History, Research, and Current Themes

"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

Search This Blog & Links


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Composer/librettist Kirke Mechem discusses his opera

It takes an epoch, it takes the whole of a society, it takes a national and religious birthpang to produce either Joan of Arc or John Brown. Everyone living at the time takes some part in the episode; and thereafter, the story remains as a symbol, an epit­ome of the national and religious idea which was born through the crisis . . . . He is as big as a myth, and the story of him is an immortal legend—perhaps the only one in our history. — John Jay Chapman

The legend of John Brown has often obscured the man behind it. For fifty years after Harpers Ferry there was hardly a writer who did not feel it necessary to take sides: either Brown was a martyred saint or a murdering madman. Although we now have well researched biographies that attempt to understand both man and myth, the controversy persists with surprising tenacity. One still encounters new books which, by wrenching Brown out of the context of his own time, attempt to prove some contemporary thesis.

The doctrinaire authors are not the only problem; most standard histories of the United States and of the Civil War perpetuate the old myths. For one thing, it is easier; for another, modern historians also have what Oliver Wendell Holmes called their “in­articulate major premises” which influence evaluations as much as do the facts.

What has all this to do with an opera about John Brown? Don’t most people still be­lieve with Dr. Johnson that opera is simply an exotic and irrational entertainment? I prefer to believe that in its fusion of drama and music, opera is the ideally extrava­gant medium to present the action and passion of the national struggle over slavery as epit­omized in the larger-than-life figure of John Brown. Immortal legend, moral crisis, myth—these have always been the stuff of opera. (For Verdi and Wagner, the glory of opera was not only its musical power to stir the passions, but also the power to drama­tize great ideas.) But as the tenacity of the John Brown controversy proves, the subject is still so topical, it has so many modern parallels, that even writers of opera must treat the man and the events with a sense of responsibility. We must seek to tell the impor­tant truths with as much honesty as historians, and must commit ourselves just as steadfastly to a selection of material which articulates not only our own “major prem­ises,” but competing ones as well. Fortunately, as all good historians and playwrights know, such conflict is the life blood of both history and drama.

The peculiar problem that historical dramatists face is this: which minor lies can they tell in order to dramatize the major truths? They must telescope some persons, places and events in order to put the story on stage. The writer of an historical opera must add to this the problem of arranging that the dramatic effect will be heightened by music, not burdened by it, as often happens in modern operas.

I suppose that only a fool would base his knowledge of history upon what he sees in the theater. And yet, from the time of the ancient Greeks, through Shakespeare’s day to our own, so many people have done just that, that it makes me nervous about the op­era’s minor infidelities. (They are nothing, of course, compared to the wild distor­tions of an old Errol Flynn movie about Jeb Stuart and John Brown which still ap­pears on television with depressing regularity.) Even though I can recommend sev­eral books to set the record straight, I know that most opera goers will not consult them. Therefore, in order to ease my conscience, defuse my critics and enlighten the audi­ence, I will point out the principal liberties I have taken.

First, let me repeat that my intention has been to tell the truth in all important re­spects. The personality of John Brown, for instance, I have tried to show in all its col­ors and contradictions; he was both tender and stern, passionate and reasonable, stubborn, shrewd, idealistic, practical, and much more. The impor­tant his­torical events in the opera did actually take place essentially as they are shown. It is with the lesser events and characters that I have taken the most liberties.

To begin with the first scene, Martha was not Tom Barber’s sister; her name was Brewster, not Barber. Both she and Oliver were several years younger than I have shown them, and Tom was killed a day earlier. Lt. J. E. B. Stuart (later to become one of the great Cavalry generals) was in Kansas and did encounter John Brown there, but there is no evidence that he or his slave were at Lawrence December 8. I have at­tributed to him beliefs and personality traits of various Southern leaders, making him more representative of his class than he really was. Although he did actually come from a proud old Virginia slaveholding family, the real man was less political than I have shown him to be.

