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The Throne of the Third Heaven

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Jefferson Friedman
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Jean Yves Thibaudet, piano Oct. 28 - 30, 2004
© Program notes

This new work, receiving its world premiere performances in the present concerts, was commissioned jointly by the National Symphony Orchestra and the ASCAP Foundation. The title, is explained in the note below, refers to the remarkable group of "assembled sculpture" that provided inspiration for the music.

The score, dedicated to Tom Meacham, calls for 4 flutes and piccolo; 4 oboes and English horn, 4 clarinets and bass clarinet; 4 bassoons and contrabassoon; 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani , tom tom, bass drum, anvil, mark tree, brake drum, chimes, crotales, crystal glasses, geophone, glockenspiel, suspended cymbal, tam tam, vibraphone, wind chimes, celesta, piano, harp, and strings. Duration, 20 minutes.

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Jefferson Friedman, who turned 30 earlier this month, was the Music Department Honors Graduate for 1996 at Columbia University, where his teachers were David Rakowski and Jonathan Kramer. During his three summers at the Aspen Music Festival and School he studied with John Corigliano, Christopher Rouse and George Tsontakis; Mr. Corigliano was also his teacher at the Juilliard School. During his graduate work at Juilliard Mr. Friedman received the ASCAP Leo Kaplan Award for his String Quartet No. 2, a BMI Student Composer Award, and, for his orchestral work Sacred Heart: Explosion , an ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award. He received his master's degree from Juilliard in 2001, and subsequently won the 2003-2004 Rome Prize Fellowship in Musical Composition, under which he was in residence at the American Academy in Rome during the last academic year. His compositions have been performed throughout the United States and in numerous musical centers in Europe. The National Symphony Orchestra commissioned and performed his brief March in September 2001, as the second of the 15 pieces in the "Hechinger Encores" scattered through the last three seasons. Other commissions have come to him from such ensembles as the Chiara Quartet (twice), the Yesaroun' Duo and eighth blackbird.

The new work that opens this week's concerts takes its title from that of an extraordinary work by a Washington artist in a different medium, now in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The title was originally affixed by James Hampton (1909-1964) to the 177 pieces he created during the last 14 years of his life, applying gold and silver tinfoil, Kraft paper and plastic materials over pieces of wood furniture, paperboard and glass—with specific instructions as to how these pieces should be positioned in relation to one another. The Smithsonian has kindly made available the following background on Hampton and his work, prepared by the foremost authority on the subject, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, who was chief curator at that museum when The Throne was first acquired and shown to the public, and who now holds the same position at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

In 1928, when James Hampton was nineteen, he migrated from the small rural community of Elloree, South Carolina, to join an older brother living in Washington, D.C. Following service in the Army between 1942 and 1945, Hampton returned to Washington, where he worked as a janitor for the General Services Administration until his death in 1964. Although raised as a fundamentalist Baptist, he disliked the concept of a denominational God, and attended a variety of the city's churches.

Around 1950 Hampton dedicated himself to building The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly. Although he initiated the project elsewhere, his principal construction site was a now-razed garage at 1133 N Street NW, which he began renting around 1950. It was here that The Throne was discovered after his death.

An imaginative selection and use of discarded materials characterize this radiant work. Hampton diligently gathered used wooden furniture, aluminum and gold foils, cardboard, Kraft paper, plastic, and light bulbs. With glue, upholstery tacks, nails, straight pins and wrapped foil, he assembled the structural and decorative elements of 180 objects. Most likely Hampton's Throne is unfinished.

A makeshift platform set against the rear wall was his only structural addition to the garage. He arranged objects on the platform in three roughly parallel rows and placed others on the floor immediately in front of the platform and along the side walls.

At the rear center is the throne chair, from which radiate flanking pairs of objects that match almost exactly in their details. Hampton's labels on the objects indicate that those to the viewer's left of the throne chair refer to the New Testament, Jesus and Grace, and those to the right refer to the Old Testament, Moses and the Law. Wall plaques to the left bear the names of the apostles; those on the right list various prophets [and patriarchs] such as Abraham and Ezekiel.

Many of the objects—throne, chair, altar table, pulpits and offertory tables—suggest traditional church appointments. Several pairs of objects are labeled with the names of religious figures—Adam and Eve, the Virgin and Pope Pius XII—who appeared in Hampton's recurrent visions. Choosing materials for their visual or symbolic effect, Hampton used shimmering metallic foils andbrilliant purple paper (now faded to tan) to evoke spiritual awe and splendor, and light bulbs to represent God as the light of the world.

