Certainly it is tempting to dismiss Randall Thompson's The Testament of Freedom, a series of choral settings from the writings of Thomas Jefferson, as a piece of World War II propaganda. Many critics have derided it as simple and jingoistic. Yet parts of the work are undoubtedly stirring, and it has received performances worldwide.
Thompson selected four passages from Jefferson's collected works for the four parts of The Testament of Freedom. These include excerpts from "A Summary View of the Rights of British America" (1774), the "Declaration of Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms" (July 6, 1775), and a letter to John Adams (September 12, 1821). The resulting text is something like a religious cantata, although it is intended to praise the ideal of nationhood.
The first movement, "The God who gave us life," begins as a rousing unison hymn which grows stronger and fuller with each repetition of text, culminating in a bombastic final cadence. "We have counted the cost," the second movement, is slower and foreboding with much text declaimed in unison in what amounts to an inflexible recitative. Like its predecessor, it expands and contracts to a climax at the end. The third movement, "We fight not for glory or conquest," is a quick, bold march which gets gradually faster as it progresses to a cry of "We have taken up arms," and then subsides before returning to the original tempo. "I shall not die without a hope," the finale, begins in a quiet lento. Fugue-like counterpoint develops between the tenors and basses in the only extended polyphonic passage in the entire work. An instrumental passage then soars into a stringendo return of the first-movement text and music, swelling the hymn to the close, a stirring final cadence with dual emphasis on "life" and "liberty."
Composed for the 200th anniversary of Jefferson's birthday, The Testament of Freedom had its premiere, appropriately, at the University of Virginia on its Founder's Day, April 13, 1943, with the composer at the keyboard, as part of a nationwide radio broadcast. It was then rebroadcast to the Armed Forces serving overseas. In 1944, Thompson responded to strong demand for the piece, arranging the accompaniment for orchestra.
It is the text which keeps The Testament of Freedom from becoming a grandiose display of flag-waving American pride. Too profound to be merely patriotic, Jefferson's words are brought out consistently by Thompson's homophonic settings. The repetitively static declamation of text can, it is true, drag the work down. Indeed, if anything sounds dated in the work, it might well be the music, always tonal and set in a heavy-handed four to the bar. Thompson may also go to the well once too often with his crescendos and accelerandos up to the climax. Nevertheless, the work remains in the choral repertoire thanks to the powerful male sound it requires (it has since been edited for mixed chorus) -- and thanks to the inescapable rush of patriotic fervor that it engenders, something largely missing from American art music of the twentieth century.