Vision of the Earth
October 27th and 28th, 2007 World Premiere
by the Winter Park Bach Festival Orchestra and Chorus
The story of “Vision of the Earth”
When Dr. John V. Sinclair, music director of The Bach Festival Society of Winter Park, offered me an opportunity to compose a new work for his choir and orchestra in 2005, I was absolutely thrilled, and immediately set out to find a text suitable to these powerful acoustic forces. A chorus of over 150 seasoned community singers, 2 soloists, and full orchestra. John was also open to my employing the large pipe organ located in the beautiful Knowles Chapel (pictured above) where their concerts took place.
I originally thought to write a political work to help heal the wounds of the highly polarized 2004 Presidential Election – by setting presidential speeches from Democrats and Republicans (and others) of the past. Nell Thompson, our Vice President of Academic Affairs at Full Sail, loaned me volumes of these speeches, but I could not find a way to use them that didn’t require narration and a speaker a la Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait”. After months of searching and contemplation, I remembered being deeply impressed with a chapter from an obscure old poetry book found in a used bookshop titled Earth by Frank Townshend. Every line and verse portrayed a world and life for which I yearned and knew possible: a community imbued with a harmonious spirit and love of life. I set about half of the poem:
I See a new Earth;
An Earth that is alive – glowing with the care of man,
Man grown wise and free.
The influence of different civilizations flows evenly around;
Races and nations and sexes understand each other,
Endue each other with life.
Invisible threads of sympathy cover the earth;
Science and religion, art and industry, are one in truth;
The motive of every act is love.
Men accept men, and women accept women,
And they accept each other, At sight;
Because of the ways of them
Because of the understanding in their hearts.
O work and love and laughter;
Happy, happy crowds;
Lights and colours;
Movements – beauty – joy.
The men of every land are at liberty to go where they will,
Trade is free;
The government of the earth is as one;
Vast spaces teem with industry;
He surface of the earth is positive and healthy,
Alive in conscious growth.
In men’s work is freedom of expression,
In their faces is the calm of all experience,
In their eyes is friendliness and peace.
Their minds are for ever held in truth,
Their hearts are in accord with the purpose of the earth,
They know that they are equal –
Races and peoples, men and women.
They sing as they work,
They follow their desires,
They are in love with life.
The science of the earth is complete;
A wondrous pattern;
A parallelism and a crystallization of all thought, into which every fact of life fits;
A growth that is projected in every dimension;
Rhythmical in movement,
Perfect in its infinite relations;
An indication of all knowledge – unbounded.
The sound of a phrase in the music of the worlds;
So clear as to amaze the mind of man;
So splendid as to dazzle his senses;
So beautiful as to fill his heart with unspeakable peace and joy.
And man –
Man and Woman,
The flower of the earth;
Certain and frank – strong and graceful;
With the look of gods – the handclasp of friends;
Having dignity and intuition;
Being clear and content;
Radiating energy and love.
The Earth and its natural wealth’
The power that is derived from it,
Its favour and its fruit,
Are the heritage of man.
Inventions and discoveries,
Communications and financial power
The work that men do is vital to the earth;
The towns are beautiful;
Centres of communication and exchange of thought and energy,
Of knowledge, meachandise and fun.
Where art and entertainment are poured out,
Men and women wear clothes that make glad the beauty of their bodies;
People go often naked in the open air,
It is the same to them as to be clothed.
Their bodies are handsome, sweet smelling, bronzed, glowing with health.
In their faces is contentment,
And their words are laughter and truth.
The fields and valleys, the forests and the hills,
Give forth abundance;
And all the country-side is kept in beauty.
Children are surrounded by a world in being;
Truth is awakened in their hearts;
Life is a triumph and a dance,
A love song and a harmony,
Born into the rhythm of the earth.
It dawns in sleepiness and wonder,
And the morning of it grows in freedom, to the need of doing things.
Romance outruns reality, while imagination strews the way with flowers –
Until youth comes of age.
