In 1934 a painting entitled "The Peaceable Kingdom" appeared by Edward Hicks (1780-1849), the preaching Quaker of Pennsylvania. Hick is said to have painted over one hundred versions of this setting, one of the most well-known of which may be viewed at the Worcester Art Museum. It illustrates Isaiah 11:6-9, one of Hick's favorite subjects in preaching and painting – “And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, And the leopard will lie down with the young goat, And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little boy will lead them (v.6).”
Randall Thompson saw the painting and reacted to its message of hope and peace and decided to write a sequence of sacred choruses based on the texts of Isaiah. The resulting work, The Peaceable Kingdom, was a commission for Randall Thompson from the League of Composers for a piece to be performed by the combined Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society.
The text for Thompson’s “Have ye not Known” and “Ye Shall Have a Song,” from the sacred choral cycle The Peaceable Kingdom (1935), stems from the visions of the prophet Isaiah and speaks of God’s promise of the gift of music to the people of Israel.
Thompson, a traditionalist who frequently reached back to the past for traditional compositional techniques and forms, was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome while he was writing The Peaceable Kingdom and his daily contact with the sacred choral tradition of Rome certainly influenced his compositional style.
In 1934, the Worcester Art Museum (Worcester, Massachusetts) acquired a copy of The Peaceable Kingdom, a painting by the 18th century American folk painter and Quaker minister, Edward Hicks (1780-1849). Hicks had painted several different versions of this topic. Randall Thompson viewed the painting and was greatly affected by Hicks’ serene interpretation of the following texts from the prophet, Isaiah (Isaiah 11:6-9):
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’s den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
Thompson wanted to compose a choral work with sacred texts that expressed the themes in the painting. He chose eloquent passages from the book of the prophet, Isaiah. After reading all 66 chapters, he selected eight texts that expressed the themes of good, evil, and peace. In 1935, Thompson received a commission from the League of Composers to compose a work for the Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society. This commission led to the composition of the a cappella Peaceable Kingdom. The work was premiered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on March 3, 1936. It is a masterful example of programmatic music, vivid, and almost pictorial in its settings of the texts.
It is set in eight movements.
I. Say Ye To The Righteous is a confirmation and a warning in shape-note style, an early and rural American hymn form. It is in three parts, with the third part somewhat of an imitation of the first part. The movement begins with the tenor/bass statement of the hopeful text in smooth, legato phrases. Soon, the sopranos and altos join them, repeating the text. That hopefulness is answered by an emphatic, more jarring middle section describing what will happen to those who do not seek peace. Ascending and descending passages add to the tension of what is to come. The original section is repeated, although at a higher pitch. Thompson sprinkles several soft, but threatening utterances of ‘Woe!’ as a bridge to the next section.
Say ye to the righteous, it shall be well with him: for they shall eat the fruit of their doings. Woe unto the wicked! It shall be ill with him: for the reward of his hands shall be given him. Behold, my servants shall sing for joy of heart, but ye shall cry for sorrow of heart and shall howl for vexation of spirit. Isaiah 3:10, 11; 65:14
II. Woe Unto Them is set in three parts. It is a fiery series of warnings by what sounds like an impassioned street preacher. In Part 1, various threats are chanted, first by the tenors, then altos, sopranos, and basses. While one group is singing, the rest of the chorus cries ‘Woe”! Part 2 is a short reflection, commenting that wicked people are not listening to the world of the Lord. Part 3 returns to a series of threats, first soft and slow, then gathering in speed and intensity, culminating with a final, descending shriek of woe.