John Brown had six sons in Kansas; I have combined them into two, and added about ten years to his daughter Annie’s age so that she could be present not only in the Maryland farm house (where she really was), but also in Kansas (where she was not). Frederick Douglass was an old friend of Brown and his family; the conversation they have about Brown’s Allegheny plan was held in 1847 in Massachusetts, not in 1856 in Kansas, which Douglass never visited. The beating I show him receiving is an amalgam of several events, all actually occurring, but at other times and places: Douglass was beaten in several Northern states for making speeches against slavery; some of Brown’s Pottawatomie neighbors were brutal men who had employed bloodhounds to catch runaway slaves; United States troops really were used to help uphold the bogus laws. The book burning did take place, but several days after the Pottawatomie executions.

The most serious hazard of showing Douglass beaten in this scene is the possible in­fer­ence that it motivated Brown to instigate the Pottawatomie attack. I have taken great pains to show throughout the opera that Brown’s reasons were quite otherwise, but I must admit the risk of misinterpretation is still there. I decided that the dra­matic ne­cessity of showing the sympathetic, brilliant black leader beaten by vicious slaverun­ners—protected by United States troops—overrode the small risk. The basic truth seemed more important than the untruth of time and place. (Most of the words of Douglass’s speech in this scene are his own, but I have compressed and edited them from his speeches and writings spanning many years.)

Amos Lawrence was probably not in Concord; in Boston, however, he did withdraw his support when he learned that Brown had stolen slaves in Missouri and taken them to Canada. He represents a very important class of Northern businessmen who depended on trade with the South, and he also represents the predominant Northern sympathy for white Americans in the South.

The meeting between Brown and Douglass before the Harpers Ferry raid actually took place two months earlier and some miles distant from Brown’s hideout, but its outcome was the same. Shields Green and another escaped slave in Brown’s troop, Dangerfield Newby, have been combined; his wife’s letters have been condensed. Martha and Annie did keep house for the raiders; Martha was by this time married and pregnant, and there is some evidence that she moved from pacifism to abolition­ism through her contact with the Brown family. Her parents opposed her marrying a “fanatical Brown,” but most of the Oliver-Martha story had to be invented. My ex­pectation is that many people will initially identify with Martha and see events through her eyes, learning with her, I hope, that peace does not come before justice.

The Harpers Ferry scene telescopes events that took place from the second day of the raid, October 17, until the day of Brown’s hanging, December 2. Brown was interro­gated after the battle by Governor Wise, Lt. Stuart, other dignitaries and reporters, but not until hours later. The greatest liberty I have taken in this scene is in the swiftness of national events, not so much in the South—which went into panic im­mediately—but in the North, where reaction to the raid was at first almost uniformly negative. Thoreau was among the first to speak out in favor of Brown; it took some time for Northern shock to turn to sympathy for John Brown’s courage, his unshake­able con­victions and stirring words, but the majority never did approve of Harpers Ferry. Yet by the time he was hanged, his speech at trial and publication of his many letters had made Brown a hero to a vociferous, influential group of people all over the world. Victor Hugo declared: “The American Union must be considered dissolved. Between the North and South stands the gallows of Brown . . . . for there is some­thing more ter­rible than Cain slaying Abel—it is Washington slaying Spartacus.”

In the Apotheosis I had once again to rearrange timetables for Martha and Frederick Douglass. Her baby had not yet been born, and by December 2 Douglass was no longer in the country and could not take part in any of the meetings which were held in churches and halls all over the North. But he had already spoken out for John Brown, and throughout his life continued to be one of the most eloquent defenders of the man he said “will need no defender . . . until the lives of tyrants and murderers shall become more precious in the sight of men than justice and liberty.”

I hope that that time has not come, but a book published as recently as 1979 about Brown’s supporters, The Secret Six, makes one wonder. Its author chooses to ignore the entrenchment of slavery, and argues (largely on the basis of long discredited sources) that Brown was the evil father of modern terrorism. Here we see why the controversy persists: the author’s “inarticulate major premise”—that even tyrannical laws maintained by terror must never be opposed by force—distorts the meaning of the most important movement in the history of our country. Need I say that the major premise behind my opera is that the abolition of slavery was the foremost issue of the nineteenth century and John Brown its most representative man? As Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “he embodied the inspiration of the men of his generation.”

