Almost 10 years ago, pianist Peter Dugan and baritone John Brancy met up at the Julliard School’s library, picked out some music and snuck into a dance studio to try out a few songs together.
Little did they know that those sessions would be the beginning of an essential artistic collaboration.
Fast forward 10 years and the duo is in the midst of one of the most important projects of their artistic lives. On April 28, 2017, they will release their album “A Silent Night: A WWI Memorial in Song,” which honors composers that lived and even fought during the great war 100 years ago.
The duo recently spoke to OperaWire about the process of putting together the recital, album and the key takeaways from the long-running tour.
The idea came about a few years ago when the duo was putting together a recital at the Vocal Arts DC set for Dec. 10, 2014. They had the desire to put together a substantial program that had “emotional weight and had a strong thematic center,” according to Brancy.
Since the famous Christmas Truce from World War I was about to celebrate its 100th anniversary, they sought a way to put together a series of pieces featuring music from that era.
They wound up with 26 songs.
Into the Trenches
Diving into the musical world of that time, they ultimately opted for using the work of composers from four major players in The Great War – England, Germany, France and the United States.
“They were countries that were creating substantial music that was very individual. The sound worlds in these different places were so different from one another,” Brancy stated.
“We wanted to include other major participants in the war as well, such as Italy or Russia, but we wanted the recital to be cohesive and have a couple of sets that were united by language and style,” Dugan added.
From England, the duo found a pastoral sound featuring composers such as George Butterworth, Gerald Finzi, and Ivor Gurney. From Germany, they found a mechanical and bombastic sound world from Carl Orff, who was injured in a trench during the war and is most famous for “Carmina Burana.” From France, they discovered music from Poulenc, who fought in both wars, Debussy and Ravel, who also fought in the war. And the United States offered the work by Charles Ives, who composed music right as America was entering the war.
But the duo also knew that it needed to include the popular tunes from the time, even if their patriotic tone didn’t always match the rigorous art songs in their presentation of the war atrocities.
For the popular tunes, the duo labored extensively on arrangements to ensure that they express the tragic themes embedded in them. Brancy and Dugan would get together repeatedly, read through the text of every selection and then seek out unique colors that could express the essence of each one. Some arrangements were completed quickly and others, including the famous Irish tune “Oh Danny Boy” didn’t come together until right before the performance.
“We wanted to express the sadness of losing someone,” Brancy explained. “We saw Danny Boy as one of these boys going off to war or all these soldiers who went off to war and the people they left behind. It’s a universal story for the human condition nowadays.”
The duo stripped down the arrangement to emphasize the simplicity of the melody and text. And yet there was an element missing from the arrangement.
“I was walking up Columbus Ave in New York late at night. I was thinking we needed a pipe tune calling out across this piece,” Dugan noted. Being half-Irish, the pianist spent a lot of time listening to folk tunes in his youth. So he started humming a tune he thought would feel right on the pipes.
Suddenly, he realized that this was the tune he needed for the arrangement so he sang it into his phone and texted it to Brancy.
They inserted it into the piece, but even then, there was one more thing left to do.
The day of the recital, the duo played through “Oh Danny Boy” and at the climactic section, “And I shall hear though soft you tread above me,” Dugan had another realization.
“I knew that we needed the pipe tune one more time in the high register. It layers as a counterpoint to the melody at that moment.”
And so the program was all set.
Making An Impact
The first performance of the set was a huge success for Dugan and Brancy and to cap it off, they offered up a special treat for audiences.
“As our encore that night, we did Silent Night in English and German to represent what happened during the Christmas truce.”
The duo has now traveled with “A Silent Night” around the country, making stops at Carnegie Hall, the University of Chicago and St. John’s college among other venues to thrilling results.
Most recently, they were honored with the opportunity to perform for the United States World War I Centennial Commission at an event on April 6 in honor of the centennial celebration of the US’ entry into the war.
The event was cathartic as the two, who actually had family members serve in the war (Brancy’s Great Grandfather and Dugan’s Great Uncle).
“We were there representing our families as well,” Brancy acknowledged. “To have come full circle with multiple recitals, album and then be at a commemorative event of that stature was a proud moment.”
“The special moment for us was that right before we were to do Charles Ives’ ‘Tom Sails Away,’ which he wrote exactly when America was about to enter the war, they set off some cannons from World War I,” Dugan narrated. “When John and I were working on these pieces interpretatively, we spent a lot of time to imagine putting ourselves into the position of someone in a trench. Somehow hearing that artillery from that time, it sent us into that place.”
The Special Piece
For the duo, this music just keeps getting better and better with neither really able to pick a favorite from among the set. And yet, there are a few selections that each holds near and dear.
“For me its ‘Channel Firing’ by Gerald Finzi,” declared Brancy. “It’s sort of the prologue. It doesn’t belong to a cycle in the context of our show, but it stands alone as a monologue about the expansive war and where it started and where it is now. It encapsulates the eternal struggle of our time. What Finzi did with the text musically is so powerful and dynamic. It changes so many times throughout the piece. It’s also a help in warming up to the audience and the rest of the program.”
For Dugan, Orff’s “Der Gute Mensch” holds a special place.
“The piano part is unlike anything else I have ever played. It is just pounding chords. It’s static harmonically. He is evoking the sound of giant angels beating their shields with their swords. It’s a very dramatic shift. It is the first German piece we do after all this pastoral English music. I get to rip into the piano as loud as I can. It is very powerful and emotional.”
After their album launches, both Brancy and Dugan are looking to expand the tour internationally with the hopes of performing at a commemorative event to celebrate Armistice Day on November 11, 2018.
“This program appeals to anyone and resonates with anyone who has had a loved one who served in the military. Even though these pieces were written 100 years ago, the themes ring true today,” Brancy concluded. “The general reaction we have gotten from audiences is that it not only educates them, but it delivers them to a place and time that is really hard to feel without the music. People can actually feel these moments deeply within their souls and spirits.”