composer’s note: “I am a living member of the great family of all souls…”
That quote, from William Ellery Channing’s marvelous “The Perfect Life,” was the start of a conversation about potential text ideas for “All Souls” that took place in the summer of 2012 between Rev. Rob Hardies, Thomas Colohan, Scot Hanna-Weir, and me. And while more poets, more texts, and more ideas entered the conversation as we continued, I couldn’t help but come back to these words as being central to All Souls Church, Unitarian and central to the concept of inclusion that became the theme of my cantata. “I cannot improve or suffer myself without diffusing good or evil around me through an ever-enlarging sphere.”
So, in Channing’s spirit of inclusion, I sought to include more voices in the text of “All Souls.” The poetry of Langston Hughes, beginning with his beautiful “My People,” which Rev. Hardies had brought to my attention during our first meeting, seemed to be a perfect match for Channing’s notion of the great family of all souls. And the poetry of Wendell Berry, long a favorite of mine, presents a different take on inclusion, and on the role we, as members of the great family, must take in creating an inclusive world. One thing I loved about combining the works of such wildly different writers was that such a diversity of poetic voices created its own sort of inclusion: urban and rural lives, caucasian and African-American experiences, foundational texts and 21st Century poems… all of these differing perspectives are included in “All Souls.” And that multiplicity of perspective holds up a mirror to the wonderful diversity of this church and congregation.
With that in mind, I created a structure for the cantata that seeks to both celebrate such diversity and tie all those different perspectives together into a strong dramatic arch with a clear conflict and resolution. So the cantata begins with the open-hearted love of Hughes’ “My People,” then becomes more agitated and combative (but still hopeful) through “I Dream A World” and “Dreamer,” then nearly loses all hope midway through Wendell Berry’s “Look Out,” but emerges from that darkness with newfound hope through the power of saying “yes” by the end of that poem, and then finally we say YES to Channing’s beautiful vision of inclusion and inter-connectedness. The music itself follows a similar trajectory, starting in a sort of pastoral and straightforward style, then becoming more unsettled and chaotic as the darkness creeps into the text, and finally settling into a long, dreamlike release of tension.
In addition to that powerfully theatrical sense of structure, I also wanted the poetry to become intertwined with Channing’s words, so that all these texts wind up as one cloth, centered around Channing’s strong but gentle message. So the “yes” at the end of “Look Out” bleeds into “All Souls,” which allows the power of saying “yes” to the world to become part of Channing’s affirmation: “YES, I am a living member of the great family of all souls.” And in the last 5 minutes of “All Souls,” fragments of Channing’s words become intermingled with fragments of Hughes’ “My People,” ending the cantata in a meditative way that integrates Langston Hughes and William Ellery Channing’s visions of inclusion and love for humanity.
Through those musical and dramatic ideas, “All Souls” seeks to illuminate the message of inclusion that’s central to the Unitarian/Universalist faith and to All Souls Church, Unitarian. It seeks to present not only an idealized vision of the “great family,” but to show the struggles we face in holding on to that vision, and an action plan for bringing that vision out into the world. Please visit http://www.all-souls.org/Gendel-premiere for more information about this work, including a longer program note written by conductor and brilliant mastermind Dr. Scot Hanna-Weir.