for trombone quartet
Trombone Sermons is very loosely inspired by James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones, a collection of “Seven Negro Sermons in Verse,” in the author’s subtitle, first published in 1927 and a classic of early 20th-century African-American literature. In it Johnson gives poetic renditions of some of the sermons he heard preached in the black churches of his youth. In the introduction he speaks of one preacher’s voice as “a voice-what shall I say?-not of an organ or a trumpet, but rather of a trombone, the instrument possessing above all others the power to express the wide and varied range of emotions encompassed by the human voice-and with greater amplitude.” This of course gives the title to the collection.
When my University of Louisville colleague Brett Shuster asked me to write a piece for the Elysian Trombone Consort, a group of which is a member, I looked for some sort of extra-musical inspiration (I compose pieces with titles like “sonata” or “quartet” only infrequently) and remembered Johnson’s wonderful set of poems, which I read several times in my youth. It seemed natural to come to these poems for that inspiration.
I have attempted only to express the general emotional content of the three poems represented here, not their structure or specific dramatic flow. Except for the quotation of the well-known spiritual of the same title in the second movement (“Let My People Ago”), I have not made use of the vernacular music that would have been heard in these church services. Instead I have tried to put my own emotional stamp on the poems and their subject matter, using the trombones as my expressive vehicle.