I thought for 4th of July weekend I would write about an America-themed piece, so Ticheli’s An American Elegy rose to the top of the pile. But this is not your usual patriotic jaunt, brimming with a clear sense of independent spirit. In fact, it’s a piece with a rather emotionally-complicated origin that’s difficult to write about. On April 20, 1999, 2 students at Columbine high school in Colorado began a shooting rampage at their school that would kill 12 students and 1 teacher and injure 21 others. It stopped when the 2 gunmen committed suicide. Look here for more details. To call it a tragedy is an understatement – it shook up the whole country and, at least momentarily, brought a host of issues about teenagers, bullying, and guns (to name a few) to the forefront of our national attention. An American Elegy was born as part of the healing process from this terrible event. Frank Ticheli himself describes it best:
An American Elegy was commissioned by the Columbine Commissioning Fund, a special project sponsored by the Alpha Iota Chapter of Kappa Kappa Psi at the University of Colorado on behalf of the Columbine High School Band. Contributors to the Fund included members, chapters, alumni, and friends of Kappa Kappa Psi and Tau Beta Sigma National Honorary Band Fraternity and Sorority.
The work received its premiere performance by the Columbine High School Band, William Biskup, director, Frank Ticheli, guest conductor, on April 23, 2000. Its premiere served as the centerpiece of a special commemorative concert given by the Columbine High School Band in conjunction with the University of Colorado Wind Symphony, held at Macky Hall in Boulder, Colorado.
An American Elegy is, above all, an expression of hope. It was composed in memory of those who lost their lives at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, and to honor the survivors. It is offered as a tribute to their great strength and courage in the face of a terrible tragedy. I hope the work can also serve as one reminder of how fragile and precious life is and how intimately connected we all are as human beings.
I was moved and honored by this commission invitation, and deeply inspired by the circumstances surrounding it. Rarely has a work revealed itself to me with such powerful speed and clarity. The first eight bars of the main melody came to me fully formed in a dream. Virtually every element of the work was discovered within the span of about two weeks. The remainder of my time was spent refining, developing, and orchestrating.
The work begins at the bottom of the ensemble’s register, and ascends gradually to a heartfelt cry of hope. The main theme that follows, stated by the horns, reveals a more lyrical, serene side of the piece. A second theme, based on a simple repeated harmonic pattern, suggest yet another, more poignant mood. These three moods — hope, serenity, and sadness — become intertwined throughout the work, defining its complex expressive character. A four-part canon builds to a climactic quotation of the Columbine Alma Mater. The music recedes, and an offstage trumpeter is heard, suggesting a celestial voice — a heavenly message. The full ensemble returns with a final, exalted statement of the main theme.
You can find out more about Frank Ticheli at these links:
Ticheli’s publisher hosts a complete, downloadable set of mp3s of the vast majority of his large ensemble music on their website – quite a find!
Frank Ticheli’s personal website, Frankticheli.com.
Ticheli bio on wikipedia.
Frank Ticheli’s Facebook fanclub.
A video interview with Ticheli in which he talks about composing.
Now here’s a YouTube performance, and a mighty good one at that:
One final note: if you’re programming this piece now (or at any time after I’m putting this up), consider that most high schoolers now are barely old enough to remember the Columbine shootings. That was 1999. As of 2011, the kids who were in kindergarten then have just finished high school! Soon enough, high school kids will have been born after Columbine! So please, follow the intent of this site and give your players the context for this piece. It’s not easy to talk about, but it’s important that they understand the emotional place that gives rise to music like this and gives it meaning.