Last night at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Anonymous 4 returned to San Francisco to perform the second of the two programs they prepared for their farewell tour. Thus, last night San Francisco Performances hosted the last performance that Anonymous 4 will ever give in Northern California. The title of the program was 1865, the abbreviation of what is likely to be the final recording made by Anonymous 4 for harmonia mundi, 1865: Songs of Hope and Home from the American Civil War. As he did on the recording, Bruce Molsky joined Anonymous 4 to perform last night, contributing his voice and instrumental performances on fiddle, five-string banjo, and guitar.
The full title of the album is deceptively optimistic. By the time the Civil War ended one hundred years ago, there was little cause for celebration. In the grand scheme of things, it would not be preposterous to suggest that this was a war in which both sides lost. Worse yet, history has shown that it was a war in which little was resolved and whose wounds are far from healed. This was particularly evident when this weekend saw the revised and updated version of the opera Appomattox, with music by Philip Glass and text by Christopher Hampton, at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
When this opera was given its world premiere by the San Francisco Opera in 2007, the entire libretto was set in 1865; and the narrative followed a trajectory whose climax was the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant. In the revised version, the 1865 narrative becomes the first act, while the second act is set in 1965. As a result the issue of slavery underlying the 1865 portion of the story is now complemented by the issue of voting rights, with the signing of the Voting Rights Act balancing the surrender at Appomattox Court House. As has been evident from recent events, there was no more resolution in the aftermath of the Voting Rights Act than there has been over the century following Lee’s surrender.
Last night’s program did not focus on the long view of history. Rather, it dwelled only on the broken spirit of a nation desperate for healing. The entire tone of the evening was established by the opening selection, Henry Tucker’s setting of words by Charles Carroll Sawyer entitled “Weeping, Sad and Lonely, or, When this Cruel War is Over.” With only a few exceptions, the entire program unfolded in the shadow of death and loss; and what may be particularly fascinating is how so many of these death-infused songs were written in a major key. However, the major mode is there to depict the promise of heaven, the only solace available to those for whom life on earth had become unbearable.
Given the tone of the program, what mattered most in the execution was the way in which none of the performers allowed the spirit of the evening to get bogged down in mawkish sentimentality. Very little of the program was cheerful; but the prevailing spirit was one of hope, coupled with the idea that both sacred music and popular song had roles to play in helping an entire nation to heal. This raises a particularly important point, which is that none of the selections were, strictly speaking, music for a concert setting. The hymns and gospel songs belonged in the church. The rest of them belonged in the parlor among friends who would assemble to make music.
On a personal note I was reminded last night of having grown up on the tail end of such practices. There was a joke about how one of the singers recognized “Listen to the Mocking Bird” as the opening theme for Three Stooges shorts shown on television. I now seem to be one of the few left who came to know the song first, through making music at home with family and friends, and then recognized the use of the song the first time I saw a Three Stooges film (appreciating the “mocking bird connection”). Making music used to be a practice that reinforced the sense of neighborhood and community. Now (with due apology to harmonia mundi, much of whose catalog is devoted to “real” music-makers) it is under threat to be nothing but another business. (Look at how little “country music” has to do with anything indigenous.)
Finally, it was very difficult to listen to any of last night’s selections without thinking of what happened in Paris on Friday night. If last night’s program reviewed many of the ways in which Americans coped with death and loss at the end of the Civil War, the entire weekend reminded us of just how important such coping skills are. Even without the context of Paris, last night was a melancholy one. However, just as Glass and Hampton reminded their audience of the need to keep a clear focus on the present day, the music of 1865 helped listeners come to terms with the grief that now plagues France and, by extension, much of the world at large.