Woe unto them that draw iniquity with cords of vanity, and sin as it were with a cart rope. Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight! Woe unto them that are mighty to drink wine, and men of strength to mingle strong drink! Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink, that continue till night, till the wine inflame them! And the harp, and the viol, the tabret, and pipe, and wine, are in their feasts: but they regard not the work of the Lord, neither consider the operations of his hands. Woe to the multitude of many people, which make a noise like the noise of the seas! Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth. Isaiah 5:8, 11, 12, 18, 20, 22; 17:12
III. The Noise of the Multitude is a programmatic description of a battle between the Lord of Hosts and evildoers. The movement is divided into two parts. The first part is the actual battle. Thompson’s setting of such phrases as ‘Ev’ry one that is found shall be thrust through…’ describes exactly the motion of a sword thrust. The second part of the movement is more about the aftermath of the battle, with the wailing and trauma of those who have lost. As ‘pangs and sorrows’ take hold of the defeated, Thompson sets the text at increasingly higher pitches.
The noise of a multitude in the mountains, like as a great people; a tumultuous noise of the kingdoms of nations gathered together; the Lord of hosts mustereth the host of the battle. They come from a far country, from the end of heaven, even the Lord, and the weapons of his indignation, to destroy the whole land. Their bows also shall dash the young men to pieces; and they shall have no pity on the fruit of the womb; their eye shall not spare children. Every one that is found shall be thrust through; and every one that is joined unto them shall fall by the sword. Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished. Therefore shall all hands be faint, and every man’s heart shall melt. They shall be afraid: pangs and sorrow shall take hold of them; they shall be in pain as a woman that travaileth; they shall be amazed at one another; their faces shall be as flames. Isaiah 13:4, 5, 7, 8, 15, 16, 18
IV. There is no break between this section, Howl Ye, and the previous, as a double chorus describes the Lord’s wrath. The movement is divided into two parts. The first part is characterized by octave leaps and ascending/descending passages. The second part is more plaintive as the wicked realize they have been conquered (‘Thou art dissolved’).
Howl ye; for the day of the Lord is at hand. Howl, O gate; cry, O city; thou art dissolved. Isaiah 13:6, 14:31
V. The Paper Reeds By The Brook is a quiet lamentation by the survivors of the fury in the previous movement. This movement is in two parts. Thompson sets the movement in shape-note style, with the melody at first in the tenor line. The other voices have counter melodies, such as the sopranos and basses mirroring each other. The soprano line rises at the same time the bass line descends. The pattern is repeated in the second part, with the altos having the melody.
The paper reeds by the brooks, by the mouth of the brooks, and everything sown by the brooks, shall wither, be driven away, and be no more. Isaiah 19:7
VI. But These Are They That Forsake The Lord/For Ye Shall Go Out With Joy. This movement begins with a short, unison recitative by tenors and basses, dismissing the wicked ones who had ignored the Lord. The entire composition then turns to the joy of the saved. The recitative is followed by a double chorus celebration of the joy and peace to be found by the saved. All nature applauds. Thompson uses short, staccato phrases for the text ‘clap their hands’, overlapping them so that the voices actually sound like clapping.
But these are they that forsake the Lord,that forget my holy mountain. For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the fields shall clap their hands. Isaiah 65:11; 55:12
VII. Have Ye Not Known? is another short recitative, this time sung by the entire chorus, asking what is the result of the victory by the saved.
Have ye not known? Have ye not heard? Hath it not been told you from the beginning? Have ye not understood from the foundations of the earth? Isaiah 40:21
VIII. Ye Shall Have A Song is the exultant conclusion to the composition. Joy, gladness of heart, and ultimately, coming to the mountain of the Lord are the results of the victory over evil. Thompson sets the last movement as a double chorus celebration of the peace that has been achieved. Thompson alternates slow, legato, contained expressions of joy with exuberant, dance-like passages of happiness. Towards the end of the movement, the interaction of these two patterns quickens. Thompson creates a grand pause, and the chorus concludes with an ecstatic entrance of all into the mountain of the Lord
Ye shall have a song, as in the night when a holy solemnity is kept, and gladness of heart, as when one goeth with a pipe to come into the mountain of the Lord. Isaiah 30:29