’ Hymn,” written four years earlier, though perhaps it is catching up, and has been recorded many times, with several groups using it as the title track. This is very gratifying to Stephen and myself, and for me, as a poet, it constitutes what I call “a different kind of belonging” in that it is heard in churches and concert halls and on recordings by hundreds of thousands of people, whereas my books of poems sell in very modest numbers. Poetry is my original love, and I bring to the writing of libretti and lyrics any skills and energies I may have as a poet, but it is a joy to know how this piece affects people and, in some cases, becomes a part of their lives. This is a privilege I do not underestimate and I am profoundly pleased, and honored, by this reality.
Michael Dennis Browne
The Road Home is one of Stephen's most popular works and continues to be performed and loved by choirs and audiences all over the world. Here is The Road Home performed by Conspirare:
The Road Home
Tell me, where is the road
I can call my own,
That I left, that I lost,
So long ago?
All these years I have wandered,
Oh, when will I know
There's a way, there's a road
That will lead me home?
After wind, after rain,
When the dark is done.
As I wake from a dream
In the gold of day,
Through the air there's a calling
From far away,
There's a voice I can hear
That will lead me home.
Rise up, follow me,
Come away, is the call,
With the love in your heart
As the only song;
There is no such beauty
As where you belong:
Rise up, follow me,
I will lead you home.
Here is Stephen's handwritten manuscript for the SSAA version.