Jim’s Song Lyric Sunday this week has the theme Promise/Vow/Oath.
This is a song from The Tender Land by Aaron Copland, “The Promise of Living.” Our church choir sang it a couple of years ago for the funeral of the grandfather of one of our members. The fact that I have this personal connection to the piece is the reason I chose it. This recording is by one of my favorite choirs, Angel City Chorale, with full orchestration, although it is often performed with piano accompaniment, which is what our choir had.
The promise of living with hope and thanksgiving
Is born of our loving our friends and our labor.
The promise of growing with faith and with knowing
Is born of our sharing our love with our neighbor.
The promise of loving, the promise of growing
Is born of our singing in joy and thanksgiving.
For many a year we’ve know these fields
And know all the work that makes them yield.
We’re ready to work, we’re ready to lend a hand.
By working together we’ll bring in the blessings of harvest.
We plant each row with seeds of grain,
And Providence sends us the sun and the rain.
By lending a hand, by lending an arm
Bring out the blessings of harvest.
Give thanks there was sunshine, give thanks there was rain,
Give thanks we have hands to deliver the grain.
O let us be joyful, O let us be grateful to the Lord for his blessing.
The promise of living, the promise of growing
The promise of ending is labor and sharing and loving.
Copland’s 1954 opera, The Tender Land, evokes the dignity and meaningfulness of labor. The librettist was Horace Everett, a pseudonym for Erik Johns. Farming – cultivating the soil of America’s heartland and reaping the benefits of its harvest for a balanced and fulfilling life are central to the opera’s theme. It tells the story of a farm family in the Midwest in the 1930s during the spring harvest and the protagonist’s graduation from high school. Copland was inspired to write the opera after seeing Walker Evans’ photographs of the Depression era and reading James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Unfortunately, the opera was not a success. It was written for NBC’s Television Opera Workshop and rejected by network producers, perhaps because of the weakness of its characters and plot. It premiered at New York City Opera on April 1, 1954, but the work was intended for the intimacy of television and didn’t translate well to the stage.
In spite of its lack of success, it’s kind of amazing that television networks at one time commissioned composers to write operas for TV. At the time, both CBS and NBC had their own in-house orchestras. It was the time when an operetta written for the Christmas season, Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti, enjoyed tremendous success and was shown every Christmas season throughout the 1950s and early 1960s to the great enjoyment of the TV viewing public. (I remember watching Amahl every year on TV – it was a tradition in our house – and my siblings and I can still sing much of it by heart!) NBC Television Opera produced several other operas for TV in the period between 1949 and 1964.
Copland and Johns made revisions to the opera, including expanding Act II. The composer agreed to let Murry Sidlin rescore the work for fewer instruments for a production in New Haven in 1987, a staging that ran for 50 performances. Two of Copland’s Old American Songs were added to the central party scene. A 1965 concert version of the work (i.e. unstaged) was released by Sony on CD.
In 1958, Copland turned the opera’s music into an orchestral suite. Here is the link to the orchestral version of The Promise of Living: https://youtu.be/uyDljV1-BSc.
The music starts softly, like the awakening of early morning with the birds singing, and unfolds into a majestic hymn of thanksgiving. The final chord encompasses the full range of the orchestra, just as the final chord in the vocal version ends dramatically with the entire choir singing fortissimo.
The information above was obtained from The Promise of Living: Copland for Labor Day by Timothy Judd and Wikipedia, The Tender Land.