A contemporary work today, by Belize-born British composer Errollyn Wallen.Wallen’s family moved to London when she was just two, and it was there that she grew and matured into her professional life as a prolific composer and teacher.
Of this work, Wallen says:
Composing for the orchestra is my favourite challenge, [and this] work is an especially important one for me. It is an innate human instinct to be free, just as it is a low of nature that the river should rush headlong to the sea. That is the concept behind Mighty River.
Slavery claimed the lives of countless people, but somehow my ancestors found the grit and determination to persist in spite of the conditions in which they found themselves. I dedicate Mighty River to my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother. Though I never kner her, I am driven on by her courage in the face of dreadful dods and am inspired by her example not merely to survive, but to thrive.
I first heard this piece the other day, and it’s quite amazing. This performance by the National Youth Orchestra is quite something, and I’m discovering a keen apprecation for the music-making that comes from youth orchestras and ensembles these days. What they sometimes lack in technical polish they often make up for in an ability to make accessibile to emotional heart of a work. I’m less and less drawn to the musical restraint of maturity as I get older.
Mighty River opens with a solo horn quoting “Amazing Grace”, and then as the rest of the orchestra joins in, the piece genuinely does settle into the kind of constant flowing motion that is suggestive of a river on its way to the sea. But throughout the piece, with all its rocking and flowing rhythms, bits and pieces of other spirituals are heard, including more quotes from “Amazing Grace”. The music takes several darker, more introspective turns, but somehow it always finds its way home to that rocking ostinato, and ultimately back to “Amazing Grace” before ending on a gentle major chord. One senses the constance of Black persistence and forced endurance mirroring against the constance of the river’s motion.
Here is Mighty River by Errollyn Wallen.