Finding the first Testament of Freedom recording (Part 1)

Concert program from the 1943 premiere of Randall Thompson’s Testament of Freedom

Sometime in late 1942 or early 1943, University of Virginia president John Newcomb commissioned a new work from the head of the music division (not yet the McIntire Department of Music), composer and professor Randall Thompson, to commemorate the 200th birthday of Thomas Jefferson, which would be celebrated April 13, 1943. Thompson looked for appropriate texts for the occasion and found them in Jefferson’s own letters.

In January 1943, Thompson had taken over the directorship of the Virginia Glee Club as Harry Rogers Pratt stepped down to focus on the war effort. The Glee Club provided, presumably, a solution to a significant challenge: how to mount the forces for a concert with a student body that was perpetually being shipped off to war. The Glee Club, while reduced greatly by the war effort (the 1942-1943 group officially numbered 45, down from 130 in 1940-1941), at least still performed. And Thompson knew them, having conducted them in his “Tarantella” the preceding spring. Accordingly Thompson composed the new work for men’s chorus and piano.

The actual concert was held on Founder’s Day and featured “music proved to have been owned or known by him,” according to the program notes from the concert. Significantly, the concert was broadcast nationwide on the Columbia Broadcasting System, and was recorded for later playback over the Armed Forces shortwave in Europe. It was a hit; Thompson’s obituaries noted it as his best-known work, and it was used in 1945 by Serge Koussevitzky (with the Boston Symphony and the Harvard Glee Club) to mark the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

I have long known that copies of the recording existed—in fact, a few years ago I found mention in a contemporary issue of College Topics, the precursor to the Cavalier Daily, that the Glee Club  was privately selling “records … being made by Columbia Recording Corporation” that featured “reproduction of the first performance of [The Testament of Freedom] last April 13 with Stephen D. Tuttle conducting and the composer at the piano.” I figured I would have to go to the University to hear its archival copy.

And then I checked eBay, as I’m wont to do, and my heart skipped a beat when I saw the listing:

“1943 Randall Thompson/Univ. of Virginia Glee Club Testament of Freedom 78”

I couldn’t let it go. I had to be able to listen to it.

Tomorrow: getting, and listening to, the record.

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