Was John Brown a terrorist? Terrorists kill innocent civilians massively and ran­domly. The five men executed by Brown’s followers at Pottawatomie were carefully selected. They were participants in the pro-slavery terror in Kansas which had al­ready resulted in the murder of six free-state men and in the sacking of Lawrence; they had declared war on the Browns and other abolitionists. The killing at Pottawatomie was a terrible deed, but a just reprisal in Brown’s biblical view. And from a historical perspective, particularly in light of recent events, we may ask whether Americans have not always supported fighting back against terror and oppression. It always amazes me to hear John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry denounced by Ameri­cans who glorify the colonial farmers who killed British soldiers on their way back from Concord. As if “taxation without representation” was in any way commensurate with slavery, “one hour of which,” in Jefferson’s words, “is fraught with more misery than ages of that which [the colonials] rose in rebellion to oppose.”

It is easy to think that whatever happened had to happen, but of course this is not so. If the outcome in Kansas had been different, or if there had been no John Brown, Frederick Douglass or Abraham Lincoln, the United States today could be a very dif­ferent place. Civil war was probably inevitable, but had it been delayed until the South had acquired the vast new territories and resources it coveted, who knows what the result would have been?

But there will always be those who do not want to hear about a man so bent upon disturbing a long accepted order. The more comfortable we are, the less we want to be dis­turbed. Even Theodore Roosevelt added to his praise of Brown the warning—ironic, coming from him—that violence was no way to settle anything.

Here, then, is the nub of the question: if so many of mankind’s heroes are those who sacrifice their lives in fighting tyranny, how can we deny the validity of all violence? It obviously de­pends on circumstances; these will differ in each case, so there will never be a final answer to this profound problem. Works of art have never been ex­pected to solve problems; I believe that the best we can do is to show not only the “hero” as he really was, but the circumstances as well. Without that, no wisdom is possible.

In this regard, my long path to John Brown may be of interest. My father, Kirke Field Mechem, was head of the Kansas State Historical Society, and a writer. In 1938 his play, John Brown, won the Maxwell Anderson Award for Verse Drama; its presenta­tion on a national radio broadcast was a thrilling event in my young life. About 25 years later I was living in Vienna and for the first time took opera seri­ously enough to consider writing one. My thoughts immediately turned to John Brown. It was ten more years, however, before I had the time and nerve to tackle such a formidable subject. I asked my father to make a libretto from his play, which he gladly did al­though he was over 80. Meanwhile I began to steep myself in the John Brown litera­ture. The more I read the more I diverged from the concept of my father’s play, and after many heartbreaking attempts to reconcile the irreconcil­able, we gave it up.

I went on to compose a different opera, writing my own libretto based on Molière’s Tartuffe. The satisfaction this gave me emboldened me to try John Brown again, this time as my own librettist, basing the opera not upon my father’s play but upon my own perception of the man and his time. My father’s play, while representing many of the various currents of thought around John Brown, tended to view him as a loner; it was a brilliant psychiatric study buttressed by his discussions with his old Topeka friend, the late, famous psychiatrist Karl Menninger, who pronounced Brown (on scant evidence) paranoiac. My libretto could not have been written without my father’s play, but while acknowledging my tremendous debt, I must say that our works are fundamentally different in many respects.

Much research has since been done which my father did not have access to. My read­ing convinced me that Brown was by no means an eccentric ripple in the pool of his­tory, but the crest of a wave so great that we are still in its trough. I also became con­vinced that in operatic terms, this epochal quality, this “national and religious birth­pang,” would be an asset. I welcomed a subject which, like Boris Godunov, would in­volve the chorus at every point in the story. I really wanted two choruses, one black and one white, but soon realized that this was virtually impossible. I greatly regretted this loss, because black people are at the very center of the story—not as the prob­lem, as some would have it, but the victims. I decided to give Frederick Douglass a central role and to make individual blacks as prominent as possible.

But this is the story of John Brown, not of Frederick Douglass, which is a great but dif­ferent story. Nor is this the story of the oppressed black people, thousands upon thou­sands of whom risked their lives to escape slavery and later fought for the free­dom of their people with great distinction in the Civil War. To show John Brown as a man who “delivered” slaves in no way implies that they did not fight for them­selves, witness the many slave rebellions long before John Brown’s raid. But Brown was one of the few white men who willingly gave his life to help destroy slavery be­fore the war, and he had the prophetic vision to know exactly what his actions and his death would achieve. For this he has become the greatest white hero to millions of African-Americans, and a hero to people struggling for freedom everywhere.

