Composed in memory of those who lost their lives
at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999,
and to honor the survivors
Download the Columbine High School Alma
Mater (free download)
The Alma Mater (for SATB Chorus), composed by Frank
Ticheli, is quoted at the climax of An American Elegy. If programmed
with An American Elegy, the two works may be performed as a single
entity with the Alma Mater immediately preceding An American
Elegy. The Alma Mater may be performed either by members of
the band, or by a chorus, or by four or more singers.
COMMISSION AND PREMIERE INFORMATION
An American Elegy was commissioned by the Columbine Commissioning
a special project sponsored by the Alpha Iota Chapter of Kappa Kappa
Psi at the University of Colorado on behalf of the Columbine High School
Band. Contributors to the Fund included members, chapters, alumni, and
friends of Kappa Kappa Psi and Tau Beta Sigma National Honorary Band Fraternity
The work received its premiere performance by the Columbine High School
Band, William Biskup, Director, Frank Ticheli, guest conductor, on April
23, 2000. Its premiere served as the centerpiece of a special commemorative
concert given by the Columbine High School Band in conjunction with the
University of Colorado Wind Symphony, held at Macky Hall in Boulder, Colorado.
An American Elegy is, above all, an expression of hope. It was
composed in memory of those who lost their lives at Columbine High School
on April 20, 1999, and to honor the survivors. It is offered as a tribute
to their great strength and courage in the face of a terrible tragedy.
I hope the work can also serve as one reminder of how fragile and precious
life is and how intimately connected we all are as human beings.
I was moved and honored by this commission invitation, and deeply inspired
the circumstances surrounding it. Rarely has a work revealed itself
to me with such powerful speed and clarity. The first eight bars of the
main melody came to me fully formed in a dream. Virtually every element
of the work was discovered within the span of about two weeks. The remainder
of my time was spent refining, developing, and orchestrating.
The work begins at the bottom of the ensemble's register, and ascends
gradually to a heartfelt cry of hope. The main theme that follows, stated
by the horns, reveals a more lyrical, serene side of the piece. A second
theme, based on a simple repeated harmonic pattern, suggests yet another,
more poignant mood. These three moods - hope, serenity, and sadness - become
intertwined throughout the work, defining its complex expressive character.
A four-part canon builds to a climactic quotation of the Columbine Alma
Mater. The music recedes, and an offstage trumpeter is heard, suggesting
a celestial voice - a heavenly message. The full ensemble returns with
a final, exalted statement of the main theme.
(excerpt from Columbine Alma Mater)
Bridge (based on second theme)
Offstage trumpet solo, variant of Second theme
Main theme, final statement
Introduction (measures 1-14)
The introduction, which was composed last, begins at the bottom of
the ensemble's register, and gradually ascends to an exalted statement
of hope, setting the tone for the entire work. The crescendo into
measure 9 should not be held back emotionally.
Main Theme (measures 15-30)
In contrast to the unrestrained energy unleashed in the introduction,
the main theme is more reflective and serene. In my mind, it suggests the
image of a head bowed in meditation or prayer, after having been lifted
skyward during the introduction. The horns will bring an understated reverence
and nobility to this melody.
Episode (measures 31-46)
The "tempo rubato" indication can be interpreted in
several ways, and is left to the discretion of the conductor. Originally,
I tried to show exactly where the tempo should push ahead and pull back,
but in early rehearsals I found these indications to be restrictive. Strive
for a subtle elasticity, free and fluid, but not too disruptive.
Second Theme (measures 63-96)
The second theme is accompanied by a simple repeated harmonic pattern
(I-V-IV-V) over a tonic pedal. In measures 71-78, the clarinet melody and
accompaniment should move well into the background, allowing the oboe countermelody
through. In measures 91-95 the melodic line vanishes, leaving
only its harmonic framework. Perhaps the theme's absence is more poignant
its presence. The intended effect is one of great ethereal beauty.
One must observe carefully the cross-fading dynamics between the clarinets
and saxophones. The saxophones should not use much vibrato here.
Four-part canon (measures 97-110)
This section functions as one long crescendo, moving from quiet
powerful optimism. One must strive to balance the four canonic voices
clarinet 1, horn 1, euphonium). This becomes even more challenging
as the four
lines become reinforced by other instruments.
Climax: Excerpt from Columbine Alma
Mater (measures 111-113)
The quotation of the Columbine Alma Mater is, in effect, a self-quotation.
(After learning that Columbine High School did not have a school song,
I composed one for them, and they adopted it as their official Alma
Mater.) While composing the present work, I discovered that one excerpt
from the new Alma Mater would serve beautifully as the dramatic
climax - in effect, joining the two pieces at the hip. (The excerpt quoted
is a setting of the words, "We are Columbine! We all are Columbine!")
Offstage trumpet solo (measures 118-127)
This is the emotional heart of the work. The offstage solo should sound
quite distant and ethereal, even other-worldly. I have found it insufficient
to merely place the soloist backstage with the stage doors open. The sound
is still too "present" in this configuration.
Perhaps the most ideal situation would be to place the soloist offstage
with all stage doors closed, and furnished with a television monitor connected
to a camera that is focused directly on the conductor.
It is also possible to position the soloist behind the audience in
a lobby or distant balcony. At the premiere performance, we found that
merely placing the soloist in the top balcony did not produce the desired
distant effect. We solved the problem by placing the soloist in the lobby
behind the balcony (with the doors partially open so the soloist could
see the conductor onstage).
Measures 118 and 119 are unmetered. That is, the conductor should not
attempt to conduct the individual beats of the offstage solo. Rather, his
or her job here is to serve as a cue-giver, conducting the downbeats of
each bar. (The downbeat of measure 118 marks the release of the whole notes
held in measure 117. The downbeat of measure 119 marks the release of clarinet
1, and the entrance of flute 1 and clarinet 3.) The conductor returns to
regular metered time in measure 120.
I suggest that someone sit in the middle of the audience section to
check the balance between the offstage soloist and the onstage players.
Bridge (measures 128-131)
The initial oboe note should grow imperceptibly out of the the offstage
trumpet's final note, gradually taking over the foreground.
Final Statement (measures 132-157)
The rising suspension figures from the introduction return here. At
measure 138, while they are still ascending, the main melody returns. Both
of these musical ideas progress simultaneously, creating an unsettling
tension. The tension finally resolves as the two ideas drive to a common
goal: the climax at measure 146. The energy recedes in a final moment of
deep, prayer-like reflection.