Ensembles to premiere MU composer Stefan Freund's Civil War oratorio

Tuesday, April 22, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:33 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 22, 2014
The chorus rehearses "The War Amongst Families and Neighbors: The Civil War in Missouri" for its impending premiere. MU composer Stefan Freund's 90-minute oratorio will premiere at 7 p.m. Thursday in Jesse Auditorium. It will be performed by the Columbia Civic Orchestra, MU Choral Union, University Singers and three guest soloists. The piece includes four spoken texts, five arrangements of Civil War songs and 18 original compositions.

Video by Kelly Coleman

If you go

What: MU composer Stefan Freund's new oratorio, "The War Amongst Families and Neighbors: The Civil War in Missouri"

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: Jesse Auditorium

Admission: Tickets are $15 for general admission, $10 for MU students. They can be purchased at the University Concert Series box office at the Missouri Theatre, by phone at 882-3781, or online at

Other free events: A convocation with the composer, conductor and soloists will be held at 3 p.m. Thursday at Whitmore Recital Hall, followed by a reception at the State Historical Society of Missouri.

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COLUMBIA — MU composer Stefan Freund got hooked on the Civil War when he took American history in high school in Memphis, Tenn. It was about the time Ken Burns' "The Civil War" came out, and Freund said he would go to his girlfriend's house and stay over all day, watching her parents' VHS copies of the series.

Decades later, Freund, now an associate professor of composition and music theory at the MU School of Music, has channeled his passionate interest in the Civil War by writing an oratorio, "The War Amongst Families and Neighbors: The Civil War in Missouri."

The 90-minute oratorio premieres at 7 p.m. Thursday in Jesse Auditorium. It will be performed by the Columbia Civic Orchestra, MU Choral Union, University Singers and three guest soloists: bass-baritone Timothy Jones, tenor Steven Tharp and soprano Lindsey Lang. The piece includes four spoken texts, five arrangements of Civil War songs and 18 original compositions.

"The only difference between this and an opera is that we're not going to be moving around the stage and in costume," said conductor R. Paul Crabb.

A local idea

Despite Freund's long interest in the Civil War, the impetus for the oratorio only came about 10 years ago when Freund and his wife, Julia, moved to Columbia. They were exploring downtown when they came across the Civil War monument at the Boone County Courthouse.

Freund gazed at the monument and noticed that it was inscribed with soldiers' names from both the United States of America and the Confederate States of America. Missouri is well-known for being a border state in the war, having separate governments, armies and stars on the flags of both sides.

"These aren't people just from around the state, these are people within this county," Freund said. "So even within this county, people were at each others' throats. There were all kinds of degrees of loyalty, so it's a no-win situation. ... That's kind of the story I'm trying to tell — there were horrible actions on both sides of the war. It was very ugly and really an amazing time in our history, unlike any other."

Before he composed a note, Freund researched the Civil War in Missouri for about a month and a half. He had planned to write a 30- to 45-minute piece about Bloody Bill Anderson and the Centralia Massacre for Timothy Jones and the Columbia Civic Orchestra.

As he continued his research, though, he became fascinated by other events in Missouri's own war within the Civil War, especially the political events that led to the guerrilla warfare he was originally studying.

The oratorio then came into its two parts. The first part, "St. Louis to Pea Ridge (1861-1862)," covers the political and conventional military events that kept Missouri in the Union, focusing on the drama between the governor and Gen. Nathaniel Lyon. The second, "Guerrilla Warfare (1863-1865)," tells the story of Bloody Bill Anderson and the often barbaric guerrilla warfare that plagued the state.

Freund believes in the importance of these stories and the Civil War, both in the way it has redefined how we look at ourselves as a country and how some of its issues remain unsolved in America and abroad.

The country still has core struggles around race and human rights, Freund said.

"We're fortunate that we haven't had to live through (a civil war) for a long time in this country, but we can apply it to places where it's happening today," he said. "We read about (Syria and Ukraine) on, and it's a very long way away and very distant, but those same sort of events happened here 150 years ago. ... It's not from the first-person perspective, but we understand it better. That's one of the reasons why I'm doing this project."