One aspect of writing the libretto was a particular challenge—how to explain John Brown but still give vigorous expression to the Southern point of view. Any serious work about John Brown must also be a study of why the Civil War was fought. I did what I could to make it clear that many Southerners did not own slaves, and that the entire region felt its constitutionally protected rights were being trampled by the North. These rights were infinitely more important than the lives of slaves even to most people in the North. Today, when television facilitates instant, visceral com­pas­sion for human suffering all over the world, it is hard for us to imagine that before the Civil War so many Americans could simply ignore the barbarous treatment of four million people in their own country. John Brown couldn’t, and though I have tried to dramatize the South’s terrible dilemma, Brown can only be understood in his own Calvinist, Old Testament terms—good and evil, freedom and slavery.

Religion—Calvinist and otherwise—was a powerful force in nineteenth century American life. John Brown was not unique in knowing much of the Bible by heart but he also believed that it was a guide to action. If Moses killed a slave master to rescue the slave, if Gideon followed God’s battle plan, if even Jesus, in the book of Matthew, came “not to send peace, but a sword,” then how could he, John Brown, God’s miser­able servant, look upon this great evil without literally fighting against it? The Bible was real and so were those millions of suffering human beings in this land that Brown passionately loved. He could not look away; he saw them, he knew them as friends, brothers, sisters. This is what set him apart from most Americans—his ut­ter lack of color phobia in what was a thoroughly racist society.

But religion and race are not so hard for us to understand as many other conditions of that time. As Richard Boyer has written:

With the time and its temper stripped away—its duels and shootings and assaults, its go-to-hell bravado, its frequent persistence in bringing almost any dispute to mortal encounter, its readiness for martyrdom and pistols at twenty paces, its long cold war over slavery, its private armies and filibustering—with all this gone, John Brown’s acts may seem strange to the point of psy­chosis. With this framing them, however, they are distressingly representative of a tragic and violent age. If the time and its temperament were seldom indicated in accounts of John Brown, neither was the quality of slavery, nor the black man’s valiant and repeated at­tempts for freedom, nor the long and excruciating tension within the lives of many Americans, from Washington to Lincoln, committed to the founding premise that all men were cre­ated equal while enslaving millions of their fellow countrymen. Thus the basic social dynamic thrusting John Brown, his associates, and opponents into history has seldom been emphasized in the story of that long-ma­turing crisis that he and his famous colleagues, black and white, brought to explosion. Prominent and successful men do not enter such a plot as John Brown’s without a social and national history impelling them to it.

In the twentieth century, the tragedy of Nazi Germany was similar. A core of barbar­ity, however small at first, had the power to corrupt an entire land and leave a legacy of guilt upon all, even the innocent. If there is any “message” here, it must be that if evil is allowed to take root, its consequences will be both terrible and uncontrollable. Or in the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, “The cost of liberty is less than the price of re­pression.” As the world grows smaller and the instruments of destruction more terri­ble, so does the penalty for repression grow more terrible. We have no guarantee of infinite time here on earth. We must finally learn that injustice is the mother of catastrophe. Our Civil War should teach us that even “unthinkable wars” do indeed happen.

In this discussion I do not wish to give the impression that I claim to have done original research on John Brown or to have put forth original ideas about him. It is hard enough to write an opera without that. Fortunately, there are now a number of excel­lent books which not only give well documented history, but which examine contro­versial issues from the viewpoints of different “major premises.” The standard biography of John Brown is To Purge This Land With Blood by Stephen B. Oates, who has also writ­ten a small volume of essays, Our Fiery Trial, which describes the fascinating treat­ment John Brown, Nat Turner and Abraham Lincoln have received from historians and writers down through the years. The Legend of John Brown, by Richard O. Boyer, con­tains a wealth of information about the issues and personalities of the whole pe­riod. The most recent well-researched and insightful books about John Brown are: Fire from The Midst of You by Louis A. DeCaro, jr. (2002), and Patriotic Treason by Evan Carton (2006), which make use of material that has come to light since the previously mentioned biographies were published. DeCaro’s book concentrates on Brown’s religious life; Carton’s has the sweep of a novel, humanizes Brown and convincingly shows that he acted on the principles of America’s founding fathers.

