For the premiere of Sweet Rivers, I created a series of blog posts showing the inner workings of the new work, its origins and some of my process. It was commissioned and premiered by the Waterloo-Cedar Fall Symphony and artistic director Jason Weinberger. The program notes are the bottom of this page. For rental information email me (danielgilliam at gmail dot com). The next few posts (over several days) will, hopefully, give you look at part of the process writing Sweet Rivers. I wasn’t intentionally looking for a hymn to become the backbone of the, then unnamed and unwritten, new piece, but I did know that a river(s) would shape how I conceived the piece.

I came across the hymn Sweet Rivers in a collection called “Christian Harmony: Containing a Choice Collection of Hymn and Psalm Tunes, Odes and Anthems.” The first edition was printed in 1866 and was compiled by E.W. Miller and William Walker. Similar collections existed under the names Southern Harmony and Sacred Harp, and each possessed a unique style for notating hymns.

In this style of writing, the melody is in the tenor part (sometimes called “soprano,” and the soprano line called “high line.”). I played through the hymn many times, stopping on certain chords or progressions that I thought interesting, exposing passing tones that were dissonant or resting on beautiful chords. Below are a few moments in the hymn that appear in my new work. The melody at the text “I’d rise superior to my pain…” plays an important role.

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Sweet Rivers isn't an arrangement of the hymn by the same name, and the hymn's influence is subtle and mostly unrecognizable. In a way, I stole some of the best parts (chords, intervals, etc) and used them as binding agent.

The two pitches that hold the work together are F down to C (or later C up to F). They’re heard in the first 10 bars, at least twice. This falling interval gets inverted later. Here are the strings as the music begins to take shape.

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Barely a minute and half into the music, there's an abrupt key change along with sharp, accented debris that tries to disrupt the forward momentum. The orientation has shifted, but we're still pointed in the right direction.

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The next two minutes of music have strings creating gentle glissandi, an eight-bar arioso for solo cello (with strings hovering over it and a pulsing marimba rippling underneath) a full, thick orchestra swell and woodwinds that evaporate, all before a climactic moment. I'm drawn to texts, even in non-vocal music. How can a title, or indication to the conductor or player change their performance? Even though this work isn’t vocal, and as I mentioned before not a traditional arrangement, the text can help shape the sound, direction, mood, etc. The hymn’s vivid text, written by John Adam Granade (1803), starts as aspirational and dreamy:

Sweet rivers of redeeming love
Lie just before mine eye,
Had I the pinions of a dove
I’d to those rivers fly;

Then the mood changes and we’re caught in an upward draft, watching the ground beneath our feet become smaller:

I’d rise superior to my pain,
With joy outstrip the wind,
I’d cross o’er Jordan’s stormy waves,
And leave the world behind.

Here's the music from the hymn at this point: This is also the climactic moment in Sweet Rivers (my work), with horns playing the tune, almost verbatim (with some rhythmic adjustments). The earlier, falling “F down to C” interval becomes the rising “C to F” interval in the hymn on “I’d rise…”

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The tune and harmonization is by William Moore (1825). Here is an “authentic” performance of “Sweet Rivers” (the hymn) by Allison’s Sacred Harp Singers recorded in 1928.


Program Notes

Given the opportunity to write a new work to be premiered on the banks of a river gives a composer many opportunities for associations, from history to religion and spirituality, and the works it has already inspired (Ellington’s The River, Smetana’s The Moldau, Deep River, Strauss’ On the Beautiful, Blue Danube, etc). I could also draw on the cities where I’ve lived, almost exclusively built on major rivers: The Bío Bío (Chile), Ohio and Mississippi. This new work is at the same time all and none of this.

Sweet Rivers gets its name from a shape-note hymn (printed in The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, pictured below), but this isn’t an arrangement. This music is a meditation on all rivers, their persistent flow without regard for human events, their functional purpose and importance for our environment. The hymn provides some of the musical glue, pervading the music without being obvious - it’s the trees in the proverbial forest, occurring most prominently with horns heralding a moment in the hymn with the words, “I’d rise superior to my pain, with joy outstrip the wind.”