Communicating history

Despite these strong feelings and an initial desire to "show everyone the way the world needs to be" in the oratorio, Freund said he's just trying to tell both sides of the story in a relatively unbiased way.

Freund was so committed to this concept that he decided to use only actual, historical wording for the music's lyrics.

"I found it fascinating that he was using first-person material that he found in journals and letters," said Ralph Kreigh, a member of the Mid-Missouri Civil War Roundtable.

Kreigh helped Freund with his research and checked the final product for historical accuracy. He also gave a presentation on some of the oratorio's history with Freund at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on April 11.

"What they're singing is what was written down then, at the time," Kreigh said. "He's putting their words to music in the style of what would have been understood and listened to 150 years ago."

This makes it a little harder to sing at times, but Crabb supports the idea. Besides, he told the musicians during a rehearsal last week, "English wasn't designed for singing all the time — maybe never."

The lyrics present a sense of immediacy and personal urgency, Crabb said in a later interview.

"It's real — it's not something that somebody's created or just abstractly composed," he said. "I mean, that's all fine and good, but it's also something to have a personal account of seeing your own home destroyed and your neighbors taken away in shock. Those are real, nonfiction words that somebody saw and wrote down, and that's urgent."

The lyrics will be projected during choruses and solos, making it easier for the audience to follow along. Background text will be given at other points, and 31 images courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri will be projected to provide a visual connection.

"I was very careful to balance not having too much (information), not having too little, and telling the story so it has a dramatic arc, and people will feel like they've experienced it without getting bogged down along the way," Freund said. "I want to be able to back away from all this and see the big picture because that's what this is about."

Composing the music

Whatever creativity and bias Freund tried to leave out of the lyrics shine through in the music. It bleeds emotion and drama, oscillating between light and dark sounds, a division that reflects the constant pull to which Missouri was subjected during the war.

"It's an alternation between the period songs, which are very folksy and sometimes even corny, sentimental, nostalgic, and a lot of drama and extreme emotion in battle and the whole hidden history of Missouri," cellist Carol Elliott said. "I think about all those things when I play."

One of the first songs, "Missouri! Bright Land of the West!" is set as a grand march that sounds like Wagner, a German composer who was used by the Nazis for propaganda. Freund intended that connection; the song itself is a Confederate propaganda song, and while it is bright and upbeat, it conveys a sense of unease that permeates much of the oratorio.

"You're being rallied to a cause you're disgusted by, but that's happened time and time again in history," Freund said. "It makes you stop and think about things because we're rallied all the time by politics and ideas. We get excited, but we have to really look at ourselves and think, 'Are we on the side of right? How is history going to judge us?'"

Crabb said Freund incorporates a mixture of styles into the music, drawing influences from jazz, rock and classical music and melding it into one cohesive sound. Elliott said she feels a personal connection to it, especially its "deep voicing and strong rhythms."

"The music is very near and dear to us," Elliott said. "We feel that he's written it for us. ... There are parts that you can maybe tell that he was thinking of an individual player in the orchestra. I hear it sometimes in the horn and violin solos."

Freund said he wrote the piece for the Choral Union, which he called a "town-gown operation," and takes pride in presenting the oratorio as a community venture. Only the soloists will be compensated for the performance, cutting the cost of performance from potentially $250,000 to about $23,000.

Artwork from students at Lee Expressive Arts Elementary School will also be displayed in the lobby of Jesse Auditorium for the performance.

"So many people have connections to this stuff," Freund said. "These are musicians from Missouri, from Columbia, telling a story about events that happened in mid-Missouri. It's been really cool for me to see those connections come out."

At 3 p.m. Thursday, there will be a convocation with Freund, Crabb and the soloists at Whitmore Recital Hall, mediated by Arthur Mehrhoff of the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology. A reception at the State Historical Society of Missouri will follow. The event is free and open to the public.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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