This Saturday and Sunday the San Francisco Lyric Chorus presents Return to The Promised Land at Mission Dolores Basilica. The program highlights a selection of classical choral music featured at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition. Under the direction of Robert Gurney, the concerts begin at 7pm on Saturday and at 5pm on Sunday. The Basilica’s organist, Jerome Lenk, will join members of the Golden Gate Orchestra to accompany the SFLC and featured soloists Boyd Jarrell, Christa Pfeiffer, Theresa Cardinale, Kevin Baum, and Mark Mueller.
The Program includes:
Amy Beach: Panama Hymn
George Frideric Handel: (Messiah) And The Glory of the Lord; Hallelujah Chorus
Joseph Haydn: (The Creation) Awake The Harp; The Heavens Are Telling
Felix Mendelssohn: (Elijah) Lift Thine Eyes; He, Watching Over Israel
Johannes Brahms: (Ein Deutsches Requiem) Wie Lieblich Sind Deine Wohnungen
Richard Wagner: (Tannhäuser) Pilgrim’s Chorus
Camille Saint-Saëns: The Promised Land (selections)
In preparation for my interview with Helene Whitson, President of the San Francisco Lyric Chorus, I discovered that there are no on-line links to or any tangible recordings of Amy Beach’s Panama Hymn or Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Promised Land. No surprise to Helene. What turned out to be a pleasing surprise is that we are native San Franciscans – and not very far apart in Graduating Classes. She and I vividly remember the Wurlitzer at the Fox Theatre, pre-matinee lunches at Moar’s Cafeteria at 33 Powell (now Sephora’s), and Dorothy Starr’s sheet music store, The Music Stand, on Hayes Street. If Dorothy didn’t have a copy of what you were looking for – even as one of those newfangled facsimiles called a “Xerox” – then the title was hopelessly out-of-print, perhaps never published and maybe you’d better consider another tune. As a long-shot, the title might be buried somewhere in the Library of Congress.
“About ten years ago I went through all the PPIE papers at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley,” said Helene. “I’m just now working on those notes. The Panama Hymn by Amy Beach was selected by the Exposition as its Official Hymn. She had written it for the PPIE. We first found it 1997 when we did a whole program of Amy Beach. I do our Program Notes. I worked in academia, I like to be educational. I was trying to find out about Amy’s life and discovered she had written this piece. I tried to find which library had it. I couldn’t find anything in California, but the Library of Congress had a copy.”
In December 1913, The Atlantic Monthly published “Panama Hymn” – a poem by Wendell Phillips Stafford, a judge for the Washington, DC Federal District Court. I asked Helene if Amy Beach had been commissioned to set his poem to music.
“Everybody says that she was commissioned. But in re-reading my Bancroft notes, no. The things people think they know! Then one person prints it and everybody takes that as their source. What happened was that everybody in the country had ‘Panama Fever’. The fact of this huge achievement, that the Americans could do this thing, just gave people a lift. ‘Look at what we can do!’ I don’t use the term ‘American exceptionalism’ – but the country was still young and we were feeling our oats.”
“The PPIE had something called the Department of Music. The director, George Stewart, was the one who booked the acts and managed the big symphonies and bands. Amy had already written a celebratory hymn for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and I believe she had been commissioned for that. From what I can piece together, she offered her Panama Hymn to Stewart, saying that it would be really nice if it was made the official hymn for the PPIE. Stewart had a budget. His thoughts were to commission something – which costs money – and here is America’s first major woman composer saying, ‘Would you like this? Here!’ So, he gets this fabulous piece of music which she’s simply offering to them! The Committee had to decide on whether they could do that sort of thing or not. Who can understand how management thinks? But, finally, they came to a decision. Yes! Amy’s piece would be the PPIE’s official hymn. From reading Amy Beach’s letters, the Panama Hymn was played on opening day in the Court of the Four Seasons. George Stewart says something about them using a military band. All I’ve ever seen is the vocal score. I haven’t seen any instrumental things connected with it. Probably they would do it outside with the band or in Festival Hall with orchestral accompaniment – so, those parts must exist somewhere.”
Hunting down vintage scores and individual song titles in sheet music format – especially those with covers displaying images of the composer and associated performers – is a passion that Helene Whitson and I share and which this web site is devoted to. Thanks to the Internet – and the occasional encounter with another determined archivist – the resources appear to be endless. Keywords are the new keys of the kingdom. So, what’s the backstory of Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Promised Land?
“Everybody says the piece that Saint-Saëns was commissioned to write, Hail! California, was for Sousa’s band, the Exposition Orchestra, the Festival Hall Organ – and that it had a chorus of 300. Somebody wrote that he’d seen a score for it in Paris. And I’m thinking, ‘Wow, we ought to do that, too!’ So, I’m looking and looking for this piece with the alleged chorus of 300. I got all the instrumental parts from the Library of Congress – there was no choral part at all. It never had a choral part.”
“I’m not going to say The Promised Land was commissioned. We actually don’t know why it was written. It was premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in England, in Gloucester, 1913. Some people say it was commissioned. Others say Saint-Saëns was seventy-eight and they were just doing it to pay homage to this composer who was still alive, while others say it was the publisher who commissioned it. But why it was created – I don’t know.”
I asked Helene if the term “A chorus of a thousand” was an advertising term, similar to PR of the early Talkies – “All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!” Was it just a way of saying larger than anything ever imagined?
“No, there really were choruses of a thousand. The 1915 Exhibition had to be a financial success. So, director George Stewart was going to go after the big names – whether it was Sousa or whoever – that audiences would pay to see, although they had some smaller acts as well. But with the outbreak of the war, that kind-of put some flies in the ointment. They commissioned Saint-Saëns for the Hail! California and had a three-day festival of his music including the Organ Symphony and smaller pieces. It was just on the last day of the festival that they did The Promised Land – and there weren’t enough scores! Three hundred singers and only thirty-two scores. They had to cable to Europe to get more. The scores arrived in time, but The Promised Land is not an easy work and you really need rehearsal time. So, it was not the most perfect performance.”
“The original work is about an hour long. We’re not doing the whole thing because we also wanted to do these other pieces. The Promised Land is in three parts. We’re not doing the overture, but five or six things from the first part and all of the second and third parts. We didn’t put in the one piece where it’s talking about Moses hitting the rock instead of speaking to it, but we have the other parts where it’s furthering the story, such as, ‘Hear ye, ye rebels’ – where Moses is angry, telling the people to stop complaining! At the end, The Song of Moses brings me to tears it is so beautiful.”
Click here to purchase tickets on-line: Return to the Promised Land