Then opens into life,
Wisdom, and the happiness of work well done,
And all the pleasures of the earth
By Frank Townshend
Extracted from the second of four chapters from his book, Earth. Published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1929, 1930, 1935, 1938 and 1941. Copyright 1929 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Frank Townshend’s optimistic work is part of a popular literary trend in spritualism that began in the late 1800s and lasted through the 1930s. Promulgated through books and magazines, these religious concepts broke from the common conservative dogmatism and politics of the mid 19th Century. Truth Seeking, New Thought, Transcendentalism, Universalism, Theosophism and Religious Science are examples of late 19th Century spiritual ideologies that all embraced science and answered to no embodied spiritual authority. These movements shared a belief that all religions contained truth, and the spiritual path to a higher consciousness was available to all people. More enduring examples of authors from this era include Krishnamurti, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Cayce, Khalil Gibran and Ghandi. Spiritual women leaders also became prominent like Emma Curtis Hopkins, Myrtle Fillmore and Madam Blavatsky. The insanity and horror of the 20th Century did not smother these ideas.They now live in the work of many spiritual teachers today who also embrace recent scientific concepts including quantum physics, cosmology and modern psychology.
I felt a deep responsibility to deliver Townshend’s message with music that was beautiful and engaging enough that it could carry Townshend’s Vision of the Earth to the most hardened hearts and minds. Such is the power of song. But, could I present 15 minutes of glowing optimism without becoming boring or relying on ‘easy listening’ pastiche? I carefully paced my progress for a Spring 2007 premiere, since I only have time to to compose a few hours before work every day. But, when the premiere date was moved 6 months ahead to October 2006, I needed to focus on composition without diversions. Vacation time from my family and work, and my twin brother Kevin’s generosity provided an opportunity that I have never had: several days in a row that I could completely devote to composing! I finished the work in 11 days writing the music from bars 261 through 383 (the end). I loved the work and felt truly honored and blessed to have the work flow through me.
I returned home and met the September 1st deadlines. But, “Vision of the Earth” proved too difficult for the group. After pushing through rehearsals, John relayed that it was proving just too difficult for the choir. Too many meter changes. Too many wierd time signatures (an instance of 15/8 in a 12/8 passage). Some of the members had a difficult time singing the lyrics involving naked, healthy bodies. Even a Florida State Fellowship Grant judge, SLC, stated that “The Choir Hates It!” on my ‘official’ comment form when I decided to include an early version to the granting committee as evidence that my work was also heard in Florida. Hardly the warm feelings of optimism that I thought Townshend’s words would inspire.
I understood why “Vision of the Earth” in it’s original 2006 version was pulled from the concert. It was too difficult for the WP Bach Festival to prepare in time without the other works on the program suffering. As a lifelong musician, choir director for 8 years, and a singer in symphonic choirs in Akron years ago – I understood the concept of ‘breaking point’ and ‘failsafe’ when it came to concert programming. I was encouraged to simplify Vision of the Earth to receive a solid premiere with the Bach Festival: specifically, I should remove the meter changes and as much rhythmic complexity as possible, and, I did simplify the work, then the choir would possibly appreciate and reward my efforts with a better performance. I also knew that making the work less demanding would make it accessible to more choirs. The premiere was rescheduled for the original Spring Concert date to give me time to make changes.
Finding biographical information on Mr. Townshend proved strangely difficult. Though popular in the 1930s, scant information existed about his life or death. In 2005, there was not one Google hit with a search for his name. Even the Alfred K Knopf Collection at The University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center was thin on information except for his birthdate and the fact that he was, at one time, a part of the Corps of Royal Engineers in India.
