Two hundred and twenty-four years ago this past Tuesday, 56 leaders of Great Britain's American colonies pledged to posterity their lives, fortunes and sacred honor as they signed the great declaration that invented the United States of America.
Thirteen years and several days later, a Parisian mob whose anger at an unjust monarchy had reached critical mass headed toward the 80-foot walls of the Bastille in search of gunpowder, prisoners to free and, most of all, a target for their frustration with the old regime. They found their target, all right, and the convulsive revolution was under way in France.
More than two centuries later, the voices from these events still echo. "We hold these truths to be self evident." "Liberte! Egalite! Fraternite!" "Aux armes, citoyens!"
How did all this revolutionary fervor express itself in the culture of the day? What, for example, was America singing as she prepared to take on the mighty British Empire?
That question is answered on a marvelous compact disc, "An American Journey: Bound for the Promised Land," a compilation of early American songs performed by the Waverly Consort (Angel 55522). In this beautifully sung anthology, we hear musical tributes to the heroism on display at the Battle of Bunker Hill; a salute to the Sons of Liberty, America's first fraternity of revolutionists; and a jaunty rendition of "Liberty Tree," a ditty taken from the "American Patriotic Songbook" of 1813.
A similar and equally fascinating release is "Liberty Tree," a program of American music from 1776 to 1861 performed by conductor Joel Cohen and his Boston Camerata (Erato 21668).
Here, feminist anthems, a hymn of praise to Gen. James Wolfe, hero of the French and Indian War, and a secular anthem extolling the power of science on the cusp of the 19th century co-exist with songs of the Revolutionary Era. If you ever wondered what the real "Yankee Doodle" sounded like, look no further.
And what were the French singing? Well, from 1792 on, they were marching to "La Marseillaise," the rousing evocation of Gallic blood, guts and glory composed in a single night by Capt. Rouget de Lisle of the Marseille regiment.
Decades after the "Marseillaise" was written, as Parisians took to streets again in protest of another despotic monarchy, composer Hector Berlioz crafted a monumental setting of the anthem - all six verses worth - for soloists, double chorus and orchestra. That version can be found blazing away in all its glory on a Berlioz anthology conducted by David Zinman on Telarc 80164.
Long after they ended, both rebellions continued to inspire the creative arts almost as tellingly as they altered the political discourse of the world. So it isn't difficult to find musical compositions that stand as monuments to the Age of Revolution.
Several of my favorites can be found on "Portraits of Freedom," a program spotlighting the music of two American originals: Aaron Copland and Roy Harris (Delos 3140). A deep, brassy reading of Copland's rock-solid "Fanfare for the Common Man" begins the proceedings, and is followed by the rustic "Lincoln Portrait" narrated in inspirational fashion by James Earl Jones.
Also included is the unfamiliar "American Creed," a staunch, searching exercise in musical nationalism crafted by Harris, a 20th- century American composer who was born in an Oklahoma log cabin. Noble music, noble themes.
Nowhere are the ideals of the French Revolution - liberty, equality and fraternity -articulated with greater passion than in the celebrated "Ode to Joy" that brings the Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven to such a triumphal close.
To hear Beethoven's cry for universal brotherhood ("alle menschen werden Bruder") brought out with great fervor, seek out Herbert von Karajan (the 1962 version on DG 447401) or Christoph von Dohnanyi (Telarc 80120) among the scores of conductors who have gone before the microphones with this symphony of symphonies.
And how can we ignore Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's wonderful opera, "The Marriage of Figaro," for a sparkling, effervescent look at the social leveling taking place in the Europe of the 1780s? For, just as the shrewd valet Figaro tells the audience that he is in control of the aristocratic nitwit he works for, Mozart lets us know in the most elegant manner imaginable that the old order is about to crumble before our eyes.
The "Figaros" of Karl Bohm (DG 449728), Carlo Maria Giulini (EMI 63266) and Sir Georg Solti (London 410150) bring it all off with bristling elan and stunning beauty.