Liberty is the second of the three inalienable rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence, its exercise requiring the first (Life) and leading to the third (the Pursuit of Happiness).
Liberty is not mentioned in the American national anthem, Francis Scott Key concentrating his meager poetical talents on images of war and destruction rather than on the ideals on which his country was supposedly founded. Indeed, some liberty-seekers received only Key’s condemnation: the British invaders of the War of 1812 freed the slaves they encountered, enlisting some to fight against their former masters. Key scoffed at these freedom fighters in his third verse, claiming that “no refuge could save them.”
In “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” penned by the nineteenth-century Baptist Minister Samuel Francis Smith, the word comes as the first of any significance, the cleric rhyming closing the first rhyme with: “Sweet Land of Liberty.” Liberty and Freedom appear several times across the hymn’s seven verses.
In pairing his lofty lines with the British anthem, “God Save the King” and re-baptizing the tune “America,” Smith proved that melodies, unlike men, are easily liberated from their masters. That the tune could be shared by the British and their former American colonists also showed that the political break of 1776 was more organizational than ideological, and certainly not cultural. The Brits and the Americans spoke the same language and sang the same songs. Even the tune for Key’s rabid doggerel was English—a drinking song known as the Anacreontic Ode.
The musical commerce went in both directions. Lyricists from the Old Country were listening out for what the Americans were singing about—and vice-versa. In 1836 the British editor and poet William Hickson wrote an alternate text to “God Save the King” that was later included in the English Hymnal of 1906 for the Anglican Church edited by Ralph Vaughan Williams. A central verse echoed sentiments sung on the other side of the Atlantic:
May just and righteous laws
Uphold the public cause,
And bless our Isle:
Home of the brave and free,
Thou land of Liberty,
We pray that still on thee
Kind Heav’n may smile.
A few years after Smith’s “America” was performed for the first time in public at the 1889 Washington Centennial (and a few years before the publication of Vaughan Williams’ English Hymnal), the social activist, women’s rights advocate, and Wellesley professor Katherine Lee Bates wrote the text of “America the Beautiful.” Bates invoked Liberty in order to clinch the second of her four verses. Fired by reformist zeal, she covertly took aim at the sexist appetites and capitalistic selfishness of the citizenry and its leaders:
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.
Here’s betting that Donald Trump would take a knee if ever forced to sing these lines.
The tune for these sentiments was supplied by the Newark organist, Samuel August Ward, composer of many similarly rousing Victorian era hymns. For his setting of “America the Beautiful” Ward invented a simple melody reliant on insistent repeated notes and supported by harmonic action that moves slowly even as the bass line marches vigorously towards glory. Not so subtly, he then colors the sonority with chromatic passing tones (a kind of barbershop quarter effect) so as to tug at the patriotic heartstrings when the lyric catches sight of the “amber waves of grain” and “the fruited plain.” Ward even engineered a clever inversion of the voices so that at the refrain (“America! America! God shed his grace on thee”), the tune sung in the top line at the opening suddenly thunders forth in the bass, as if divine patriotism and moral improvement were welling up from the land itself and the idealistic citizens who call it home.
After deploying this bit of clever contrapuntal artifice to represent Christian democratic values, Ward concludes each verse with a unison affirmation of Manifest Destiny (“from sea to shining sea!”), soprano, alto, tenor and bass singing the same four notes that declare the north American continent now happily civilized, all free but respectful of others (“Thy liberty in law”). Only the last two notes return to four-part harmony for the final cadence that resounds like hammer blows to the Golden Spike.
Yet none of these musical fulminations about liberty gives one a sense of excitement and anticipation. The idea appears a bludgeon not an elixir.
It is remarkable that the greatest master of capturing ideals in music sung in the English language was not a native speaker: George Frideric Handel. Born in autocratic Prussia, he emigrated to England and spend nearly five decades of his life there.
Handel’s last collaborator in the popular oratorios that established him as an English institution during his own lifetime and ever since, was the clergyman and printer, Thomas Morell, a man almost obsessively drawn to the subject of liberty and therefore treated by Handel in their subsequent collaborations. The first of Morell’s librettos set by Handel was that for Judas Maccabaeus, a work conceived to honor the Duke of Cumberland for defeating the Jacobite invasion led by Charles Edward Stuart (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”) at the Battle of Culloden in April of 1746. For this purpose, Morell chose the story of the rebel warrior Maccabees and their struggle to preserve their religion against Hellenistic pagans. The Maccabees wanted to keep on worshipping the one true god rather than Zeus and his bunch. The oratorio’s opening chorus “Mourn ye afflicted children” sounds forth as if from a gloomy dungeon, its inmates bemoaning the extinguishing of their “sanguine hopes of liberty.”
The desire for freedom runs through the libretto, extending even to calls for “liberty or death.” In the oratorio’s first act an “Israelitish Woman” anticipates her people’s emancipation in back-to-back arias. The first is forthright and plain-spoken, the cello introduction and vocal line that follows such earnest eloquence that projects unwavering truth.
O liberty, thou choicest treasure,
Seat of virtue, source of pleasure!
Life, without thee, knows no blessing,
No endearment worth caressing.
After this statement of belief, she breaks into a brighter, jauntier expression of hope with “Come, ever-smiling liberty.” Already in the instrumental introduction to the aria, Handel captures the irrepressible flame of freedom in the leaps up to unpredictably off-beat repeated notes.
Enter an “Israelitish Man” (sung at the original performance by the Italian mezzo-soprano Catherina Galli) lighted even more powerfully by the thirst for emancipation, the vocal line buoyed by the hoped-for release from servitude: “’Tis liberty, dear liberty alone / That gives fresh beauty to the sun.”
The man and woman then join in a duet on the same theme, urging each other on in rapturous anticipation of their release from bondage.
The Pretender vanquished on the battlefield up in Scotland and in song on the stage of the Covent Garden theatre in London, Britons would remain free. The encomium to religious liberty offered by Morell and Handel did not extend to the reform of anti-Catholic laws and sentiments.
This contradiction is all the more palpable, since Handel’s characters are themselves deprived of liberty and cherish all the more what they do not have. In contrast to the ponderous pronouncements of nationalistic hymns and anthems, Handel makes liberty a source of beauty and joy.