By Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
The spiritual rhapsody, A Song of Faith found its inspiration in an assertion of Mahatma Gandhi. Its composer, Louis Gruenberg, in his Conversations with Myself, 1950-1964, considered Gandhi's statement, "I consider myself a Hindu, Christian, Moslem, Jew, Buddhist, and Confucian," to be "the strongest, most potent expression of human faith that has ever been uttered outside the Holy Bible." The composer consequently strove through this oratorio to further the "unification of men of all faiths under the Author of all their beliefs" and to "glorify all religions." In 1957 he set out to create A Song of Faith "with all humility" in order "to show my gratitude for life itself."
Born in Brest-Litvosk, Russia, on August 3, 1884, he arrived in the United States with his parents at the age of two. Early music lessons in New York qualified him at the age of 19 to study piano and composition in Berlin under the great Busoni. At the age of 28, in 1912, he made his debut as a pianist and embarked on tours of Europe and the United States. When he won the Flagler Prize in 1919 for his orchestral piece, The Hall of Dreams, he settled in the United States, abandoning a performing career for one of composition.
As a founder in 1923 of the League of Composers, he asserted his belief that a composer should develop native resources available to him. The influence exercised on him by jazz and the spiritual found expression in such works as the The Daniel Jazz (1924), Jazz Suite for Orchestra (1925), Jazzettes for violin (1926), and the popular Jazzberries of 1925 for piano. His interest in the spiritual resulted in 1926 in the publication of four volumes of skillful arrangements. The spiritual exercised influence in the composition of the sixth movement dealing with Heaven in the Song of Faith. His First Symphony of 1930 won the RCA Victor Prize.
Gruenberg's first compositions in 1912 and 1913 were the operas, The Witch of Bracken and The Bride of the Gods. The children's opera Jack and the Beanstock acquired moderate popularity. His greatest success, however, was Emperor Jones (1931) produced by the Metropolitan Opera of New York in 1933 with Lawrence Tibbett in the lead. The opera ran there for eleven performances and saw revivals in Chicago in 1946, in Rome in 1950, in Palermo in 1963, and in Detroit in 1979.
After a three-year stint from 1933 to 1936 as professor of composition at the Chicago Musical College, Gruenberg moved to California to try his hand at the composition of movie scores. His subsequent expertise in this field won him three Academy Awards for the musical scores of The Fight for Life, So Ends Our Night, and Commandos Strike at Dawn.
Gruenberg in the Song of Faith sought to musically depict the "Works of God." The segments of the work, its movements, attempt to convey musical impressions of the heavens, sun, moon, stars, mountains, wind, water, rainbow, fire, and finally, to celebrate man himself as the summit of creation. The oratorio's concluding paean of praise was conceived "in the shape of a fugue in which all previous 'works' of the Lord are combined."
To effect this end, he selected texts from the sacred writings of living religions. An analysis of these texts, whether sung or narrated, reveals that a majority of fourteen quotations derive from books of the Old Testament, followed by eight from Chinese sources, five from Indo-Persian writings, three from the Koran, two from the New Testament, and a number of single excerpts from disparate texts.
Gruenberg clearly envisaged performing forces for his master work of Berliozian proportions. He scored it for large orchestra, narrator, soloists, and a chorus "of 400 voices (at least) to fully express my desire for an adequate performance." He likewise admonished these musicians to perform with precision and humility and without any trace of artifice.
The implications of satellite television broadcast inspired him to hope for a multimedia performance of The Song of Faith to the entire world. A satellite television production which he had seen, elicited this rhapsodic statement. "Since in my mind music alone could possibly unite the hundreds of religions, all basically alike (at any rate to me), the simultaneous presentation of a performance (of the Song) throughout the world offers vistas that are simply fantastic. Surely politics will never solve the differences between nations. Maybe music might. At any rate, my vision has been strengthened."
In another fervid statement he wrote: "The new satellite explosion of communication would bring one extraordinary opportunity to show A Song of Faith to the entire world at once. Thousands of voices! Pictures of great masses! All believing in the great Equalizer and all singing with humility, optimism, and joy! Great pictures of mountains, oceans, forests, stars, etc., could be shown during the various episodes. O Lord! What a possibility!"
These utterances so redolent of the gargantuan extravaganzas in the movie industry of his era punctuate the cinematic orientation of his later career and music. Yet for all his hopes and expectations, a performance of the Song of Faith was not realized in his lifetime. He died in his eightieth year on June 10, 1964, two years after the oratorio's completion.
This premiere performance of the Song of Faith may not embrace in its ambit Gruenberg's vast theatrical visions or even the massive Mahlerian forces he required for adequate production. It is rather intended to convey, during this city's bicentennial celebrations, within the limitations imposed, real appreciation for a work of an eminent musician Los Angeles recognizes as one of its own, and to awaken in the hearer some vistas into his grand and noble vision.