October 22, 2020 Organ Notes

Julie Ward Howe and Battle Hymn of Republic, Part 2

World’s Peace Jubilee coliseum, Back Bay, Boston, 1872

On New Year’s Day, 1863, thousands of abolitionists gathered at Boston’s Music Hall. They were celebrating the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln. Among the celebrants was Julia Ward Howe. She rose to the stage. The program included the Handel and Haydn Society. But the choral group, in which she was a participant, and the society’s Appleton organ were still. In the hushed hall, she recited the lines of Battle Hymn of the Republic, the great hymn that she had written two years earlier.

The hymn has endured. It is inextricably tied to the trilogy of modern American tragedy in the 1960’s. It is the hymn that Judy Garland sang to comfort the grieving nation after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and that Andy Williams sang to uplift a torn nation after the assassination of Robert Kennedy. And the hymn’s surging spirit reverberated deeply with Martin Luther King, Jr. King was in Memphis, Tennessee to support the sanitation workers’ strike. He ended his speech with a line from the Battle Hymn: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” It was his last public pronouncement. The next day he was struck by an assassin’s bullet and died in his motel room.

The song continues in the American consciousness. At the memorial service for 9/11, 2001, held in the National Cathedral of Washington D.C., the choir struck up the familiar tune. The congregation and five American presidents sang along. They were accompanied by the cathedral’s Great Organ with its four manual console, 121 stops, 189 ranks and 10,647 pipes.

The song swells in grandeur; but it also pierces in simplicity. In 1872, the World’s Peace Jubilee and International Musical Festival was held in Boston’s Back Bay. It featured musical extravaganzas such as Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore performed by a 2,000-member orchestra, a 20,000-voice chorus, and 100 Boston firemen wielding hammers against anvils. Accompanying them was a forty-three foot high pipe organ, advertised (falsely) as the largest in the world.

But, as at the Emancipation Celebration in 1863, the organ was silent for the most memorable performance of the festival. There were 40,000 listeners in Boston’s Coliseum that day in June 1872 when a group of nine Black Americans—five men and four women—sang Battle Hymn of the Republic. Singing a cappella. Their voices blended in pure perfection. As they sang out the final stanza: “He hath sounded out the trumpet, Which shall never call retreat…,” they electrified their audience. They were the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University. They were at the beginning of a grueling seven-year tour of two continents. Their goal, which they achieved, was to sing their newly-founded university out of debt. The singers, like all the students of Fisk University in its first years, had themselves been slaves only a few years earlier.

Four years after the performance of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in Boston, Samuel Howe, the husband of Julia Ward Howe, died. A day after his funeral, she wrote to a friend that her second life had begun. She devoted the remaining thirty-six years of her life to the causes of pacifism, women’s education and, most fervently of all, women’s suffrage.

Julia Ward Howe died ten years before women achieved the right to vote in US elections. She died fifty-seven years before women achieved the right to vote in the Handel and Haydn Society. When it had been founded in 1815, only men could be members. Women were recruited as vital participants, but they could not be members; they could not vote. The Handel and Haydn Society waited until 1967 to admit women as members and to extend them the vote.

At Christ Church, we will have the opportunity to sing Battle Hymn of the Republic accompanied by our new organ. When we do, I will think of a valiant woman who never retreated. I, and perhaps others among us, will be saying: “Julia Ward Howe, you make me so proud to be a woman.”

World’s Peace Jubilee coliseum, Back Bay, Boston, 1872