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PROGRAM NOTES

America the Beautiful (1910)

 

Samuel Ward (1848–1903)

Katharine Lee Bates (1859–1929)
arr. Carmen Dragon (1914–84) 

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ABOUT THIS PIECE
 

The version of this patriotic song popular today was first published in 1910 as a combination of Samuel Ward’s hymn tune “Materna” (1882) and Katharine Lee Bates’s poem “America” (1893). Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College, wrote the poem after having traveled to the top of Pikes Peak in Colorado via covered wagon and mule. From the top of the mountain, she could see almost to Kansas to the east and across to the Rocky Mountains to the North—a view that inspired gratefulness and hope. “All the wonder of America seemed displayed there.” The poem was set to a number of tunes over time, but the tune that eventually stuck was Ward’s “Materna”—a melody originally meant for the hymn “O Mother Dear, Jerusalem” by the Scottish theologian David Dickson. In 1904, Bates published an updated version of the poem that simplified its phrasing and rhyme, easing its musical setting, but the song’s unrelenting optimism and splendorous vision remained. 

The original text for the first verse of Bates’s poem:

O beautiful for halcyon skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the enameled plain!

America! America!

God shed His grace on thee,

Till souls wax fair as earth and air

And music-hearted sea!



Program notes by:
Dr. Jessica Getman

Assistant Professor of Musicology/Ethnomusicology
California State University, San Bernardino