“You’re free — free as air.”
Abraham Lincoln is said to have spoken those words to the newly freed enslaved population of Richmond while surveying the wreckage left by the fleeing Confederate army near the end of the Civil War. Lincoln was advised not to visit, given the volatility and recentness of the Confederate capital’s fall, yet there he was — a scene composer Curt Sydnor has set to music in his new chamber symphony, “The Fall of Richmond.”
The three-movement piece, which Sydnor will premiere in public with the help of Classical Revolution RVA at Gallery5 on Sunday, April 2, began taking shape shortly after his 2019 move to Richmond. “I had plenty of time in those early days in Richmond to explore and learn about the history,” he says.
Fans of Sydnor’s recent releases may know him as a genre-bending polymath who combined elements from just about every era of American music on a pair of boldly experimental EPs, 2020’s “Revolutionary Etudes” and 2021’s “The Consort,” and on last year’s visionary full-length, “Heaven Is Begun.” Others know him as minister of music at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Church Hill. But Sydnor’s jazz and classical chops run especially deep, the result of undergraduate study at Vanderbilt University, graduate work at the University of Indiana and two years at the Russian Academy of Music in Moscow, homeland of idols Scriabin, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.
After a stint living in New York, Sydnor moved back to his native Lynchburg, and six months later to Richmond. One particular moment in the final Confederate stronghold’s past grabbed his imagination: “I was really obsessed with the archetypal story of Union troops liberating Richmond and Lincoln showing up the next day, kind of like a borderline suicide mission to see firsthand what the war has wrought … It just seems so unreal.”
Setting history to song
“The Fall of Richmond” isn’t Sydnor’s first go-round with depicting this remarkable turning point in song. The opening track of “Revolutionary Etudes” pairs the Ornette Coleman composition “War Orphans” with words from Walt Whitman’s post-assassination elegy to Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” The passage scans like a first-person account of the perilous tour taken by the president: “And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them / I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war.”
Sydnor’s new work addresses those events wordlessly. The first movement is a chaotic representation of the fires set by Lee’s army as it retreated, the second an andante centerpiece inspired by Dvořák’s “American Quartet” depicting Lincoln approaching the city by water, the third a jubilant finale capturing the uplifting effect of being “free as air.” Along the way, melodic elements of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black National Anthem, can be heard, weaving together this journey from fire to water to air.
“When it emerged in the composition process, it surprised me,” Sydnor says of the “Lift Every Voice” theme. “It really just came out of the pen, so to speak… The theme kept finding its way back in, reharmonized and inverted, embedded in various ways in the texture. That’s when the engine really took off.”
Sydnor first conceived of “The Fall of Richmond” as an operetta, with some elements slated for overture or prelude music. But the motivation to finish it struck during the summer of 2020, amid the racial justice protests spurred by George Floyd’s murder and calls for the removal of Confederate monuments. “I was really caught up in all of that,” Sydnor says, “and I was inspired by the Kehinde Wiley sculpture unveiled in front of [the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts], inspired by the real intensity of feeling at the time and the people who were making their voices heard.”
A monumental mission
Sydnor has memories of visiting Richmond as a kid and being struck by the monuments upon first glance, not having context around the figures on the pedestals or the turn-of-the-20th-century Lost Cause movement that placed them there. “I remember on those childhood trips to Richmond going down Monument Avenue and seeing these huge things. And when they were coming down, and when new statues were going up that were engaging in that historical discussion, I thought, ‘I want to create a musical monument.’”
A key partner along the way has been Naima Burrs, who will conduct the performance at Gallery5. A longtime Classical Revolution collaborator, Burrs teaches at Virginia State University and the University of Richmond, in addition to serving as music director for the Petersburg Symphony Orchestra. The two first worked together when Burrs stepped up as substitute violinist during a pre-pandemic Celtic service at Sydnor’s previous parish, Emmanuel Episcopal Church. “Anything that Curt asks, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it,’” Burrs says. “It’s always just a fun experience, and I always learn a lot as well.”
“It would be very hard for me to do this piece with a conductor that is not Naima,” Sydnor says. “She and I share so much of the same musical sympathies. We are inspired by so many of the same styles and pieces and possibilities, classical music and otherwise.”
Despite Sydnor’s vision for “The Fall of Richmond” as public art that’s freely accessible — there’s no charge for admission on April 2 — playing this self-described “unwieldy” music is another matter. In addition to the technical intricacies involved, the size of the nine-piece ensemble presented a challenge for Sydnor. “I’m not used to working with an ensemble that large,” he says. “Once the pieces started to fit together — the different musicians, their personalities, their strengths — it became apparent that we’ve got what it takes to play this rather difficult music.”
Burrs credits Sydnor’s collaborative and compositional gifts when it comes to making complexity work within program music, which looks to convey an extramusical narrative. “Whether you have a question about something — ‘How do you want this to be?’ or ‘How do you want that to be?’ — he’s able to get his points across,” she says. “And if you play the score as it is, he composes in a way that you don’t have to ask too many questions. You can kind of play it for what you see on the page and I think the idea comes across.”
Sydnor says the players “rose to the occasion” during a private performance of the piece last fall. He hadn’t initially considered reaching out to local ensembles but was encouraged to do so by Ayça Kartari, bassist for both Turkish-language group Yeni Nostalji and Classical Revolution RVA, whose mission is to integrate classical music with Richmond’s broader music scene by staging performances in bars, restaurants and venues that might not otherwise host symphonies and sonatas. The event at Gallery5 will incorporate projected images of the destruction inflicted by Confederate forces, including those captured by famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.
The sound of possibility
Sydnor is hoping the performance on April 2, the date that coincides with the start of Richmond’s fall in 1865, will broaden and sharpen attendees’ understanding of the events surrounding the Civil War’s conclusion. “I want that story to be much more foregrounded in our understanding of Richmond history, where the evil system falls and there’s a moment before that evil reconstitutes itself where there are infinite possibilities.”
In that sense, the piece points to concerns that remain pressing to this day. Lincoln traveled to Richmond to assess devastation but ended up spreading hope. It's said that a formerly enslaved onlooker threw himself at the president’s feet, and that Lincoln responded by saying, “From now on you do not kneel to me; you kneel only to God. You kneel only to your creator.”
“The potential in that brief period of time was immense,” Sydnor says of the Reconstruction era. “When things look bad and intractable, no matter how entrenched a system may appear to be, it’s never as strong as it looks.”
The piece hits close to home for Naima Burrs, as well. “It’s cool being part [of] something that’s so different… and something that’s historically relevant to the area and where we actually live and where we’re performing it.”
Curt Sydnor’s chamber symphony,“The Fall of Richmond,” will be performed by Classical Revolution RVA at Gallery5 on Sunday, April 2. Doors open at 6:40 p.m. and music starts at 7 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit gallery5arts.org.