Monday, September 22, 2008

More Voices Found: Emma Ashford

Composer Emma Louise Ashford died on this day in 1930. Generally I commemorate birthdays here, but hers (March 27, 1850) is shared with a few other hymnists, and I didn't want to wait until March to write about her anyway.

Emma sang and played musical instruments from a very young age, including a solo at a charity concert at age three. She was a teenage organist at an Episcopal church in Connecticut where
Dudley Buck was the director of music; later, after her marriage, she and her husband moved to Chicago where she was an alto soloist at the church where Buck was then employed. By now she had also begun her composing career.

Her husband took a position at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where she was to live the rest of her life. She traveled often to conduct and perform her works. She was very active in the musical life of Vanderbilt, and a small collection of her papers is maintained there.

She was invited to submit hymn tunes to the Methodist Hymnal of 1905, and two of her tunes were published there, one of which we'll hear today.

Life of ages, richly poured,
Love of God, unspent and free,
Flowing in the prophet’s word,
And the people’s liberty.

Never was to chosen race
That unfailing tide confined;
Thine is every time and place,
Fountain sweet of heart and mind.

Breathing in the thinker’s creed,
Pulsing in the hero’s blood,
Nerving noblest thought and deed,
Fresh’ning time with truth and good.

Consecrating art and song,
Holy book and pilgrim way,
Quelling strife and tyrant wrong,
Widening freedom’s sacred sway.

Life of ages, richly poured,
Love of God, unspent and free,
Flowing in the prophet’s word,
And the people’s liberty.

Samuel Johnson, 1864; alt.
Tune: EVELYN (
Emma L. Ashford, 1905

Samuel Johnson, co-editor of the Unitarian Hymns of the Spirit (1864) with his lifelong friend Samuel Longfellow, has a birthday coming up in a few weeks so we will talk more about him then.

Emma Ashford eventually composed over 600 pieces, for instruments, organ, and voice, including anthems, cantatas, and song cycles. One of her art songs can be seen online at the Sibley Library collection.

Near the end of her life, her Vanderbilt Ode was performed by the Nashville Symplony with a large chorus. On that occasion, the chancellor of the university predicted that Vanderbilt men and women would remember her and her music for a long time. I hope that's still true, and also that some of her other music can become more widely known.

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