John Brown’s Body

for narrator and orchestra (2001)

Commissioned by the Pacific Symphony Orchestra
Premiere: Pacific Symphony, Jack Everly conductor 2001
Duration 14:00 - - timp; 3 perc; hp; pno - str

John Brown’s Body was premiered on July 4, 2001 by the Pacific Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jack Everly.   G. Randolph Johnson, former Board Chairman of the orchestra, spearheaded the commission and acted as narrator on the evening of the premiere. He writes:

“America seems to have almost forgotten one of its epic poems, John Brown’s Body, the 400-page poem about the Civil War by Stephen Vincent Benet. A 1929 Pulitzer Prize winner, the work became very popular in the years that followed. Benet takes both simple and complex characters and weaves them together in a story of incredible intellectual depth and honesty. Moreover, he writes with words that speak directly to the heart in a way that few prose writers can match. Although it may be one of the most under-appreciated works in American literary history, nonetheless it stands as a milestone in our literary evolution and it is still worthy of our attention.

“The main players in the drama are Jack Ellyat, from a small town in Connecticut; Clay Wingate, wealthy scion of a plantation-owning family in Georgia; Abraham Lincoln; and the martyred abolitionist John Brown.”

As composer, I decided the best way of approaching the 14-minute limit of the commission was to introduce the primary characters and their conflicts, providing for the audience a taste of Benet’s complex work. After an orchestra introduction, we meet Jack Ellyat, the hero from the North, whose music is lush and rhapsodic, as he dreams about the land around him. Then we meet Clay Wingate, Ellyat’s Southern counterpart, whose contrasting music is quick and fleeting as he rides home to his estate. Both introductions close with an ominous premonition of the darkness and calamity ahead. A brief description of the Battle of Bull Run leads into music of Lincoln, as he wrestles with the problem of uniting a torn nation. Out of his despair, we hear a suggestion of the introductory music—optimistic and bright—which we now understand to be John Brown’s theme. Brown prays for courage, defends himself in his own trial hearing, welcoming his inevitable demise: “I am worth now infinitely more to die than to live...there is a song in my will grow stronger.”

−Kevin Puts