Music Appreciation: America the Beautiful by Carmen Dragon
I was having a hard time figuring out which piece to discuss next, so I decided to talk about one of Hubby’s favorite pieces: “America the Beautiful” as arranged by Carmen Dragon (1914-1984). I like it, too. I think it’s hands-down the best arrangement of this song.
“America the Beautiful” began life as a poem by Katherine Lee Bates (1859-1929), written in 1893 after a trip to Pike’s Peak. Samuel Augustus Ward (1847-1903) was a composer and organist. His hymn tune, “Materna,” was first used as a setting for “O Mother Dear Jerusalem.” In 1904, the tune was used for Bates’s poem, and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 1960, Carmen Dragon set the piece for concert band. Dragon had a long a lustrous career. He was especially known for conducting the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and composing quite a few film scores. I know he had some sort of a connection with Ohio State University, but I’m having a hard time finding info on exactly what that connection was. [Thanks to Ron for shedding more light on the occasion – check it out in the comments section. I also found some brief info here]. Regardless of the type of connection, Dragon’s arrangement was done for (and premiered by) the university’s concert band. [Fun fact: Carmen’s son is none other than Daryl Dragon of Captain and Tennille].
Starts with a bang
The piece starts with a bang, quite literally, from the timpani. The hit turns into a roll that crescendos, with the other instruments joining in on held notes or runs. It’s a short-but-effective pre-intro to the actual introduction that begins at 0:04. From there, we catch a glimpse of the refrain. Just a glimpse, though, as Dragon takes that little snippet and moves it around, modulating it until we hit the peak of the intro (0:21). Listen especially to the arpeggios moving underneath and the luscious chord progression that happens throughout this section.
The first iteration of the tune (0:30) is rather straightforward (though still quite lovely). We get the melody in the reeds (clarinet, sax, and English horn), with a mid- to low brass chordal accompaniment. It has a reverent feel to it; in fact, the tempo marking is “quasi religioso.” At 1:00, a few more instruments join in and we get a little bit louder, but we come back down at 1:15 as we close out the theme. Listen for that wonderfully placed note of tension in the horn (and other middle voices) at 1:13. Delicious! Then it has a great, small line at 1:17-1:18. At 1:23, the last line of the theme, we start in unison but branch out into harmony right before the interlude.
The entire ensemble joins in quietly at 1:29 (except the poor baritones – not sure why they’re left out in the cold for a couple measures). There’s new melodic content for the interlude, with arpeggios and held chords underneath. There’s a subtle change at 1:35, where the accompaniment has long triplets and the chords get a bit squishier than regular triads. The horns and saxes make a comment at 1:42, and the transition continues to build up tension. We relax just a bit before the next time through the theme.
At 1:51, we start the theme anew. This time, it’s mostly woodwinds who start us off. The melody is straightforward, but the harmony has some crunchy notes added. We change moods at 2:06; most of the upper winds are on the melody, and the horns (and some middle winds) have a slow line upward. [Note: Hubby would like me to point out how that line splits into octaves at 2:10 and really helps build power. I agree it’s quite effective.] The rest of the brass (and some winds) take over that line at 2:13, speeding it up and giving it even more power. There’s also a crescendo happening from the entire group throughout all this.
Reaching the top
There’s the briefest slowdown around 2:18 before the apex of the piece hits at 2:19 with a cymbal crash. We have everyone at full bore here, with a nice counter-melodic line from some winds and the horns. We get another well-placed tension note at 2:31, this time from the trombone and baritone. The group quiets down as we reach the last phrases of the hymn. Naturally, there’s a nice descending horn line at 2:35 (they really are good at that sort of thing), and there’s some ebb and flow in the tempo. I like the clusters of chords happening here; it lets you know we’re not quite ready for a final resolution.
At 2:46, we hear the final phrase “from sea to shining sea.” Earlier, this was done in unison. This time, the rhythm is unison, but the notes have harmony. While the chord at 2:53 sounds like it could end the piece, Dragon has the group quickly crescendo into a coda section. We get a powerful triplet motif starting at 2:55, led by the upper winds and brass, a powerful chord coming in on beat two as an echo. This repeats, then at 3:00 there’s a bunch of neat stuff happening: repeated triplets from the brass, triplet runs from the winds, powerful punctuation from the rest of the brass, middle winds, and the chimes. The ensemble unites in slower triplets at 3:05 to reach the final hurrah. They strike a chord, followed by echoes and a grand glissando down to the final, powerful note.
Thank you for joining me in learning about one of Hubby’s favorite pieces. I’ll see you next time!
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