History Book Is Inspiration for New Symphony
It may not have been exactly what he had in mind, but when Dick Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, got word that his 1993 book on a Civil War regiment would be the basis for a new symphony, he admits to being a bit “bowled over.”
“I was kinda hoping I might get a movie deal out of it and instead here comes a symphony, which is wonderful,” chuckled the one-time staffer for former Vice President and Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.).
The 18-minute musical composition, titled “We Are Met at Gettysburg,” was co-commissioned by the Philadelphia and Minnesota Orchestras. It is loosely based on the experiences of the nearly 300 members of the First Minnesota Regiment during the pivotal July 1863 Civil War battle in Gettysburg, Pa., as told in Moe’s historical account, “The Last Full Measure: The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers.”
As Moe explained of the First Minnesotans’ contributions to that fateful engagement:
“On the second day of Gettysburg, [the First Minnesota Regiment] were positioned at a place on Cemetery Ridge where they were intended to plug a hole that was inadvertently left in the Union line … when the Confederates were advancing through the peach orchard toward Cemetery Ridge it became apparent that they were about to breach this gap and … the entire Union line.
“When they heard that order [to charge the Confederates] they knew exactly what would happen to them … but they unhesitatingly did it. … It bought time before Union reinforcements could be brought up, but it was enormously costly and the First Minnesota suffered 82 percent casualties, which is the highest percentage of casualties suffered by any Union unit during the entire course of the Civil War in a single engagement,” Moe said.
The idea for a symphony representing these events emerged somewhat serendipitously.
In the summer of 1999, Gary Wood — soon to be the Philadelphia Orchestra’s education and community partnerships director — made a visit to the Gettysburg battlefield and overheard a discussion about the Minnesotans’ contributions to the battle.
His curiosity piqued, Wood — a Minnesota native — approached one of the men in the group to learn more.
“I asked some questions and he handed me Dick Moe’s book,” Wood recalled, adding that he soon began developing an outline of how the idea could be made into a comprehensive musical and educational experience in tandem with the Minnesota Orchestra, where he had previously served as education director.
The rest, as they say, is history.
In commemoration of the 140th anniversary of the battle, “We Are Met at Gettysburg” premiered over the weekend in the City of Brotherly Love as part of a family concert series and will make its Minneapolis debut in March.
Co-composed by Amy Scurria of Philadelphia and Steve Heitzeg of Minnesota, the symphony’s three movements — “Honor and Sacrifice,” “Wounded Fields” and “The Last Full Measure” — are intended to evoke “the horror of war and also make sense of our situation, the greater good to which [the soldiers] were struggling,” according to Heitzeg.
The work relies on battlefield artifacts to heighten the realism of its sound.
“One of the instruments used … is bullets from a Gettysburg battle. They were put in a can and shaken by a percussionist” to create the sense that shots were being fired during the first movement, said Wood. Horseshoes from the battlefield also played a role in the concluding movement, portraying a steady, march-like beat.
Notably, the final movement is dedicated to the memory of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), who died in October when his plane crashed in northern Minnesota nearly two weeks before the midterm election.
“The last movement is about respect for all cultures and all lives, and that’s really what Paul Wellstone stood for and still does,” said Heitzeg, adding that he admired Wellstone’s dedication to the nonviolent fight for peace and justice.
In addition to the family concerts in Philadelphia and Minneapolis, the orchestras will each perform for local school groups in their respective cities as part of the broader educational project which accompanies the “We Are Met at Gettysburg” commission. A joint Web site (www.philorch.org/imaginations/wearemetatgettysburg/) links Pennsylvania and Minnesota students together and features information about the music and composers, historical background to the battle and other educational materials. Last October, participating teachers from Philadelphia toured the Gettysburg battle site and took part in a preconcert workshop.
“What I like about this is that they are using an event and a place to teach … and that’s a lot of what we do here at the Trust … use place, historic sites to tell stories,” said Moe.
He added: “History and place can be represented through all different art forms. It really hadn’t occurred to me until [now] … how this can happen through music.”
Moe — who remembers meeting the last surviving veteran of the Civil War at the age of 12 — left the White House at the start of the Reagan administration and spent the next decade practicing law in Washington, advising Democratic heavyweights and serving on the board of the Civil War Trust before becoming the National Trust’s seventh president in 1993.
His interest in the Civil War, however, developed earlier in his professional life when he worked in a variety of Gopher State government positions and chaired the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.
“Early in my political career I spent a lot of time in the Minnesota state Capitol and that was filled with all the memorabilia of the Civil War, the flags and uniforms … so I knew there was a story here about this regiment that had served very early in all the battles of the eastern campaign and finally had its climactic moment at Gettysburg,” he noted.
“The more I looked into it, the more I was taken with the story, particularly the letters and diaries of the principles,” Moe added. (The only existing photograph of two of these principles — brothers Henry and Isaac Taylor — who fought at Gettysburg still hangs near Moe’s office desk.)
While the classical music aficionado said he’s still “living off the fumes” from the excitement of the recent concert, he hasn’t given up hope for a movie deal just yet.
“I continue to believe it’s a great story,” Moe asserted. “Somebody will see this.”