I entered the completed 2006 score in the ASCAP Nissim Competition that fall. This submission required proof of permission from the copyright owner of the lyrics, which I needed anyways. I had the (wrong) assumption that there would be no problem getting such permission since the book was out of print for 50+ years; and, if nothing more, this rediscovery of a long forgotten poet could only be profitable for a publisher. I asked for permission to use the text from Random House (who owned Alfred K Knopf), but they had lost any record of Townshend, suggesting that it probably fell into public domain. I sent a copy of that email into the competition to hear from ASCAP that such a letter was unacceptable as proof. In December 2006, ASCAP kindly gave me until December 31st to produce written permission. I called my friend, Al Schlesinger, the famous music attorney in LA for advice. He suggested I hire a copyright search from Thomsen Compumark in DC, who, for $100 would physically search the Copyright Office for claims to ownership to the book Earth. I received the answer on December 27th: Earth was re-copyrighted in 1957 by Frank Townshend himself. [View image]
This meant I had to find the heirs of Mr. Townshend to get permission to use his words! Though too late for my contest submission, I began the journey of finding Frank Townshend. I poured through libraries real and virtual and found no new information on him, outside his birthdate and other booktitles. I certainly needed to get permission from them before the premiere, and, certainly before it was recorded (my dream is to get Telarc to record “Vision of the Earth” with the Atlanta Orchestra and Chorus under the baton of Robert Spano in Surround like Jennifer Higdon and Christopher Theofanidis).
Several wonderful things happened. The first was that I found a copy of Earth being sold on amazon by a man named John Jeter, accompanied by a review stating that these books were profound and should be read. John, it turned out is the Music Director and Conductor of the Fort Smith Symphony in Arkansas! In our conversation, John described his own interest in finding more about Frank Townshend. He heard tell an account from a couple who had met him on a cruise, but related that Frank was very private and reticent to speak of his work. It was my first clue into the man’s personal life. Next, Dr. Sinclair gave me a new and better option to move the concert to the opening concert of their 2007-8 season. This concert included “Carmina Burana” as well as Samuel Barber’s challenging Cello Concerto featuring Christopher Rex, a native Winter Park man who is now the principal cellist of Atlanta Symphony. Premiering “Vision” to this audience who expected contemporary music seemed worth the wait. Then, in April 2007, a major breakthrough occurred. Al Sheeter, a ranch manager in California had been collecting information about Frank Townshend for years. After learning that I had little to go on, he sent me scans of Townshend book cover-sleeves,
a fascinating personal letter [View image] a photo of Captain Frank Townshend proudly wearing seven medals, and a card, [View image] signed “After a long journey I came to the gates of Heaven” dated Paris 1930. Thanks to Mr. Sheeter, I knew the following about Frank Townshend:
- b. May 10th, 1887 Birchill, County Cork, Ireland
- Education: Bedford School in England
- Royal Military Academy in Woolwich
- Received commission 1905 Corps of Royal Engineers
- Chatham 2yrs
- 3.5 years Public Works Dept., India
- WWI – Army
- Decorated with the Military Cross
- Chavalier of the Legion d’Honneur
- Officer of the Order of the British Empire
- became the Under Secretary to the Government of Bombay
- He opened a shop in London, probably in the late teens or early 20s
- He built two studios in Paris
- He started a company for hand printing on silk
- He directed the Institute of Higher Chinese Studies on the Riviera
- He wrote Earth in Nice, France, beginning in November 1927 til Jan 1929
- He was in Paris on Aug 25 1930
At about the same time, GoogleBooks beta began to appear, turning up interviews with Mr. Townshend in Theosophist Magazine in September 1930. This interview describes Mr. Townshend’s motives for writing Earth:
“I have no message that can convince: no one to convert. Only, I have understood something concerning which I write. Further, I know that my understanding will soon be given to many: in the same way that the first men knew that their self-consciousness was not an illusion of their brains: but the heritage of their race.
This happened to me suddenly: One day as I walked in an eastern city, my surroundings were lit as by an inward light. And in that instant I knew in my mind, the workings of the universe: knew my place in it: that I was immortal: without sin or fear of death. I understood the meaning of life, and my relationship to the earth. I saw the heritage of man.
It is out of that experience that I have written this book. I draw my understanding from the same source as that from which Lao-Tse and Buddah and Christ and Mohammed drew theirs: and I know it. Nothing can dislodge that knowledge: nor can the death of my body destroy it. For I know that in that understanding I am immortal: I know that it resides in you, as it resides in me; awaiting its unfolding. And I know that that inspiration cannot be communicated to you by any man, nor religion, nor philosophy. It lies within you: and the hour of its awakening is not of your choosing.