But as I said, opera goers will probably not take the time to read these books. They may, however, still want to know what became of some of the characters who sur­vived. Frederick Douglass continued to be the outstanding spokesman for his race until his death in 1895, having been an adviser to Lincoln and later Minister to Haiti; he bought Robert E. Lee’s home. General J. E. B. Stuart was killed in action in 1864. Martha Brown and her baby both died within three months of John Brown’s hanging. Owen Brown escaped from Harpers Ferry; he later became a grape grower, then moved to California. Annie Brown went to Virginia after the Civil War and taught school to black children in the mansion that had belonged to Governor Wise. In 1866, when the irony of his being refused admission to the house was pointed out to him, the man who ordered Brown’s execution is reported to have meditated a moment and then replied, “John Brown was a great man, Sir. John Brown was a hero.”

And yet it has not been my intention to portray Brown as a simple “hero.” I see this not as an heroic story but as a warning: wherever cruel injustice becomes law, a John Brown will rise up to attack that law by any means. If I show him sometimes as a messianic prophet, it is because that is how Brown finally saw himself, and how his intensely loyal family, companions and supporters saw him. His resolute Calvinist faith was a crucial part of his personality and of the Puritan society he grew up in.

Finally, however, I must recognize the truth of what Stephen Oates writes in the pref­ace to his biography: “Because he is controversial, anybody who ventures forth with a study of his life—no matter how fair-minded and well-researched it may be—is going to encounter a number of readers, critics, and professional historians who have already made up their minds that Brown was either (1) a vicious fanatic, a horse thief, and a maniac or (2) the greatest abolitionist hero in history, and who will furi­ously attack any book that does not argue their point of view.”

Oates has “sought to show why Brown performed his controversial deeds rather than to damn or praise him.” I follow his example and hope that the addition of music will bring this drama to life in a new and cathartic way. For all my concern with history and drama, I am neither historian nor poet and have from the beginning been acutely aware that an opera lives or dies by the quality of its music. Here I gladly give up words and turn over the consideration of that enigmatic and timeless old man to the hearts and minds of my listeners.


KIRKE MECHEM was born and raised in Kansas and educated at Stanford and Harvard universities. He is the composer of more than 250 published works in almost every form. He conducted and taught at Stanford and was for several years composer-in-residence at the University of San Francisco. He lived in Vienna for three years where he came to the attention of Josef Krips, who later championed Mechem's symphonies as conductor of the San Francisco Symphony. He was guest of honor at the 1990 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and was invited back for an all-Mechem symphonic concert by the USSR Radio-Television Orchestra in 1991. The concert was recorded by Melodiya and released on the Russian Disc label.

ASCAP recently registered performances of Mechem's music in 42 countries. His three-act opera, Tartuffe, has had 300 performances in six countries. Songs of the Slave, a suite for bass-baritone, soprano, chorus and orchestra from his opera, John Brown, has produced standing ovations in the more than forty cities where it has been performed. Mechem's talents have been acknowledged through numerous honors, including retrospectives, grants, commissions and special anniversary performances. They have come from, among many others, the United Nations, the National Gallery, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Choral Directors Association, the Music Educators National Conference and the National Opera Association (lifetime achievement award).

Vocal music is at the heart of Mechem's work. He is often called the "dean of American choral composers." Eight doctoral dissertations have been written on various aspects of his choral music. The Choral Journal has written that "his musical settings combine high artistic integrity with the ability to communicate directly with performers and audience." Seven Joys of Christmas is the title of his most popular seasonal work and is the title of a new CD released on the Arsis label. It includes all his Christmas music as well as many of his other sacred choral titles.

His comic opera, The Newport Rivals, an American update of Sheridan's classic play, The Rivals,will be premiered in 2007 by Lyric Opera San Diego followed by performances by a consortium of other companies. John Brown, a large-scale opera about the American abolitionist, will be staged May 3 – 11, 2008 in the Lyric Theatre, 11th & Central, Kansas City, MO. Mechem is currently composing an opera based on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.