The Music of “1865” in 2015: A Civil War Musical Retrospective by Anonymous Four

By Meg Sutter ’16

Last Sunday, the Lutheran Theological Seminary Chapel was packed full of people eager to see the world-renown a capella group Anonymous Four for their final touring season. For nearly thirty years, the four women who make up the group have performed around the world with their unique style and sound. This season, Anonymous Four invited Bruce Molsky, “one of America’s premier fiddling talents,” to join them for their “1865” concert celebrating the end of the Civil War through their own interpretation of Civil War music. The event, co-sponsored by the Civil War Institute and the Sunderman Conservatory of Music, opened with remarks by the Civil War Institute’s Dr. Jill Titus, on the importance of analyzing and studying music when trying to understand the culture of the Civil War Era.

The Anonymous Four
The program for Anonymous Four’s “1865” concert. Photograph courtesy of author.

The performance began with A4’s own five-part arrangement of “Weeping Sad and Lonely,” or “When This Cruel War is Over.” This Northern song was also used by the South but with edited lyrics, so it was a particularly appropriate opener for A4’s celebration of the end of the war. A4 combined their own arrangements of unfamiliar songs from the Civil War with popular songs still known today. Their selection of songs illustrated themes of war weariness, homesickness, and grief, yet also with hope for reconciliation. A4 sang many anti-war songs as well, representing the sentiment felt by many civilians and soldiers in 1865. Ballads and love songs like “Aura Lea,” “Sweet Evelina,” and the famous “Home, Sweet Home,” beloved by all soldiers, were mixed with upbeat folk songs such as “Listen to the Mockingbird,” “Maiden in the Garden,” and “Darling Nelly Gray.” Throughout the performance, Molsky pulled out his banjo, guitar, and fiddle for many of the pieces, playing solo or accompanying A4 as a quartet or duet. Molsky’s timbre of voice was perfectly matched for the settings of these folksy pieces. He has a distinctive voice evocative of a Civil War soldier that meshed uniquely with A4’s sound.

My initial response to A4’s performance was to critique the “inauthenticity” of their take on Civil War music. This was especially evident when contrasted with Bruce Molsky’s polished yet folksy voice, which remained true to the style while maintaining musical excellence. Yet after reading more about the group I realized their ensemble began as an experiment in combining medieval chant and polyphony (multiple melodies combing to form harmonies) to create their own unique style. Thus, their goal as performers is to apply what they call “contemporary performance intuition” to historical songs. The result in their “1865” concert was to mask the frankness of Civil War folk music. The women’s clear bell tones and rounded vowels distanced them from the original soul of the music, yet expressed the music in a way perhaps more understandable to the modern ear. Overall, it was a stunning performance, one that I hope will make more people appreciate the importance of music to the civilians and soldiers of the Civil War.

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