The next few posts (over several days) will, hopefully, give you look at part of the process writing Sweet Rivers. I wasn’t intentionally looking for a hymn to become the backbone of the, then unnamed and unwritten, new piece, but I did know that a river(s) would shape how I conceived the piece.
I came across the hymn Sweet Rivers in a collection called “Christian Harmony: Containing a Choice Collection of Hymn and Psalm Tunes, Odes and Anthems.” The first edition was printed in 1866 and was compiled by E.W. Miller and William Walker. Similar collections existed under the names Southern Harmony and Sacred Harp, and each possessed a unique style for notating hymns.
Each hymnbook also contained an extensive section explaining musical terms, meter (in music and poetry), articulations, notations and even conducting patterns.
In this style of writing, the melody is in the tenor part (sometimes called “soprano,” and the soprano line called “high line.”). I played through the hymn many times, stopping on certain chords or progressions that I thought interesting, exposing passing tones that were dissonant or resting on beautiful chords. Below are a few moments in the hymn that appear in my new work. The melody at the text “I’d rise superior to my pain…” plays an important role.
Given the opportunity to write a new work to be premiered on the banks of a river gives a composer many opportunities for associations, from history to religion and spirituality, and the works it has already inspired (Ellington’s The River, Smetana’s The Moldau, Deep River, Strauss’ On the Beautiful, Blue Danube, etc). I could also draw on the cities where I’ve lived, almost exclusively built on major rivers: The Bío Bío (Chile), Ohio and Mississippi. This new work is at the same time all and none of this.
Sweet Rivers gets its name from a shape-note hymn (printed in The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, pictured below), but this isn’t an arrangement. This music is a meditation on all rivers, their persistent flow without regard for human events, their functional purpose and importance for our environment. The hymn provides some of the musical glue, pervading the music without being obvious - it’s the trees in the proverbial forest, occurring most prominently with horns heralding a moment in the hymn with the words, “I’d rise superior to my pain, with joy outstrip the wind.”