Ghosts of the Old Year is among the most personal and challenging works I have yet written. The genesis of the piece was my sense of unease about the state of the world and particularly the Southern US where I grew up. In particular, the last decade of Southern violence caused me to question the purpose and intent of my own music. The idea that the South could continue to foster such hatred and ignorance more than fifty years after the civil rights era seemed like a call to action. So often the intellectual response of Southerners has been tepid and aloof, with an indifference to the seething stew of race and poverty around them. This work, then, is a raw and unvarnished response to these feelings.
The title is taken from the great James Weldon Johnson’s poem of the same name which is excerpted here:
The snow has ceased its fluttering flight,
The wind sunk to a whisper light,
An ominous stillness fills the night,
A pause — a hush.
At last, a sound that breaks the spell,
Loud, clanging mouthings of a bell,
That through the silence peal and swell,
And roll, and rush.
What does this brazen tongue declare[?]…
'Tis telling that the year is dead,
The New Year come, the Old Year fled,
Another leaf before me spread
On which to write.
Johnson’s imagery of a bell sounding in the winter night also felt like another call to action and brought to mind numerous musical possibilities. Bells and other metallic percussion play a significant role throughout the work as a result. A second major source of inspiration is the hymn tune “Beach Spring” attributed to B. F. White, who was an important figure in the Southern “singing schools” of the nineteenth century. A beautifully simple tune built on the pentatonic scale, it is set with several original harmonizations and first heard in the euphonium.
This tune along with two original melodies serve as the backbone of the work’s two movements. The first movement presents a pastoral idea of the South that revels in its natural beauty and the deep cultural roots found there. The second movement calls all of this into question and notes the brutality of its past and present. However, the work ultimately concludes with a final call to action through an optimistic last statement of “Beach Spring” combined with Johnson’s bell sounding through the night.
On a personal note, this piece was composed during my father’s ultimately terminal struggle with cancer. He was always in my thoughts as I was composing and remains so as I write these words. He believed that it was more appropriate to ask for more, rather than expect less, from each other.
-Notes by the composer, April 2017
Organizing Conductor: Dr. Richard Mayne
University of South Carolina
University of Illinois
University of Memphis
University of Northern Colorado
Metropolitan State University
Colorado State University - Pueblo
Valdosta State University
University of South Alabama
Fort Collins Wind Symphony