Music by David Sampson (1984-85) Libretto by Johanna Keller, David Sampson
During the spring of 1970, I was completing my first year at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. One afternoon, upon leaving school, I became intrigued by a book fair that was being presented at nearby Rittenhouse Square. Entering the small park, I began to browse through the displays of used books and almost immediately came upon a slim, hardback edition of a book by Mark Twain titled “The War Prayer”. As I flipped the pages, reading the extended poem illustrated with pen and ink scenes, I became caught up in its message. It spoke of the “full import of war”, not just the killing and maiming of one’s own troops, but, the effect on the “enemy”, including the destruction of their land and the pain inflicted on their women and children. It spoke of religious leaders aiding and abetting the war effort, which Twain saw as a gross hypocrisy. Since this was at the height of the Vietnam War and I had seen the photographs and film clips of the devastation not just to our troops but to Vietnam as a whole, and I had witnessed the members of the Lutheran congregation of which I was a part, vote in favor of Johnson’s Vietnam policy, the words rang true. I vowed that someday I would set this poem to music.
As time passed and I went from student to teacher, I noticed how quickly Vietnam was forgotten or in the case of the next generation never remembered. I saw a high school student body ready to grab weapons and “destroy Iran” because of Americans taken hostage. I saw the vehemence and hatred in the eyes of these teenagers as “war fever” again swept across the country. The message of “The War Prayer” came back to me.
Shortly afterward, I received my chance to set the poem through a fellowship grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a residency from the McDowell Colony. Coincidentally, I was in the middle of doctorate work at the Manhattan School of Music studying with John Corigliano, who had just finished the first act of his “Ghosts of Versailles” for the Metropolitan Opera. Needing guidance in the writing of the libretto, I contacted a poet/writer/singer friend by the name of Johanna Keller who agreed to help me shape a singable text out of Twain’s narrative. We spent many long hours tossing ideas around, literally piecing the text together from scraps of paper strewn all over Johanna’s living room floor. I then tested out our ideas with Vern Arens, minister at Brookside Community Church, the church at which I was music director. We realized that as we were expanding on the reactions of Twain’s congregation, we were really contemplating the reactions of Brookside. The parallels were natural considering the church was founded in 1894 in rural New Jersey and has continued to maintain its country church flavor to this day.
With the libretto complete and a strong sense of the essential dramatic direction, I began writing the music during the fall of 1984 and completed the work during the summer of 1985 at the McDowell Colony. The premiere was scheduled to take place in New York the following season but had to be cancelled. I then experienced over the next several years the difficulty in scheduling an opera even in concert version by a composer not known for his choral works. While I was having great success with my chamber and orchestral works, this piece seemed too risky. Finally, Frances Slade, director of Princeton Pro Musica, studied the work and indicated to me that she wanted to perform it. On May 20, 1995, in Princeton, NJ, twenty-five years after the accidental discovery of the only poem ever written by Mark Twain, “The War Prayer” was performed.