Abigail Adams in song
The Museum of the American Revolution presents Melissa Dunphy’s ‘Remember the Ladies’
Gail Obenreder of Broad Street Review
March 30, 2021
“When you think of the Museum of the American Revolution, choral music is not the first thing that comes to mind.” Dr. Tyler Putman, speaking from the museum, was right. Putman oversees programming there, and he was introducing the premiere of Philadelphia composer Dr. Melissa Dunphy’s “Remember the Ladies,” a new setting for one of America’s great documents.
The impetus for the event was the presence of the March 31, 1776 missive from Abigail Adams to her husband John, known as the “remember the ladies” letter. The Adamses were a devoted couple who corresponded regularly when apart, and here Abigail, at home in Massachusetts, writes to her husband in Philadelphia, where he’s engaged in the philosophical, political, and literary conclave that determined the colonies’ fate.
A 250-year journey
The letter’s text was a perfect match for Dunphy, who spoke at the March 25 digital premiere.
“I’m primarily a storyteller,” said Dunphy, whose musical oeuvre includes vocal, political, and theatrical compositions. Her website carries a mission statement to “bring the voices of women and minorities to the stage,” and she often sets prose that doesn’t easily lend itself to composition.
“How an imaginary person becomes real in the presence of the letter which has traveled 250 years through time” was enormously inspiring to Dunphy. “Remember the Ladies” is an a cappella four-minute choral work that is very straightforward, honoring both its text and historicity. Written in four parts, the piece is constructed using the traditional cadence and conventions of chorales or anthems (like those of William Billings or Francis Hopkinson) that would have been heard (and composed) in 18th-century America. Its text painting—the sopranos’ high-G suspension on the word “hold” or their repeated obbligato cadence on the phrase “I long to hear you”—fits smoothly into the work’s traditional format.
The composition premiered in a five-minute video that opens with a disembodied hand penning the letter. It morphs to the composer writing her opening bars with an ink pen, whose persistent scratching noise reminds us that cursive writing actually used to have a sound. The piece was sung cleanly and with fervor by the Philadelphia community choir PhilHarmonia, for whom it was commissioned, and executive director Sara H. Brown and artistic director Mitos Andaya Hart participated in the post-performance discussion. The video was created by audio engineer Ryan LaRocque, who stitched together individual recorded segments from the choir’s 40 members, painstakingly synchronizing them to create an audio file that sounds very much like the group singing in one space, together.
The voices behind the music
That iconic catchphrase “remember the ladies” has a sidelong obliqueness that women often use when addressing a cause especially important to them, which Dunphy noted in her remarks and used musically in her construction. But Abigail also reminds John that “if particular care and attention is not paid . . . we are determined to foment a rebellion, will not hold ourselves bound by laws in which we have no voice.”
Throughout, Dunphy gives primacy to the letter writer. There are no clouds of sound; there is no fancy musical footwork. The text is anchored in straightforward chords, clear moving melodies, and some lightly developed canonic work that never occludes or overshadows those famous words. Dunphy, frequently commissioned for choral works, has written for PhilHarmonia previously. For the composer, “choral singing is about community,” something impossible for the past year and into an indefinite future. But several PhilHarmonia members were able to visit the museum, and upon seeing one another after a year apart, burst into the song in the letter’s presence.
The women who built our nation
This missive generally holds pride of place at the Massachusetts Historical Society and rarely leaves its home. But it was loaned to MoAR for its current exhibition When Women Lost the Vote: A Revolutionary Story, 1776-1807. Speaking from Massachusetts, Gwen Fries—editor of the Adams Papers Editorial Project—noted that when looking at the actual letter, you can “see where it was folded and where she took a break or sharpened her quill.”
This is the first time the document has been back in Philadelphia since Abigail mailed it and John opened her envelope 245 years ago, and that immediacy thrilled Dunphy. She sees it not only as a view on the rights of women in 1776 but as a call to “remember the women who built our nation.” The piece will live on virtually, of course, but PhilHarmonia is hopeful that in the not-too-distant future they will be able to sing it together, in person, inside the museum that commissioned it.