I am God. Within me burns a spark of Life, putting forth energy for ever and for ever.
The consciousness which I have here described is even now awakening in the minds of men. It cannot be held back or suppressed: no laws, no systems of government, no censor, nor the burning of books, can hold it in check.”
I shortened many sections, re-metered many bars, and simplified rhythms by removing syncopations. The opening sound, the word “I” was now scored for the two soloists, who are quietly answered by the choir “I”: a metaphorical device by comparing the direct sound of 2 soloists in unison (the listener’s “I”) to the voice of a community singing “I”. The offending ‘naked bodies’ text was removed and voiced for tutti horns. To shorten the work to last less than 15 minutes, I shortened the recapitulation and changed the coda. In hindsight, the piece became weakened through this over-pruning: too many themes were presented in too short of time.
But, the most serious problem was my score – it was too hard to read! John pointed this out – even asking his coordinator, Sherry Orr, to create a double size. I misread the statement, thinking that a double sized score would be produced. But, that would have been a 34×22 size! John had to resort to using the condensed score that the choir had. Looking back on it, I realize I was quite the fool, believing that my work was done. A hard lesson to learn.
The audience probably did not have enough time to absorb the music before it developed in this new version. The orginal version, though longer, did a better job of this. Also, my zeal to simplify the orchestration weakened important passages. Sometimes, it is better to not tamper with a piece you like which feels complete after a lot of effort. When an artist does try to revise a work, care must be taken!
The summer was on and the concert was only a few months away, and, unfortunately, I still had not yet found permission to use the text. Dr. Sinclair generously offered to have a search done while in the Royal Library in London doing other research – but did not have time to do so. I needed to act and felt that I had no choice but to risk hiring a Private Investigator to find Frank Townshend’s heirs. Mr. Townshend was born in Cork County Ireland, but was raised in England and served in the English military. The fact that he spent much of his time in India and France meant he could have heirs everywhere – so I’d need a P.I. who had connections across the entire ‘Commonwealth’. I shopped around warily. My friend Keith Andrews, who grew up and worked in Liverpool, gave good advice on recommending John Talbot in London. John loved the idea of finding this lost author and set right to work on the case. Several weeks later, I received results: A family tree of the Townshend family! I was very lucky to have found the pleasant Mr. Talbot and I am forever grateful for his expertise.
Our elusive author, Captain Frances Horatio Townshend, had no children, and died in 1974. His oldest brother, Major Philip Townshend did have children, and his oldest surviving son, Robert, had three children who were likely still alive: Julian (b. 1945), Athelny (b. 1949) and Richard (b. 1956). I found Julian “Jules” Townshend, fittingly a Professor of Sociology in Manchester, via the internet. I emailed him, telling him my intentions and “Vision” story. He was very surprised and pleased! Jules let me know that his father, now 90, still lived in the country in relative seclusion – and that their whole family was very close to their beloved ‘Uncle Frank’. Thankfully, he was glad to take the responsibility to grant me permission to perform the work. Just weeks after these revelations, Richard Townshend, the younger brother emailed me through this site, unaware of my conversation with Jules! Richard was living in Colorado, and was as kind and cordial as anyone could be. He also was pleased that I was setting his great uncle’s work. Richard was still in his teens when Frank died, and told of a tall, kind and intelligent favorite uncle whom he and his brothers dearly loved. Richard relayed to me that great uncle Frank also played an important part in his father’s life – by encouraging him in his formative years and supporting his education. Richard also shared photographs of he and Uncle Frank in the yard, taken when he was a boy. How many lives did Frank Townshend touch and inspire? Thank you, Townshend family, for your friendliness and support – I am in debt to your kindness and generosity.
In October, John invited me into rehearsal. I was warmly received and was thrilled to finally hear “Vision of the Earth”! The choir’s sound was awesome – and John’s direction excellent. And I so appreciated Harriet Hope, the group’s accompanist, for her artistry and dedication to perform her difficult role perfectly. I was overjoyed that the concert seemed to be heading towards a great premiere.
