Steve Heitzeg and Amy Scurria
We Are Met at Gettysburg
Steve Heitzeg was born on a farm in southern Minnesota on October 15, 1959; still lives in Minnesota. Amy Scurria was born in Miami, Florida, on September 24, 1973; she is living in North Carolina. The two composers were jointly commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra to compose a work commemorating the battle of Gettysburg, which took place on July 1-3, 1863. Composed in 2002 in three movements (the first by Scurria, the second by Heitzeg and the third created jointly), the premiere was given by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Giancarlo Guerrero conducting, at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts on January 4, 2003. The score calls for a children's chorus and an orchestra consisting of two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, three percussionists, piano, and strings. Duration is 18 minutes.
Composers working in jazz and popular music fields very often do something that is extremely rare in classical music: they collaborate in creating a new piece. We Are Met at Gettysburg is an unusual piece created to commemorate one of the most consequential military battles in world history, the three-day encounter of Union forces under General George Meade and Confederate forces under General Robert E . Lee that took place in and around a small Pennsylvania town. Lee had brought his army into the north with his typical boldness. If Lee had been victorious, the day after the battle would have seen an offer of peace to sent to President Abraham Lincoln with terms including the separation of North and South into separate countries, and the continuation of slavery in the south.
As it happened, the desperate battle had an entirely different outcome, such that it is often referred to as the turning point in the Civil War. Nearly two years of horrendous violence remained before Lee and Grant met at Appomattox to finally end the fighting in April 1865, but the outcome was increasingly clear after Lee's daring surge into the North had failed, and he and his battered army stumbled back to Virginia.
Among the participants in the battle was the 1st Minnesota Volunteers, who held their line on the fateful second day, but suffered a higher percentage of casualties in that single engagement--82%--of any unit in the entire war. A 1993 book by Richard Moe, The Last Full Measure: The Life and Death of the 1st Minnesota Volunteers generated the idea of the musical composition. Gary Alan Wood, the education director for the Philadelphia Orchestra had recently held the same position with the Minnesota Orchestra, and it occurred to him that the principal orchestras of the two states represented in this crucial moment of American history might appropriately commission a piece of music from two composers--one representing each state.
Steve Heitzeg, a Minnesota native who still lived in his home state, and Amy Scurria, who was at the time living in Pennsylvania, met at the Gettysburg battleground site to discuss the project. They decided to lay out the work in three movements, one composed individually by each, the last created jointly.
The title of the piece, We Are Met at Gettysburg makes reference to Lincoln's address in consecrating the Gettysburg battlefield four and a half months after the fighting stopped: "We are met on a great battlefield of that war..." Lincoln, of course spoke in the present tense. Heitzeg and Scurria maintained the present tense in the title to signify the continuing resonance of the never-ending struggle for freedom and equality. The descriptions of the three movements here are adapted from notes written by Mary Ann Feldman, the long time program annotator of the Minnesota Orchestra, for the first performances:
- Honor and Sacrifice (Amy Scurria)
This movement is dedicated to the composer's father, a Vietnam War veteran. Its focus is the people--the soldiers, their families, those who lived near and in Gettysburg and who unexpectedly found their peaceful agricultural community the center point of an enormous battle attempting to solve long-standing painful issues in American history. The composer notes that the woodwinds in this movement symbolize a mother waving goodbye to her soldier son.
- Wounded Fields (Steven Heitzeg)
An adagio for strings alone, dedicated to the victims of war and genocide, the movement revolves largely around the pitch G, sounding as a continuous ground bass, to build images of Gettysburg and its sacred, hallowed ground. Conceived as a plea for peace and anti-war in its reverential lyricism, the movement honors the dead by responding with peaceful and healing music.
III. The Last Full Measure (Scurria/Heitzeg)
Lincoln's address draws attention to the devotion of the soldiers at Gettysburg, especially those interred in the national military cemetery, which was the occasion of his great address: they who gave "the last full measure of devotion." The movement is dedicated to the late U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone, who had died in a plane crash in October 2002. Throughout his career in the Senate, he had fought non-militaristically and non-violently for peace, social justice, and the rights of all. The movement is cast in seven sections laid out to evoke the era and to convey progress toward freedom and equality, with the children's choir entering at the ending in a clarion call to conscience and the common good.
We Are Met at Gettysburg was performed some ten times by the two commissioning orchestras soon after its composition. Individual movements were also performed by other ensembles in the intervening years. This performance by the Rockford Symphony Orchestra is the first complete hearing since 2003.
© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)