Ad lib.

#MyFreedomDay takes place on March 14. It’s a project conducted in partnership with CNN, during which young people around the world will be holding events to raise awareness of modern slavery. If you thought that human trafficking was neatly tucked away into history’s dark chapter on the African slave trade, then you will have to think again. In the face of the enormity of the problem of contemporary human trafficking, classical music can only attempt to make some off-stage reflections by way of commentary. Nevertheless, it seems an appropriate moment to look over a selection of classical works that have the concept of freedom, in all its manifestations, seeded in them.

War is a significant spoiler of liberty; we need little reminder of that today. Here’s a musical throw-back to the First World War: the Flags of Freedom March (8.559396) was one of Sousa’s World War I efforts in support of the sale of World War I Liberty Bonds. Written in 1918, it skilfully combines the national airs of Belgium, Italy, France, Great Britain and America. And if you need a bit of help unravelling the tunes, you can always consult the Naxos complete collection of National Anthems of the World (8.201001)!

It wasn’t long, of course, before history was repeating itself and composers were again doing their artistic bit in the defence of freedom against the tyranny of World War II. The American composer Morton Gould’s (1913–1996) versatility was reflected in his wide-ranging output that integrated jazz, blues, gospel, country-and-western and folk elements into masterfully orchestrated and imaginatively conceived compositions. Here’s his Fanfare for Freedom (8.572629) which, like Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, was commissioned by the conductor Eugene Goossens and served as a patriotic concert-opener during the Second World War.

Fellow American Randall Thompson (1899–1984) wrote The Testament of Freedom (9.81010) around the same time and against the same backcloth as Gould’s short curtain-raiser. It was written to celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of the American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson and was originally scored for men’s chorus and piano. Here’s an extract from the first movement, in an arrangement Thompson subsequently made for chorus and orchestra. The text is taken from Jefferson’s A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774):

The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy but cannot disjoin them.

The Flagello brothers combined their remarkable musical talents in Passion of Martin Luther King (8.112065): Nicolas (1928–1994) composed the work and conducts on this recording; Ezio (1931–2009) is the rich bass-baritone soloist. Nicolas Flagello had long admired Martin Luther King’s dedication to the ideals of human justice and brotherhood and was deeply moved by the influential black leader’s assassination in April 1968. The comment made by Pope Paul VI, upon learning of King’s sudden martyrdom, ‘I liken the life of this man to the life of our Lord,’ immediately galvanised Nicolas’ creative energy. The result was Passion of Martin Luther King. Flagello decided to combine excerpts from the speeches of the slain civil rights leader in alternation with the Latin liturgical texts, so as to suggest King as a latter-day embodiment of Jesus Christ. He ended the work with a heartfelt setting of a portion of King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Here’s part of that setting.

Based on the texts of songs by Bob Dylan, John Corigliano wrote his Mr Tambourine Man (8.559331) for voice and piano in 2000. He later orchestrated the 7-movement, 35-minute work. Dylan’s award of the Nobel Prize for Literature last year underscored the impact the songs made in the 1960s. Corigliano described the artistic conception of his work:

“A colleague suggested that I look into the poetry of the songs of Bob Dylan. Having not yet listened to the songs, I decided to send away for the texts only…and found many of them to be every bit as beautiful and as immediate as I had heard—and surprisingly well-suited to my own musical language…these would be in no way arrangements, or variations, or in any way derivations of the music of the original songs, which I decided to not hear before the cycle was complete…I intended to treat the Dylan lyrics as the poems I found them to be.”

The five songs at the core of the cycle trace a journey of emotional and civic maturation, from the innocence of Clothes Line through the beginnings of awareness of a wider world (Blowin’ in the Wind) through the political fury of Masters of War, to a premonition of an apocalyptic future (All Along the Watchtower), culminating in a vision of a liberating victory of ideas (Chimes of Freedom.) Here’s the powerful closing section of that final song:


Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake
Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked
Tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing…

Tolling for the deaf an’ blind, tolling for the mute
Tolling for the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute…

Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed…
An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

(Words by Bob Dylan. Copyright © 1964 Warner Brothers, Inc. Copyright renewed 1992 Special Rider Music.
International copyright secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission of Special Rider Music.)

We end with Michael Tippett’s oratorio A Child of Our Time (8.557570). Although the work was inspired by an incident which took place on the cusp of World War II, in Paris in 1938, Tippet inserts arrangements of negro spirituals throughout the piece, rather in the way J. S. Bach inserted reflective chorales in his passion settings. Our final flag for freedom from oppression is one of those interludes: Tippet’s arrangement of Go down, Moses.


Go down, Moses, ’way down in Egypt land;
Tell old Pharaoh, to let my people go.

When Israel was in Egypt’s land,
Let my people go.
Oppressed so hard they could not stand
Let my people go.

“Thus spake the Lord”, bold Moses said,
“Let my people go.
If not, I’ll smite your first-born dead.
Let my people go.”

Go down, Moses, ’way down in Egypt land;
Tell old Pharaoh, to let my people go.

Leave a Reply