As we neared the end of October, many promotion initiatives began to appear. The Bach Festival press release was covered by City of Winter Park’s webzine and the Bach Festival podcast. The Weekly, our region’s alternative newspaper, and Propeller, Full Sail’s campus webzine printed interviews. The best of the interviews came from Becky Morgan, easily the most prominent promoter for the fine arts in Central Florida, which aired on her “Arts Connection”. The “Arts Connection” played for many years until recently on our region’s NPR affiliate. With Becky, I was able to discuss Townshend and his message, as well as my musical approach to the music.
Ten days before the concert, I was told that I could not record either performance, and no recording would be made due to strained relations between the musicians and management. Thankfully, they yielded to my request for some kind of archive and furnished a simple stereo recording, but, sadly, I was not allowed to have a copy.
Family, friends from all over the country came to one of the two premieres, and that was wonderful! The chapel was beautiful and sold-out for both performances and the printed programs were excellent. The program was packed – beginning with a short story about Samuel Barber’s relationship with Rollins College. One of the choir’s founding members, close friends with Mr. Barber, had written her a little sung, round which was performed for the first time since those many years. That was followed by Barber’s Cello Concerto – a difficult work – performed by the principal cellist of the Atlanta Symphony Christopher Rex who was raised in Winter Park. The hopeful message of “Vision of the Earth” was a good foil to the strangely erotic verses of “Carmina Burana”, which sounded fantastic – huge – complete with the offstage children’s choir seated above us. Unfortunately, the orchestra did not perform my work well because of being underrehearsed and the impossible-to-read score: the difficult Barber and the sheer length of Carmina swallowed up so much time. Adding to the difficulty of the many key changes and lack of direction that musicians need for a new work. I learned a great deal during the process! As elated I was, I was also sad. Both performances were followed by a long pregnant pause before a lukewarm applause. It was apparent that Frank Townshend’s beautiful message was not delivered in music powerful and beautiful enough to open the door to possibility. “Vision of the Earth” was not yet done.
The Bach Festival elected to keep control of their recording by only giving me a handful of noncontiguous 30 second mp3 snippets, chosen by John. I dropped these snippets into the full orchestra choir practice sequence, speeding them up to tempo without raising their pitch. I imported this sound file into Final Cut Pro and presented typed lyrics in time with the music. My original practice tracks did not include soloists, so the soloists are only heard during the sections that were recorded that Sunday afternoon.
October 29th, 2007
Dr. John Sinclair
Bach Festival Chorus
1000 Holt Avenue
Winter Park, FL
Dear John and Chorus
Hearing “Vision of the Earth” over these weeks as they were so aptly fine-tuned under
John’s leadership; and, finally, reaching yesterday’s peak performance brought me such joy!
For your hours and hours of hard work outside rehearsals; for your hours under Dr. Sinclair’s
acute ear and astute direction; for your beautiful renderings through the music’s challenges;
for your dedication to music – I can never thank you enough.
And, most of all, I thank you, John: for risking the Bach Festival Society’s reputation,
your chorus and your devoted audiences to a modern commission; because you knew doing so
would stretch both. Yet, you trusted and encouraged my artistic process.
I smiled the whole way through yesterday. I sincerely hope you received something good
from “Vision of the Earth”, too.
My heartfelt thanks, wishes, admiration and love to you all,
I learned quite a bit in this work:
- 1) Don’t write difficult music for a non-professional choir – even one as excellent as the Bach Festival of Winter Park choir
- 2) try to avoid anything but 2,3 or 4/4 or 6/8 meters with these choirs
- 3) Make sure your conductor’s score is as easy to read as possible – double up staves as much as possible – remove unused staves
- 4). don’t expect musicians to be comfortable with key signatures with 5 or more sharps and flats, in general – use accidentals
The future of “Vision of the Earth”
As I now rework the piece for its final version, I am giving the music more room to breathe and develop in four separate movements, and by repetition of strengthened themes. I have learned a great deal about handling large orchestral forces through this work, and I sincerely thank Dr. John V. Sinclair for this commission, his kindness over the last years, and the Society’s generosity and support for me and new music.
I’ll post the new changes to “Vision” as the work transforms into its final state.