A Savannah Symphony - Symphony No 2

A Savannah Symphony was commissioned by the Savannah Winds Symphony (Mark B. Johnson, conductor) and The Armstrong Atlantic State University Foundation to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Georgia. Funding the project was also supported by the participation of Norcross High School, Norcross, Georgia - Rudy Gilbert & Doug Maloney-Directors. The first performance, conducted by the composer, took place at the university on 30th November 2010.

Composer Philip Sparke had been attracted by the charming city of Savannah ever since his first visit there. It was therefore a delight to be asked to write a piece to mark this significant anniversary and, at the same time, honour America’s first ‘planned’ city and its fascinating history.

Unlike many American cities, Savannah was established without conflict or hardship. British General James Oglethorpe had crossed the Atlantic aboard the galley ship Anne with 114 men, women and children and landed at Yamacraw Bluff in 1733; he was greeted by the local Creek Indians, who gave him permission to settle there, and his continued co-operation with the indigenous peoples was central to the success of the new colony. The foundation of the city was an enlightened one: initially no slaves, liquor or lawyers were allowed and the burgeoning settlement welcomed those of many religious creeds and only those who could not support themselves in England. It was also made law to maintain peace with the Creek Indians. The opening movement, Yamacraw Bluff, February 12th, 1733, alludes to the undoubtedly arduous sea journey, the enlightened spirit of the city’s foundation and the formation of a successful colony.

The ban on slaves in Savannah was upheld till 1750. After that point their introduction was deemed necessary to help support the growing rice and cotton industries, which were to provide Savannah’s dominant export over the next century. After the Revolutionary War, a rapid increase in cotton production was helped by The Cotton Gin, invented in the city by Eli Whitney in 1793, which helped seed the cotton but was perhaps a mixed blessing. It led to an increase in output from 1,000 bales a year to 90,000 but undoubtedly made the lives of the slaves more repetitive and arduous; after a day in the fields picking cotton, they often had to labour into the night working a cotton gin. The second movement opens with the sound of the gin at work and highlights the repetitive nature of its operation. This is interrupted by Steal Away, one of many spirituals that contained secret allusions to the idea of slaves escaping to freedom, but the relentless toil of the gin returns until the movement ends with an oblique and painful reference to the spiritual.

One of Savannah’s greatest glories is its fabulous 19th century architecture. Following a disastrous city-wide fire in 1820, architects, especially William Jay, started building masterpieces such as the Owens-Thomas House, the Scarborough House and the Telfair Academy. Fortunately, these wonderful buildings were spared from destruction during the Civil War; General Sherman’s controversial March to the Sea in 1864, during which his policy of hard war probably caused more than $100 million of property damage in Georgia, involved a Federal army of 62,000 men marching the 300 miles from Atlanta to Savannah. They arrived on the outskirts of Savannah in December of that year but the city’s mayor, R. D. Arnold, offered to surrender the city in exchange for a promise to protect its people and property; Sherman later offered the city as a Christmas present to President Lincoln. In the 20th century, an extensive programme of preservation was undertaken by the Historic Savannah Foundation and the city now boasts the largest Historic Landmark District in the United States. The final movement, A City Born and Reborn, salutes the survival of this stunning architecture and represents Sherman’s arrival in the city with Marching through Georgia, written to commemorate the events of 1864. But perhaps the real victory was to be the restoration and revitalisation of the city in the second half of the 20th century, resulting in the delightful jewel that is Savannah today, and the movement ends in optimism and peace with hope for the future.

Performance notes:-

2nd Movement

The sounds used to represent the cotton gin are only suggestions and percussion sections are encouraged to experiment with alternatives. Please bear in mind the machine was small and hand-operated so heavy ‘industrial’ sounds should be avoided.

The use of the ‘positive organ’ voice for the synthesizer in bar 211 is meant to represent a harmonium. This is not meant to be historically accurate but is intended to suggest simplicity of worship. ­Any other suitable ‘folk’ instrument could be used.

3rd Movement

The section from bar 70 to bar 113 aims to represent Sherman’s ‘Civil War’ bands, both fife and drum and brass. Again use of authentic instruments, if possible, would add greatly to the effect. The positioning of the piccolos and field drums backstage should recreate the threatening sound of an approaching army, getting closer in bar 84.