Meditations on an American Hymn: “America the Beautiful” (Download)
Meditations on an American Hymn was composed in February 2020 for my friend Sonja Thompson. I had long wanted to write a piano work that would be useful as service music and attractive as a piece of piano music. Sonja’s beautiful playing and keen musicianship has been an inspiration to me for many years, beginning with the premiere of Blessings: 5 Poems of James Wright, which she gave with Vern Sutton in 2000.
I wrote Meditations as the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic began to spread. As the United States suffered under the dual handicaps of incapable leadership and novel virology, I sought a focus that was positive in both emotional and civic senses.
Katharine Lee Bates (1859 –1929) wrote the poem “Pikes Peak” after visiting Colorado in 1893. It was published in the Fourth of July edition of The Congregationalist in 1895. Many composers suggested music for the text over the next decade, but the tune that is now traditionally associated with it is MATERNA, by Samuel A. Ward (, the organist at Grace Episcopal Church in Newark, New Jersey, who had composed the tune in 1888 for another text. It was published with Bates’s poem in 1910 under the title “America the Beautiful.”
I could have called my treatment Variations, but rather than varying the tune as a whole, I’ve taken select phrases of Katharine Lee Bates’s poem and worked fancifully with the underlying tones. The effect is to meditate on each phrase of the poem:
- Spacious Skies: after locating the tune in a constellation of tones, a treatment with the tune singing in the soprano.
- Amber Waves: continuous step-wise notes create a liquid texture.
- Above the Fruited Plain: a steady flow of quintuplets proliferates.
- America! America!: a waltz treatment in “Sousa-ian” style.
- Purple Mountain Majesty: rocking pairs develop a brooding meditation that may reflect Russian interference in the 2016 American election.
- From Sea to Shining Sea: a fugal finale, with a pause to recollect the entire tune as a chorale and a brilliant close.