Three American Portraits
Though best known for his television and film scores – 10 Emmys, plus an Oscar nomination for Silverado and a Grammy nomination for Young Sherlock Holmes – Bruce Broughton has also composed a distinguished body of concert music, including several concertos and works for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Debussy Trio. Three American Portraits was commissioned by Westwind Brass, which gave the premiere in San Diego in 2006. Barry Toombs, the horn player and Executive Director of Westwind Brass, interviewed Broughton about the work; the composer's following comments are excerpted from that interview.
“The idea for the title actually came about after I was well into the piece. Both the first and second movements were already in progress, but it seemed to me that they each had a quality that I couldn’t quite define. Identifying them with the specific individuals actually helped get the pieces completed. Though the piece musically is not in any way ‘Americana,’ the three individuals portrayed all exhibit a very archetypal American quality, that of never giving up.”
The bright and bustling opening movement, full of fanfares, is named for Napoleon Hill (1883-1970), one of America's first self-help gurus. “I associate Napoleon Hill with the power of positive thinking. In fact, the marking for the movement is ‘with a positive mental attitude,’ known to anyone who has read Hill simply as PMA.
“Hill just does not allow for anything more than a positive attitude. This movement seemed to me to be essentially energetic and positive, and repeats the same motive over and over, just like Napoleon Hill. It didn’t seem too much of a stretch to identify the music with his personality.”
A simple tune floats over a placid chorale in the middle movement, representing the 30th president of the United States. “Whenever I think of or read about Calvin Coolidge, I’ve noted more his consistency, to the point of dullness, than any other quality. Taciturn ‘Silent Cal’ could never be caught laughing or expressing himself in any enthusiastic manner. He has always seemed to me emotionally flat. His father, a notary public, swore him into the presidency after the death of Warren Harding, whose ‘return to normalcy’ program Coolidge carried out. This movement portrays, if anything, consistency, relying upon no dynamic or harmonic modulation, and depends upon the positive motive from the Hill movement as an ostinato underpinning for the entire movement.”
There is an urgent, driving edge to the finale, and ominous harmonic colors. “Sherman was relentless. While reading U.S. Grant’s memoirs, it was obvious to me that Sherman was the one general that Grant could rely upon for getting a job done. Though it was Sherman who famously said, ‘War is hell,’ I made no attempt at trying to reconstruct the terror or emotional content of that statement. It was the unrelenting energy I was mostly interested in.”