The following is a guest post from Head of Acquisitions & Processing Denise Gallo.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m definitely a 21st-century woman. That I’m blogging is proof of that. Yet I frequently find myself in the 19th century. As a musicologist, I rub elbows with Rossini, Verdi, Schumann, and Brahms, but I find myself strangely at home with 19th-century American vocal music. So narrating a recital of Civil War songs at the Willard Hotel last week on December 1 was the perfect “gig.” The performers were from Washington National Opera’s Young Artist program and their repertory had been selected from the Library of Congress online collection of Civil War sheet music, one of my favorite haunts.
The original hotel no longer exists but on its exact site stands a new Willard that captures the elegant style of its predecessor. The performance was held in an alcove with plush chairs, a carved mantelpiece, and a piano, for all the world simulating a nineteenth-century American parlor where just such music would have provided an evening’s entertainment. Through song, Americans on both sides of the war were able in some small way to participate in the fight and to connect emotionally with their loved ones and friends on the warfront. These songs are lasting stories of patriotism as well as expressions of contemporary musical culture.
The final selection was special because it actually had been composed at the Willard. Julia Ward Howe recalled in her reminiscences that during a stay at the hotel in November of 1861 the words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” came to her as she awoke. Hurriedly rising, she wrote out the now-iconic verses, summoning stirring images of “the grapes of wrath,” “the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,” and “the trumpet that shall never call retreat.” To hear those young voices in perfect four-part harmony perform the words composed on that very spot 150 years ago was beyond amazing. Did Howe recognize in me another denizen of the 19th century and come to stand by my side as I listened? I like to imagine that she did. We should all be grateful, though, that she didn’t roll over in that comfortable Willard featherbed, nod back off, and forget the lyrics in her sleep.