Portraits in Bluestone was commissioned by James Madison University to celebrate its centennial (1908 – 2008). It was designed to feature several of the premiere performing ensembles both individually and together. Originally, the commission was to be written for chamber strings, a small 20-piece choir, and a chamber wind group. After lengthy discussions, it was decided to draw upon the full potential of the university’s School of Music. Thus, it employs the full string section from the Symphony Orchestra, a large mixed choir, and the Wind Symphony along with antiphonal brass. As a student, I had the opportunity to perform in, or alongside, each of these groups and this was the first of many ways that the work would come together. The work is cast in three movements, each embodying a unique aspect of the growth of James Madison University.
The first movement, written solely for strings and piano, takes the listener back in time to when the university was founded. It is based on open harmonies to convey the simplicity of the area and sets the tone for the entire work with two ideas that return in the third movement.
The opening ostinato in the piano serves as a unifying device throughout the outer movements. It conveys movement and steadfastness at the same time — much like the university itself. It is constantly moving forward, yet remains committed to its original mission while everything around it changes. This basic ostinato never changes throughout the entire work, yet the rest of the work develops around it.
A second unifying device is the allusion to Shenandoah, a reminder of the university’s home. The first movement draws on short segments of the theme throughout, yet never presents the melody in its entirety.
The second movement, written for a cappella choir, is a setting for the first alma mater of the university, Blue-Stone Hill, whose words were authored by Dr. John W. Wayland, head of the history department at the university when it opened in 1909. Originally set to the tune of Juanita, this text has gone for nearly 100 years without ever having its own original melody. The music draws from the third and first verses (the entire text follows for your reference).
By drawing from excerpts of Wayland’s original text, this movement seeks to bring the university full circle — a realization of Wayland's initial vision along with the tremendous growth of the university over the last 100 years. This movement is written in memory of John W. Wayland and is dedicated to his family.
The final movement is written primarily for wind symphony and reflects the true magnificence of the university as it stands today. It opens with chimes, quoting the ostinato in the first movement while also paying tribute to the “Bells of Blue-Stone Hill” as is written in the last line of Wayland’s original alma mater. After an opening fanfare, a solo flute presents one of the main themes of the movement. This
theme is particularly significant because of the way it is constructed. The entire melody is based on the first four-measure phrase, which also happens to be the retrograde inversion of the first phrase to the current JMU Fight Song. This section introduces the most complex harmonies yet, signifying the university’s venture into new programs, namely the growth of the university on the other side of interstate 81.
As the movement continues to build, excerpts of Shenandoah begin to appear again, not having been alluded to since the first movement. As the music passes one of its two major climaxes, the Shenandoah theme is presented in its entirety for the first time by a solo horn. This is a major point in the work, as it has been hinted at for so long, yet finally has a chance to come to the forefront.
As the tempo increases dramatically, the music also begins to build a final time, very methodically. Elements of simple minimalism are introduced as multiple ideas begin to be juxtaposed, each competing for the spotlight. Finally, all voices come together and join toward a common goal. The strings, choir, and an antiphonal brass section all join together to present the end of the work. This powerful ending showcases the true capabilities of the School of Music. While the previous material showcases the diversity of the music program, this final section also exemplifies the strong sense of community that exists within the walls of the music building. It pushes the limits of Wilson Hall and welcomes the construction of the new Performing Arts Center. It resembles every reason that I chose to attend James Madison University and why, to this day, I am honored to be a graduate.
– Brian Balmages
Chorus: Mater, Alma Mater,
Though afar we bless thee still;
And may Love forever
Smile on Blue-Stone Hill.
Far o’er the Valley,
When at eve the world is still,
Shine through the gloaming
Lights from Blue-Stone Hill.
Thus afar out-streaming,
O’er the land and o’er the sea,
Like the stars e’er gleaming,
May thy glory be. – (Chorus)
Queen of the Valley,
Alma Mater, though shalt be;
Round thee shall rally
Those who honor thee;
All thy daughters loyal,
One in heart and one in will,
Many gifts and royal
Bring to Blue-Stone Hill. – (Chorus)
Noon, night, and morning
We attend thy signal bell,
True to its warning
Till we say farewell.
Through the years, swift winging,
Oft will come a quickening thrill–
In the soul still ringing,
Bells of Blue-Stone Hill! – (Chorus)
– John W. Wayland