The Kennedy Center

Sacred Heart: Explosion

About the Work

Jefferson Friedman Composer: Jefferson Friedman
© Richard Freed

In its original version, Sacred Heart: Explosion was composed in 2000 and, as a winning entry in the Juilliard Competition, it was given a public reading by the Juilliard Symphony Orchestra under Jeffrey Milarsky on April 15, 2001; the work subsequently brought Mr. Friedman an ASCAP Morton Gould Award and the Palmer Dixon Prize. Under a commission from the National Symphony Orchestra, made possible by the John and June Hechinger Commissioning Fund for New Orchestral Works, Mr. Friedman has thoroughly revised the score, and in the present concerts the new version is being heard for the first time anywhere.
The score, dedicated to Margaret LeMay, calls for piccolo, 4 flutes, 4 oboes, English horn, 4 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, field drum, bass drum, 4 roto toms, 4 tom-toms, 2 sets of chimes (one offstage), sizzle cymbal, suspended cymbal, 15 tuned gongs, tam-tam, thunder sheet, crotales, tambourine, vibraphone, glockenspiel, piano, celesta, harmonium, toy piano, 2 harps (one offstage), and strings. Duration, 15 minutes.

Jefferson Friedman was not quite 27 years old when the National Symphony Orchestra first performed his music: his March, given its world premiere in these concerts in September 2001 under Leonard Slatkin, was one of the brief closing pieces commissioned by the orchestra in the Hechinger Encores series. That piece was so well received that in the following season the NSO performed it more than twenty times under Emil de Cou, in Young People's Concerts at home and in the course of the orchestra's spring residency in North Dakota. In October 2004, a year after Mr. Friedman won the Rome Prize, Mr. Slatkin conducted the premiere of a substantially larger work, commissioned by the NSO together with the ASCAP Foundation: The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly, a remarkable response to a remarkable stimulus, which the orchestra took on its 2005 residency in North Carolina and Mr. Slatkin subsequently performed in his guest appearances on the podium of the New York Philharmonic. More recently, Mr. Friedman's String Quartet No. 2 has been recorded for Naxos by the Corigliano Quartet, together with the String Quartet by his teacher, John Corigliano, for whom that performing group is named.
When The Throne of the Third Heaven was introduced here, three years ago, Mr. Friedman advised that it constituted the second part of an orchestral trilogy given the overall title In the Realms of the Unreal, each of whose component works reflects the impressions formed from the composer's discovery of a little-known but strikingly inventive creative artist. These "Outsiders," active in twentieth-century America, provoked a powerful response on Mr. Friedman's part. The one celebrated in The Throne happened to be a member of our own Washington community: James Hampton (1909-1964) moved here from a rural town in South Carolina in 1928 and following wartime service in the Army he worked as a janitor for the General Services Administration until his death. Hampton was driven by religious visions that transcended denomination but rested firmly on his belief in the Second Coming of Christ, which concept sparked his creation of The Throne. That fantastic but radiant sculptural group, made from scraps of wooden furniture, aluminum and gold foils, cardboard, plastic, light bulbs and other improbable materials, comprised some 180 individual pieces, but Hampton apparently never considered it "finished." He inscribed those pieces with the names of religious figures, inscriptions from the Bible, and phrases from his own Book of the 7 Dispensation of St. James.
In his own note for the premiere of The Throne, Mr. Friedman advised that, while it was meant to stand on its own, it was also to be the middle section of a trilogy of orchestral works under the collective heading In the Realms of the Unreal. The first part of Mr. Friedman's trilogy is so far unwritten and unidentified, but the final one had already been composed and performed: it was Sacred Heart: Explosion, which now has been thoroughly revised with a view toward fitting in with the pieces that will precede it in the tripartite whole.
The inspiration for this piece came from the works of another remarkable Outsider, the Chicago writer and artist Henry Darger, whose long life (1892-1973) encompassed the birth and death of James Hampton. Like Hampton, Darger was a visionary who had no formal training, worked as a janitor, and made his Christian faith a focal point of his life. He also happened to be a Civil War buff. He was influenced by popular entertainers, comic strips, the form we have come to call "graphic novels," poets, and dancers, in producing a sprawling and unreservedly fantastic novel and a large number of outsized paintings illustrating scenes from it. From the title of that novel Mr. Friedman took the title for his projected trilogy; from one of Darger's paintings, Sacred Heart: Explosion, he took his inspiration for the present work. He has provided the following note.

Henry Darger—orphan, janitor, recluse, devout Christian, lived most of his adult life in a small, one-room apartment on the north side of Chicago. He seldom spoke to anyone, and left his room only to go to church, to his job, or on frequent long walks. When he became too frail to walk up the stairs to his apartment, he asked his landlord, Nathan Lerner, to find him a place in an old-age home, where he spent the last few months of his life.
After Darger had been moved, Lerner went up to the apartment to clean it out. Among the hundreds of things he found strewn about the room were stacks of old magazines, many empty Pepto Bismol bottles, countless balls of twine which Darger himself had twisted together, a meticulous daily weather journal dating back decades, and a typewritten, single-spaced, epic novel running more than 15,000 pages entitled 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.
The epic recounts, often in graphic detail, a great war on a distant planet between its children and the evil men who kidnap them, force them into child slavery, and murder them. To the children's rescue come the Vivian Girls, seven sisters from the Christian nation of Abiennia, who are aided by good soldiers and a race of dragons Darger called Blengins. Along with this epic, Lerner found hundreds of giant scroll paintings, some of them four feet high and ten feet long, depicting scenes from the Realms of the Unreal.
This piece is based on one of those paintings.

Nathan Lerner and his wife resolved to preserve and enshrine Darger's works, and their custodial efforts led to the creation of the Henry Darger Study Center at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, which now holds the manuscript and most of the paintings. The painting that gave rise to this musical work and provided its title is about four feet high and ten feet wide, and comprises two scenes, set side-by-side. On the left is an image of the Sacred Heart, with cherubim floating about; lined up in front are ten little girls in lovely dresses, with their names printed above them. On the right is the War Storm/explosion, in front of which the rescuing Vivian Girls are seen rushing into action.