Forward Into Light

2020

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Program Note:

“Forward, out of error
Leave behind the night
Forward through the darkness
Forward into light!”

These lines, from a hymn by English poet Henry Alford, were adapted for the American women’s suffrage movement by suffragist Inez Milholland and used in suffrage banners in marches starting in 1911.

Forward Into Light is a meditation on perseverance. It was inspired by the American women’s suffrage movement and by the women who devoted their lives to the radical belief that women were human beings, entitled to equal rights and protection under the law. I wrote this music thinking about faith and conviction — the forces that empowered the suffragists to endure ridicule, mockery, harassment, deprivation, violence, incarceration, and threat of death in their pursuit of equal rights and full personhood.  

In reading about the movement, I became fascinated by the synergistic partnerships of the suffragists — the way differently-suited personalities interlocked and impelled each other forward like partners in a three-legged race. No two suffragists exemplified this dynamic better than Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. “I forged the thunderbolts and she fired them,” Stanton said. “In writing we did better work together than either could alone. While she is slow and analytical in composition, I am rapid and synthetic. I am the better writer, she the better critic. She supplied the facts and statistics, I the philosophy and rhetoric, and together we have made arguments that have stood unshaken by the storms of thirty long years; arguments that no man has answered.”

Midway through my work on this piece, I realized that my structural thinking mirrored Stanton and Anthony’s partnership, and its relationship to the movement on the whole: two principal motivic ideas coax, urge, and goad one another forward, by turns advancing the narrative until the ideas become interlocked in a new joint endeavor, birthing new ideas that provoke, challenge, and galvanize the old.  

The piece features a musical quote from “March of the Women,” composed by British composer and suffragette Ethel Smyth in 1910 to words by Cicely Hamilton. “March of the Women” became the anthem of the women’s suffrage movement throughout the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The piece is performed here by Werca’s Folk, a women’s choir based in Northumberland, under the direction of Sandra Kerr; their recording is used with permission.

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