Spend any time in the First Parish Church on Congress Street in Portland with its music director, Charles Kaufman, and one of the first things Kaufman will do is point out the cannonball hanging from the chandelier.
In 1775, just before the start of the Revolutionary War, British forces bombed the church, and parishioners cheekily took the cannonball and attached it to the grand chandelier, which hangs from the ceiling to this day. That chandelier and cannonball have hung over the heads of many thousands of people over the years, including the beloved poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose childhood home is just a few hundred feet down the street from the church.
“Sometimes you get that shivery kind of feeling, to know that you’re in a place that’s so much a part of history,” said Kaufman, whose connections to the church and to Longfellow run deep. “When we’re performing here, I feel that way sometimes. It’s eerie.”
For nearly four years, Kaufman has devoted a great deal of time, money and energy to the Longfellow Chorus. A celebration of the work of Longfellow and the music inspired by him, the chorus and its accompanying concerts have shone the spotlight on a number of forgotten 19th century composers, as well as many contemporary composers. This year’s concerts are set for 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 28, at the church.
How the Longfellow Chorus began is as much a story about how different parts of culture live and die as it is how art can inspire people to press on, despite setbacks. Make no mistakes about it: Charles Kaufman is the Longfellow Chorus. He is its director, fundraiser, promoter, bookkeeper and secretary. Though funding issues may mean 2010 will be its last year, Kaufman nevertheless has single-handedly revived a lost sub-genre: the music inspired by the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Though he was undoubtedly the most popular American poet of the 19th century, by the first years of the 20th century Longfellow had lost his luster. In many ways, he was scorned by academia, as poets such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and other modernists completely reinvented poetry, and made the for-the-masses, sometimes sentimental rhymes of Longfellow seem hopelessly old-fashioned.
“Longfellow’s fairly straightforward style really just completely died. Modernism put an end to anything Victorian,” said Kaufman, who also is a writer, as well as musician and composer. “It was just so, to use the term, uncool to like Longfellow. And not only did the world reject writers and poets like Longfellow, they rejected the music that used his words, too. They fell into a black hole.”
Long before the creation of the Longfellow Chorus, Kaufman had developed an interest in “parlor songs” — poetry set to music, a genre that was immensely popular in the 19th century. Before radios, record players and iPods, many homes had pianos, and parlor songs were a popular form of entertainment for the musically inclined members of a household.
“You would gather around a fireplace, and someone would play music, or have a lecture, or sing. Parlor songs were very popular because they combined music and poetry,” said Kaufman. “There was a culture of entertaining at home. We’re much more passive about it now. We let our computers entertain us, rather than our friends and family.”
By 2006, Kaufman was the music director at the First Parish Church. He was also working as a tour guide for the Maine Historical Society at the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow House, the poet’s boyhood home, just a few houses down from the church. Always an avid collector of historical fact, Kaufman learned everything he could about Maine’s most famous poet.
“I gave thousands of tours over a three-year period,” he said. “At a certain point, I began to go off script. I did my own research and found my own anecdotes. I recited poems. I really began to get to know Longfellow in a way few get to know anyone like that.”
During a tour one day, Kaufman recited Longfellow’s poem “The Rainy Day,” one of his most famous, which ends with the iconic line “Into each life some rain must fall.” A tour-goer informed Kaufman, after the tour, that the New England composer Amy Marcy Cheney Beach set that particular poem to music. In the early 20th century, Beach was probably the best-known female composer in the country, and “The Rainy Day” was one of her very first compositions.
“So, I did some more research, and discovered that many young people who were learning to compose, during that era, would use a song setting of a Longfellow poem as their first composition,” said Kaufman. “Longfellow himself knew that children responded to his music. Many, many young composers during the 19th century did parlor songs and art songs of his poetry.”
As it turned out, the 200th anniversary of Longfellow’s birth was fast approaching, in February 2007. Kaufman decided that a concert on the poet’s birthday, featuring these compositions based on Longfellow poems, was in order — but he had just a handful of relatively mediocre compositions at the time, and no chorus to sing them.
That changed quickly. A few contacts at the Choral Arts Society in Portland and at the Acadia Choral Society in Ellsworth brought him a number of interested singers. More research in both Maine and at the Craigy House in Cambridge, Mass., Longfellow’s home in later life, revealed more material. Much, much more material.
“I discovered that there was a collection of parlor songs based on his texts in a special collection at Bowdoin College, where Longfellow went to college,” said Kaufman. “There were hundreds of pieces in his huge archive, none of them indexed. That really opened my eyes. I mean, none of this is Beethoven or Mozart. But there are some gems. There’s a piece by Sir Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert and Sullivan. There’s a [Franz] Liszt piece, and an [Edward] Elgar piece. There are tons of obscure Victorian composers. I had enough for a concert.”
The first Longfellow Chorus concert was held on Feb. 27, 2007, at the First Parish Church, and featured a 60-person chorus. It was successful enough to plan a second concert for February 2008, which would include two new things: orchestral accompaniment and the introduction of a new composing competition. Kaufman received entries from all over the country and the world for the first-ever Longfellow Chorus International Composers Competition. Eleven new works were premiered at the 2008 concert — a rarity for concerts in Maine in general.
“There aren’t all that many forums for new music in Maine, and we got to premiere all these new pieces, and continue to do so,” he said. “Not only are we spotlighting music that hasn’t been played, in some cases, in nearly 100 years, but we’re constantly replenishing the repertoire for the concert by all these new submissions. It’s incredibly exciting.”
For this year’s concert, Kaufman unveiled a cantata composing competition. The two finalists in the competition, Keane H. Southard and Marcus K. Maroney, will have their cantatas, “A Day of Sunshine” and “Suspiria,” premiered at this weekend’s concerts, along with the five finalists in the choral competition, Elaine Hagenberg, Martin Westlake, Christopher Wicks, Bryon Page and David Walther.
The concerts also will feature three soloists, including Freeport-based tenor Mark Sprinkle, acclaimed soprano and Metropolitan Opera soloist Angela M. Brown, and Boston baritone Robert Honeysucker. Brown and Honeysucker each will solo during performances of three Longfellow song poems by British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who was one of the first major black composers of the 20th century.
Despite all the work Kaufman has done, 2010 may be the last year for the Longfellow Chorus. Numerous grant applications have been rejected, and no donor has stepped up to help fund the project.
“Ticket sales alone can’t support this. I need a staff. Concerts are really expensive. Soloists are expensive,” said Kaufman. “It’s my labor of love. I love doing it. I think it’s important. New music is so rare in Maine, and composers like Samuel Coleridge Taylor don’t really get performed, ever. I hope we can make something work.”
Nevertheless, this weekend’s concerts go on, with seven new compositions, a 50-member chorus and 34-member orchestra. Audience members will get to hear music that, in some cases, hasn’t been heard in decades — and in other cases, music that no one has ever heard.
The Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 203rd Birthday Choral Concerts will be at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 28, at the First Parish Church on Congress Street in Portland. Admission is $20. A pre-concert discussion will be offered a half-hour before the performance. A free opera master class with Angela Brown and Robert Honeysucker is set for 4:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 26, at the church. For more information, visit www.longfellowchorus.com.