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The immortal words Abraham Lincoln spoke on a chilly November day in 1863 will reverberate off the walls of West Chester Rustin High School as the Chester County Choral Society presents “The Civil War: A 150th Anniversary Retrospective” May 3.
Drawing upon the remembrance of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which has been ongoing since 2011, Artistic Director Gary P. Garletts decided now was as good a time as any to put on a show revolved around the bloodiest four years in American history.
“It dawned on me a couple years ago when it was the 150th of Gettysburg,” Garletts said. “Maybe that would be an interesting subject? But I was a little late. Then I figured we could celebrate the end of the war. I pretty much proposed that to (the board) about a year or year and a half ago at one of our retreats. They thought it was a good idea.”
Drawing inspiration from a Civil War song book Garletts purchased years ago from Wheatland (James Buchanan’s home) in Lancaster, he started to plan out a course of action and a song list.
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“We’re covering 24 titles total, 20 of which are from the era itself,” he said. “Some of them are sung by the chorus and some of them are played by the band, with whom we are cooperating, and two of them are both of us together.”
Those in attendance will hear the familiar tunes of the “Star-Spangled Banner” — though not a Civil War era song, but was still around then — and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” along with the South’s “Bonnie Blue Flag” and “Dixie Land.”
For those who are well-versed in music of the time period will also take notice of songs such as “The Vacant Chair” and “All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight.”
“It looks like a very long program, but some of these songs are short, just two or three minutes each,” Garletts said. “I looked through (the song book) and figured out what I knew personally and figured if I knew them, perhaps the general public would know them. Then it was what was out there and existed that was arranged for choirs?”
Joining the choir on stage will be Becks Philadelphia Brigade Band, which is a premier Civil War reenactment band.
“One of our board members started looking around and saw the band from Philadelphia,” Garletts said. “I listened to their excerpts and they sounded pretty good. One of our board members contacted them and cleared the dates. They were very, very excited and honored the be asked.”
The band will have nine songs they will perform themselves, many of which are ones they don’t normally do at one of their concerts.
“As it turns out, because I was hitting what they consider some of the main tunes with the choir, it gave him the latitude to explore some of the ‘lesser known tunes,’” Garletts said. “He said for them, it was welcome. So often they’re playing the top 10 or 20 in their concerts.”
Unique to the concert will be the premiere of Garletts’ arrangement of “Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address,” sung by the choir.
Though the song itself has been around for over 50 years, this version will be new.
“Bruce Montgomery was commissioned by NBC in 1962 to write that to celebrate the centennial in 1963,” Garletts said. “He wrote it for men’s chorus and the (University of) Penn Glee Club. I contacted the foundation and got permission to do my arrangement.”
To help set the scene and the mood for the audience, Meg Sutter, a daughter of one of the sopranos, will put on a performance as people enter the building.
“(She) is a junior music and Civil War major at Gettysburg College,” Garletts said. “She is going to, in period costume, play flute, piccolo and fife music in the foyer for 10 to 15 minutes before the concert.”
The concert will also feature a photo presentation, along with displays of soldiers’ crosses for both the Union and Confederacy.
The theme of the concert has gotten members of the Choral Society more excited than usual.
Feeding off that, they were given a little project to do, if they so chose, to make it all more personal and will be featured in the program.
“We invited members to submit information about any of their ancestors that may have been involved in the war — what side, what battle, what location,” Garletts said. “We had quite a good response. This whole era of history has affected us more personally than we realize.
“It is a topic that I think is more popular than I even imagined. I figured it would cut across a lot of lines in our society, but I think it’s even more so than I thought.”
For more information and tickets, visit www.chestercountychoralsociety.org.