An American Elegy

“Ah, music,” he said, wiping his eyes. “A magic beyond all we do here!” — Albus Dumbledore in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Composer Frank Ticheli has said that his hope for “An American Elegy” is that it might serve as “one reminder of how fragile and precious life is and how intimately connected we all are as human beings.” Ticheli was commissioned to write the orchestral piece to remember those who died in the shooting at Columbine High School in April of 1999, and to honor the lives of those who survived.

One of my dearest friends, about whom I’ve written often, heard the music played by her son’s school orchestra and was moved beyond words by the power of it, the poetic strength coupled with such vulnerable emotional resonance. She tucked away the title just like she tucked away other other things that moved and inspired her, quotes from Emerson and St. Augustine among them. After she died from metastatic breast cancer, Ticheli’s piece was played at the beginning of her memorial service, an instruction she had left behind for her family. Whenever I hear the opening bars, the music never fails to take my breath for a moment, in goosebumps and tears, just like it did the first time I heard it at her service.

Even after listening to the piece so many times now that I have lost track of the number, I remain in awe of Ticheli’s ability to simultaneously hold not just sadness in the notes but hope and inspiration, as well. I wonder at how it can bring me to tears and yet leave me feeling uplifted at the same time, a kind of magic, as Dumbeldore said, beyond all else.

Ticheli’s own description of creating the work tells its story best:

“I was moved and honored by this commission invitation, and deeply inspired by the circumstances surrounding it. Rarely has a work revealed itself to me with such powerful speed and clarity. The first eight bars of the main melody came to me fully formed in a dream. Virtually every element of the work was discovered within the span of about two weeks. The remainder of my time was spent refining, developing, and orchestrating.

The work begins at the bottom of the ensemble’s register, and ascends gradually to a heartfelt cry of hope. The main theme that follows, stated by the horns, reveals a more lyrical, serene side of the piece. A second theme, based on a simple repeated harmonic pattern, suggests yet another, more poignant mood. These three moods – hope, serenity, and sadness – become intertwined throughout the work, defining its complex expressive character. A four-part canon builds to a climactic quotation of the Columbine Alma Mater. The music recedes, and an offstage trumpeter is heard, suggesting a celestial voice – a heavenly message. The full ensemble returns with a final, exalted statement of the main theme.”

The grandeur of Ticheli’s piece reminded me of the photography of my friend J. Marion Brown, so with both her permission and Ticheli’s, I combined the two, feeling that the sweeping landscapes and lyrical moments captured in Brown’s images would underscore the inspiration and emotion of the music. At ten minutes playing time, the video requires a kind of patience and stillness we often lose touch with, particularly in the busyness of year end, so I offer it especially now, echoing Ticheli’s hope that it might be a reminder of how we are all connected to one another, to this planet, and to this one, wild precious life* we have.

“An American Elegy” was published by Manhattan Beach Music, on whose website a full discussion of the piece by Ticheli can be found. Header photograph above is copyright of J. Marion Brown, used with permission. For more of Brown’s work, visit her tumblr site, where she posts a daily photograph paired with a quote:

*credit to Mary Oliver whose poem, “The Summer Day” poses the question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

13 Comments on “An American Elegy

  1. This is so moving. I listened in the early morning and it brings peace … And joy to a mind. Thanks, Suzanne

  2. Hi Lucy, I commented on your blog, but not sure you got it…techno-genius that I am! I just wanted you to know, your blog this month is absolutely breath takingly beautiful. I watched it twice in a row! Thank you for sharing your incredible gift! And thank you too, for your sweet note! I so enjoy spending time with you too, and share your amazement at our synchronicities! I look forward to sharing more of them! Have a blessed and happy holiday season! Love, Susan

    Sent from my iPad


    • Thank you so much, Susan. Your techo-savvy is greater than you imagine. You were successful! Your kinds words mean a lot to me. This project, in particular, is a favorite of mine because it is a collaboration with my photographer friend, Julie, who has an extraordinarily discerning eye behind the camera. I look forward to what new synchronicities I have yet to discover with you. Hugs and happy holidays!

  3. Lucy, we’ve been on the road so I didn’t get to this until now. I think it is more powerful today in light of the recent, senseless, events. My heart is heavy…

  4. Dear Lucy, Thank you for this post – it’s simply beautiful! Such a tribute to the depth of your friendship with Elizabeth. In life and death, her impact is the gift that just keeps giving. Bless you for honoring her by connecting the gifts of others with your own. Please keep doing this… Love, Kris

    Sent from my iPhone


  5. Pingback: If only Politicians Listened to Music – The Power of Music

  6. One of the best concert band pieces ever written in my opinion. I lost my mom when I was 15 to breast cancer. I am currently a senior in high school and we are playing this in concert band. This song truly makes me think of her and the remarkable human being she was, and I can’t help myself from getting emotional every time I play it and listen to it. Thanks for sharing your story!

    • Hi Fanny, Thanks so much for your note. My deepest condolences on the loss of your mom when you were 15. I have goosebumps thinking that American Elegy moves you and connects you to your mom in a similar way to how it connects me to my dear friend, Elizabeth. The power of music, right?! I re-listened to all 11 minutes of the elegy after I received your comment. Ticheli most definitely has a great gift. By the way, he is a wonderfully nice human being, as well. I sent him the video along with the story of my friend before I posted it here and he was very kind and gracious in his reply. Take good care and best wishes in your senior year!

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