Uncle Tom’s Cabin:
a compilation of musical compositions
The music of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is part of a larger body of work contained within The Muse Project.
In Lynda Roth’s words:
Working with a novel such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin presents different challenges from writing music to an historical document, such as The U.S. Constitution, mostly because of the nature of the novel itself. Novels are generally much longer and more complex, with a story arc and characters.
In the case of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, rather than present the novel in a linear fashion, I chose to focus on the main characters and their attitudes toward slavery as expressed in the story. The most important thing to me is how Harriet Beecher Stowe brought forth and identified the numerous and varied views of slavery during that time period.
The songs are specific to each character with lyrics taken directly from the novel. Some of the musical pieces include dialogue, bringing characters together to say things to each other, although never exactly presented this way in the novel. An example is Miss Ophelia’s Song which contains two dialogues: one between St. Clair and Miss Ophelia, and another between Topsy and Miss Ophelia. Another example is the love ballad, Free, sung by George and Eliza Harris, in which their words taken from different chapters, are juxtaposed.
SHELBY AND THE TRADER
The opening song, Shelby and the Trader, is almost a standard Broadway opener, very theatrical in the interpretation, because it was a highly emotional moment for Mr. Shelby to have to sell Tom and the little boy, Harry Harris. This Broadway type approach also musically allows for dialogue between Shelby and Haley, the trader. I chose Shelby to be a baritone voice because I imagine him very authoritative but loving. Haley is the tenor because I imagine him kind of weasel-like. There’s an instrumental interlude where you hear banjo music playing. This is where Harry comes in and does a dance, which is what makes Haley want to throw Harry into the deal to resolve Mr. Shelby’s debts. I chose to interpret that whole scene instrumentally rather than lyrically. The piece concludes on a very carefree note… as Shelby ends the discussion with himself on a light note: “So much for being in debt. Heigh-ho..”
The next piece, Free, is a love duet between George and Eliza Harris. The music is R & B in style, a ballad ala Denise Williams and Jonny Mathis (really dating myself here…). Again the lyrics are 100 % from the text although George’s and Eliza’s words are not in the same place in the novel. Eliza’s are taken from the chapter where she’s escaping, and George’s are from a discussion with one of the minor characters. I brought their words together into one artistic piece.
WORTHY OF OUR NAME
The next piece, Worthy of Our Name, is sung by the Quakers of the underground railroad who helped George and Eliza during their escape to freedom. I chose to write this piece as a hymn to convey the religious convictions of the community. There are some solo lines that show dialogue between the father, son, and the mother which highlight the danger that the community was in by participating in the underground. Yet despite the obstacles, the community is compelled to help. A modulation (key change raising the music to a higher key) at the end of the piece musically identifies this determination.
MISS OPHELIA’S SONG
In the opening to Miss Ophelia’s Song, the choir sings an objective description of her personality. The song evolves into dialogue between Miss Ophelia and St. Clare, where she shows her feelings about the relationship between little Eva and Uncle Tom as well as her relationship with Topsy. There’s also a section of the piece where Topsy sings. The entire song has a Broadway feel. It is curt, abrupt, and determined, as I imagine Ms. Ophelia to be.
ST. CLARE’S SONG
To me St. Clare came across as quite the dandy. His disdain for slavery is evident in his willingness to let his slaves run his plantation as they see fit. The music reflects this carefree attitude with its quick tempo and the ensuing quick patter of the lyrics. Part of the song is sung, part spoken (ala Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady).
PAVANE FOR EVA
A pavane is basically a French classical song form for a ballad. I selected it because its gentle nature matched Eva’s gentleness of spirit. It has a melodic sway, a sweetness to the music. I imagine this song sung by a choir of elementary school girls. Similar to Ms. Ophelia’s song, it begins with the choir singing a description of Miss Eva’s personality. The song also contains lines from Eva taken sequentially from the story: as she meets Tom on the boat, asks her father to buy him, and on until her death. These lines would be sung solo by a young girl as well.
SIMON LEGREE’S RANT
I interpreted Simon Legree’s piece as heavy metal rock and roll. The hard edge of the music is still almost no match for the hard edge of Simon Legree. The lyrics to this piece, again directly from text, are almost shocking; it is not language which would be considered politically correct today. There is a section where Legree sings a line to Miss Cassy, his black mistress, showing his utter hatred for his slaves. This is probably the most visceral piece within Uncle Tom, and could not be sung nasty enough by the singer.
UNCLE TOM’S SONG
I saved Uncle Tom’s piece for the final in the collection. The song exists in a series of sections which follows his story in a linear fashion, opening with his talk with his wife and children about being sold, continuing through his relationship with little Eva, St. Clare, Simon Legree and other inhabitants on the plantation, and ending with his death. While the music is gentle in nature, the use of melody line and rhythm also shows the tension that Tom experiences as well as the strength derived from his great faith. The final lines switch to the Lydian mode (a musical construct in which the fourth note of the scale gets sharped) which is musically uplifting, reflecting Tom’s complete self assurance that he is going to the glory of God. I imagine his voice as a soothing, reassuring baritone.
Other pieces to be written
These eight songs represent the voices of the major characters; I’ve had ideas to compose further songs based on the secondary characters. One of the pieces would be sung by Miss Cassy and Emmeline as they plan their escape
from Simon Legree’s plantation. I imagine this piece to show the women’s cleverness and sense of humor by playing on Legree’s predictable behavior on seeking out runaway slaves. Another piece would deal with the opening of the book showing Tom in his cabin. Also, if Uncle Tom’s Cabin were performed as a theatrical piece, I imagine a grand finale.
I can’t stress enough the importance that all lyrics are derived directly from the text. My interpretation is strictly musical, not lyrical. The pieces remain true to Ms. Stowe’s words.