Finding the first Testament of Freedom recording (part 2)

(This is Part 2 of the story of how I got my hands on a copy of the 1943 radio transcription record of the first performance of Randall Thompson’s The Testament of Freedom. Read Part 1 for context about the recording.)

Finding the record on eBay was a heady, exciting moment, tempered by two things: it wasn’t complete, and I wasn’t alone.

I have learned over the years that, while they don’t draw hundreds of bidders, works of history from the University are of enough interest to a small number of collectors that bidding can be competitive. I knew that I could probably win the auction if I paid enough attention—though I’ve lost my fair share of items, I’ve won more than I lost, thanks to a sixteen-year-old paper by one of my grad school professors. I knew that there was at least one other bidder, so I set an alarm for the last day of the auction and waited.

The completeness point was a little more concerning. The available information about the recording indicated that it was a three-record set (not uncommon in the days before 33 1/3 RPM records), but this was only one record. Thankfully, the photo of the label indicated that it was the last movement, easily my favorite of the four. Though Thompson’s setting of Jefferson’s text still plods in places (like any time the word despotism is sung), there is a note of real challenge to the opening words “I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are on steady advance…”

The day of the auction arrived and I won, despite a flurry of bids earlier in the day. (The odds are good that the other bidder is reading this; sorry and better luck next time!) Now I just had to get the record. And here Fate intervened and made me wait.

The auction ended New Years Eve, one of a series of bitterly cold days with highs in the single digits. The next day the seller contacted me to tell me that he would mail the package a day later, since it was so cold his truck wouldn’t start. I could sympathize, having had to jump-start my own car so that I could take it to the garage to get a new battery. So I waited and watched as the package was shipped—two days before a huge storm that dumped 17 inches of snow on Lexington, Massachusetts.

Perhaps because of the storm, the package took a … circuitous route from New Hampshire to Lexington:

But it finally arrived earlier this week, and to my delight, while the original sleeve was in poor shape (the seller thoughtfully put the record in a new sleeve), the record looked like it was pretty good. Now all I had to do was to listen to it.

Here we had a small snag: my otherwise-wonderful Denon DP-45F turntable has no 78RPM setting. But I was going to digitize the record anyway. So I played it back at 45RPM, and then (as I noted earlier this week) used Amadeus Pro to speed up the playback by 173.3% (78/45). I tried noise reduction but didn’t like what it did to the tone of Thompson’s piano, so I left it alone.

Ultimately, I was pleasantly surprised by the performance. Listening to Thompson’s solo piano introduction to the movement, one is reminded of the historical moment in which the work was written. This was April 1943, more than two years into World War II, and many of the young men singing the work were painfully aware that Jefferson’s words about dying with light and liberty on the advance were not going to be hypothetical for them. The following vocal entrance is appropriately hushed, and the Glee Club declaims Jefferson’s text with clarity and good pitch. The reintroduction of the first-movement “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time” is not strident (as in the 1945 BSO/Harvard Glee Club performance) but nuanced—perhaps because the Virginia men only had to be heard above a piano, not a full orchestra. Only the final chord shows vocal strain in the high tenors.

And here it is! As noted above, the only manipulation was speeding up the playback to restore normal speed, and to join the two halves of the recording into one—which fortunately was pretty straightforward. Enjoy!

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.

The Boston Symphony and Harvard Glee Club, Testament of Freedom, 1945

Just found an Italian archive site that provides a tantalizing glimpse of the first major-orchestra performance of Randall Thompson’s The Testament of Freedom, as recorded by RCA (presumably following close on the BSO premiere of the work in April 1945). (You can view the full catalog record of the recording, in Italian, here.)

And by glimpse, I mean listen—though you can only hear a 30-second preview of each of the six sides of the six-record set (from the 78RPM era). To hear the samples, click the Play button beneath the scan of the record label in the center, then hit the Next button (right triangle) in the header and click Play again. It’s clumsy but it works.

And interestingly, side 5 raises doubt that Harvard’s Glee Club in 1945 was substantially more musically sophisticated than its Virginia counterpart. The opening of the last movement, “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time,” is here shouted with uneven pitch and vowel pronunciation (direct link to a downloadable 30-second sample). I hope to be able to compare the recording to the Virginia Glee Club’s 1943 premiere soon.