Program Notes

"Amazing Grace," with all of its lyrical and poignant beauty, has become an iconic folk song, and what better instrument than the cello to conjure its expressive nature. The story behind the song, however, is convoluted and difficult and it is this--as much as the lyricism--that I wished to capture in this piece. The story goes that John Newton, a captain of an 18th Century English slave ship, wrote the hymn after an epiphany revealing the evil nature of his business, and he immediately gave it up. I remember hearing this story as a child and being amazed that such a transformation regarding one person’s attitude toward others could take place so quickly and dramatically. In fact, it didn’t quite happen that way. Newton was a slave ship captain, but he retired, later became a minister in England, and wrote many hymns, "Amazing Grace" among them. It turns out that transformation is usually gradual and arduous. What I ended up exploring in this piece, then, is the challenge of grace— the difficult journey that we all go through over the issue of race—as we work toward our own sense of fairness and perhaps redemption. Therefore the piece is not a simple melody as I initially contemplated, but rather a thorny evolution, always working toward a hopeful, amazing grace. The work was written for, and premiered by, Elizabeth Simkin. --Dana Wilson