Jewish composer Andrew Bleckner found inspiration in both religion and musical history when he wrote The Children’s March.
Bleckner and librettist Charlotte Blake Alston will perform their original work — which explores a civil rights-era historical event — on Feb. 24 at 3 p.m. at Philadelphia Episcopal Church, and on March 10 at 3 p.m. at Lincoln University. They will be joined by Singing City, the SC Children’s Choir, T-VOCE, the Germantown Friends School Middle School Choir and Keystone State Boychoir’s Anonymous 8.
The Children’s March is a choral and theatrical piece about the 1963 Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Ala.
On May 2 of that year, more than 1,000 students, most of them black, skipped class to march in the downtown area in support of the civil rights movement. They were met with clubs, dogs, paddy wagons and high-powered hoses, all under the direction of the notorious Bull Connor, then the commissioner of public safety in Birmingham. The images were broadcast to millions of television viewers around the world, eventually bolstering the cause of the marchers. A few days later, an agreement to desegregate important public spaces was reached.
It was this radical history that Bleckner had in mind when he was commissioned to compose the music for The Children’s March back in 2013. Bleckner, a native of Rockland County, N.Y., has composed music for decades. Though he found much of his inspiration in the work of Beethoven, Bach and other luminaries of classical music, he also found it an unconventional place.
“When I was in 11th grade,” he said, “I read a short book by Martin Buber that had a profound influence upon me. Buber posits that each individual has a unique place in the world, and that we should find our own path, and thereby honor God in doing so by fulfilling our unique path. I started to learn piano at that point, and I felt that sitting at the piano was a form of the highest prayer possible, that it was my unique path in which I could honor God and fulfill my potential in the universe.”
Bleckner continued to draw from Judaism as he made his way through the world of classical music. He counts a setting of Psalm 150 for choir and percussion that he composed towards the end of his time in grad school as his first real success as a composer. Since then, he’s become a nationally recognized composer, with numerous fellowships and awards to his name.
In 2012, he and Alston were commissioned to write The Children’s March by Singing City. Singing City was founded as an integrated choir in 1948, and over the years has performed with everyone from the Philadelphia Orchestra to the Israel Philharmonic.
“I was so excited when I learned of the project, because I felt such a powerful connection to the story,” Bleckner said. “The Children’s March project is both theatrical and choral, so it suited my interests and abilities as a composer ideally.”
Alston, he believes, was similarly suited to the task.
“It was a wonderful and profound experience to collaborate with her,” Bleckner said. “In creating the musical setting for her story I found myself swept up in the range of emotions it depicts, from pain, to righteous anger, to defiance, to joy, and to celebration.”
Alston is also the piece’s narrator.
The Children’s March, Bleckner said, is not only a performance that seeks to exalt a pivotal moment of the Civil Rights movement, but one that speaks to “the universal human story of our fight with tyranny and injustice.”
“I believe The Children’s March is, in fact, a sacred journey,” he said. “It is a march for freedom and justice, and the conclusion — a setting of ‘There is a Balm in Gilead’ — lifts the listener to a higher spiritual plane.
“In today’s dark times,” he concluded, “I naturally hope that listeners will be inspired to activism against resurgent forces of prejudice and intolerance.”
Indeed. Andrew is a great artist.