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Arts Desk

Dave Burrell’s Take on Robert E. Lee and Lincoln

From 2010 to 2015, composer and pianist Dave Burrell wrote 24 works inspired by his study of the Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s collection of Civil War documents and photos. The poems and lyrics of Monika Larsson also gave life to many of these compositions. Consulting with experts and scholars, Burrell and Larsson traced the route of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train from Washington to Springfield, Illinois.

The project coincided with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War; the final concert was in April 2015. In this two-part feature, we look at one of Burrell’s first compositions, “Robert E. Lee: Nocturne,” and the last, “Homage to the Martyr,” in which Burrell put Larsson’s poem about Abraham Lincoln to music.

Meridee Duddleston: When the Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia searched for a creative outlet for its trove of Civil War materials it turned to avant-garde jazz pianist and composer Dave Burrell. The result: a five-year series of salon-style concerts with music Burrell composed, inspired by Gettysburg and Vicksburg, a slave’s run for freedom, the emotions of mothers, generals, the nation, and Lincoln.

Burrell started by poring over books, notebooks, and letters, taking notes in a reading room. As his knowledge of the war deepened, some obvious images became hazy—take his musical depiction of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in 1861.

Dave Burrell: I didn’t want to write this mighty mighty patriotic confederate march for Robert at that point. I wrote a waltz.

MD: Burrell discerned a reticence among Lee and other the officers on the battlefield, many of whom were friends from West Point. And so among his early musical portraits Lee got the waltz.

DB: And I’ll tell you why, because I read so many letters from him to his children, his wife, and his family about the sacrifice that he had to make for being so far away from them for so long, and it struck me as romantic.

With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War over, Burrell says the project only heightened his sense of the unfinished business surrounding race relations and equality, and his own drive to find an afterlife for the spirit of his music.