Although a humble man, Hampton often referred to himself as "St. James." He may have considered himself a prophet like John, the author of the Book of Revelation, the biblical writing that inspired Hampton's belief in the Second Coming of Christ and his desire to build The Throne as a monument to the return of Christ on earth.

When God revealed to John the details of the Second Coming, He instructed John to record them, using a cryptic script, in a little book. Hampton also developed a script that he said God had given to him. The gracefully inked characters are reminiscent of diverse Middle or Far Eastern languages, but the meaning and intent of the script—inspired writing or visual artistry—remains unknown. Hampton entered the script in a government-issue notebook that he entitled The Book of the 7 Dispensation of St. James . "Revelation" is written on each page. Perhaps this book contains his translation of John's revelation or an entirely original vision.

Hampton's self-designation as "St. James" also incorporated the roles of minister and counselor. Hampton had hoped to retire to become a minister, perhaps of a storefront church in his rented garage. Prominently placed on the central altar table is the plaque, "St. James Dispensation of Counseling."

Dispensationalism was a popular American school of thought during the fundamentalist revivals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ardent believers in the literal Second Coming of Christ, dispensationalists divided the history of God's dealings with man into seven periods of dispensations, the last of which will be the "Fullness of Time" or the Millennium.

Hampton amended the seventh dispensation so that "St. James" became not only the author of The Book of the 7 Dispensation but also the prophetic counselor associated with the fullness of times. As counselor, "St. James" recorded the "Old and the New Covenant" and a second set of commandments, which Hampton believed God had given him to pass on because man no longer followed the original ten. The design of his wall plaques—combining Roman numerals one through ten with his undeciphered script—suggests commandment-bearing tablets. So too does the title, "Nations Readjustment Plan," on the largest wall plaque, trimmed in gold foil and on the installation's left side.

In 1976 Time magazine's art critic Robert Hughes wrote that The Throne "may well be the finest work of visionary religious art produced by an American.:" Certainly The Throne reveals one man's faith in God as well as his hope for salvation. Although Hampton did not live to initiate a public ministry, the capping phrase "FEAR NOT" summarizes his project's universally eloquent message.

Jefferson Friedman has kindly provided a statement of his own on the work he has composed under the powerful impact of Hampton's creation and his accompanying words.

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The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly , while meant to stand on its own, is also the second part of a trilogy of works entitled In the Realms of the Unreal, each movement of which is based on the life and work of a different American "outsider" artist. The final section of the trilogy is called Sacred Heart: Explosion ; it was the first part to be composed and performed, and it is based on the Chicago artist Henry Darger. Like James Hampton, Darger was a visionary artist who worked as a janitor; he left behind a novel, running to more than 15,000 pages in manuscript, whose fantastic nature is indicated in its title: The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. His real legacy, however, is an assortment of hundreds of oversized scroll paintings illustrating scenes from "the Realms of the Unreal." Sacred Heart: Explosion is based on one of those paintings and was given its premiere by the Juilliard Symphony under Jeffrey Milarsky in April 2001.

The Throne is the centerpiece of my trilogy, and it functions on three levels: conveying in music the visual aesthetic of the artwork and presenting an abstract narrative on both the subject work's content and the process the artist undertook in creating it. The narrative of the piece follows the same process that Hampton used in creating The Throne : find an object (or, in this case, create a musical object), wrap it (take the raw musical material and gradually add layers of surface), and then place it in relation to other objects. The musical objects themselves are meant to reflect the religious iconography of The Throne, and the "wrapping" is meant to portray musically the visual aesthetic of the sculpture.

The piece is in one large movement but is divided into two parts, the first half depicting Hampton's receipt of vision and the construction of The Throne , the second half his salvation. The orchestra is used to convey both the grandeur and massiveness and the delicateness and fragility of Hampton's Throne and is also reconfigured to evoke sonically and visually the physical structure of the sculpture: the trumpets and trombones are placed in a ring around the outer edge of the orchestra, and two string quartets, downstage left and right, frame the string sections.

I wish to thank the National Symphony Orchestra, particularly Leonard Slatkin and C. Ulrich Bader; Frances Richard, Cia Toscanini and the ASCAP Foundation; Richard Storm and the Seaside Institute; the American Academy in Rome; Lynda Roscoe Hartigan and the Smithsonian American Art Museum; the staff of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum; and, most importantly, my family, those who were Fellows with me at the Academy, and my friends, especially Tom Meacham, without whom this piece would not have been written, and to whom it is dedicated.