South Mountain Echoes —2000

In 2000, 58 communities, spanning all 50 states, leapt into a new millennium with musical celebrations of who they were and where they lived.

This was Continental Harmony’s Millennial Celebration, a joint initiative of the American Composers Forum and the National Endowment For The Arts. South Mountain Echoes was commissioned by the American Composers Forum as part of the Continental Harmony Program. Robert Zellner led the Adams County Bicentennial Band in the premiere in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on July 4, 2000.

Program Notes

Cast in three movements—each corresponding to a significant touchstone of the county’s history—this composition commemorates the 200th birthday of Adams County through a musical collage of images, places, people, events, hopes, and dreams.  All three movements extensively quote and vary past music which relates to the county’s history, sometimes literally, sometimes through metaphor. In commemorating our past through music we can reflect on what has been said and done. With an understanding of our history we can learn and grow, effecting positive change for our future.

The first movement, “Hymns from Hilltops,” evokes musical memories of religious faith and the landscape of the county during its formation in 1800. A panoramic view of the countryside is represented in the opening melody, created loosely from the letters in Adams County (A-D-A-C) which correspond to the letters in the musical scale. This is a 16th century technique known as soggetto cavato, or “carved subject.”

Religious faith is echoed in the quotations of severals old hymn tunes, found in the collection of hymnals in the Adams County Historical Society, which were sung by diverse congregations around 1800. Adams Countians have always had strong religious leanings. Surely faith saw them through difficult frontier times. After all, what brings communities together?—worship, trade, work—all of which require a good deal of belief, in oneself, in others, and in a higher power. Because there were numerous religious faiths converging in this county, we hear several hymn tunes (in several keys) in this movement, singing out from different choirs in the band, sometimes simultaneously. The movement comes to a close with a rousing juxtaposition of the hymn tune “Old Hundred” and the Adams County landscape theme.

The second movement, “Shoulder to Shoulder in Hallowed Ground,” was deeply inspired by the design of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. The headstones above the graves are laid out “shoulder-to-shoulder” in concentric semi-circles, which slowly recede down a gentle slope away from the centrally-located Soldier’s National Monument. The most striking image is the visual echo of the graves as they flow down the hillside, like ripples, which emanate from the monument. These semi-circles of headstones, which grow longer as they descend and move outward, are represented in the music by a particular kind of canon (like a round) known as a mensuration canon, in which the same melody is imitated immediately at different speeds. The melody heard in this movement is an old funeral hymn, Timothy Swan’s “China,” which questions “Why should we mourn departing friends, Or shake at death’s alarms?” and then answers “‘Tis but the voice which Jesus sends To call them to his arms.”

The movement opens with a loud “Monument” chord, out of which resonant bells echo. A solo trumpet poses the question of the first two phrases of Swan’s hymn (“Why should we mourn departing friends, Or shake at death’s alarms?”) before another “Monument” chord reverberates once more, the bells tolling more rapidly. The trumpet enters again, completing the funeral hymn, this time echoed by other solo instruments. Choirs of instruments enter one at a time, each “singing” the hymn tune more slowly and lower than the choir before. It is as though we are moving away from the monument, deeper into the cemetery, crossing larger and larger semi-circles of tunes. The hymn tunes move progressively downward in register (as though down the gentle slope), until only the low brass are left playing their slow version of the tune. After a brief silence, a solo flute states the “Adams County” theme from the first movement—however, the last note is out of key, a symbol of the wounded landscape. Other solo voices echo the flute’s distress call, building in numbers until another loud “Monument” chord bursts out, this time reverberating with an even faster tolling of bells. A “residue” cluster of notes sustains to the end of the movement (a memory that cannot be erased) over which we hear an offstage piano play two phrases of a Civil War parlor song, “Children of the Battlefield.” The piano reaches the end of the introduction, but the harmony is left unresolved. The solo trumpet returns, asking again “Why should we mourn departing friends . . . ?” Bells toll and fade to silence. The movement is dedicated to the memory of all the dearly beloved who have gone before us.

The third movement, “South Mountain Fair,” is a lively evocation of the harvest through the 20th century. The fair, beginning in 1925, was something of a successor to Farmer’s Day. According to Robert Bloom, “this fair has brought farmers and their families together each September to exhibit the products of their husbandry and domestic skills in competition for awards. They also have had the chance to examine the latest in agricultural machinery and equipment. Games of chance, ferris wheels, carousels, and the like have attracted a younger generation.” The fair, then, honors the agricultural roots of the county. It is a time of celebrating the harvest, bringing together the whole community, and praising the extraordinary effects of the industrial revolution on apple production.

The music is built in layers above the basic structure of “The Fairest of the Fair,” (pun intended), a 1908 march by John Philip Sousa, unrivaled king of wind band music, whose work was widely popular in the early days of the South Mountain Fair (and still is!). Sousa’s march is heard unaltered at the start of the movement, but soon its harmonies and melodies are “modernized” even as its basic rhythm marches up to the present day and beyond. Some of the textures echo repetitive machine-like factory sounds. The Adams County landscape theme surfaces in the middle of the movement, restored to its original beauty. It is later transformed into a jaunty carousel tune bringing the piece to a spirited finish.

South Mountain Echoes (A Musical Portrait of Adams County, Pennsylvania) was composed in Media, Pa., October 1999 through April 2000. It is dedicated to Robert Zellner, the Gettysburg Bicentennial Band, and the members of the Adams County Arts Council, who made this project a joy to participate in by generously sharing so much of themselves.

Finally, I wish to express my deep gratitude to the American Composers Forum, especially Pat Shifferd and Bob Peskin, the members of the Gettysburg Bicentennial Band, especially Bob Zellner, everyone on the Adams County Arts Council, all those who helped me in my research for this composition, especially Dr. Charles Glatfelter, and all the Adams County students and teachers who welcomed me into their classrooms during my residency days.


I.  Hymns from Hilltops

II.  Shoulder to Shoulder in Hallowed Ground

III.  South Mountain Fair