American music owes a debt of gratitude to Charles Faulkner Bryan, a young composer and educator whose respect for the folksongs of his rural homeland – the hills and hollows of Tennessee – manifested into both classical and popular music in the mid-1900s.
Bryan, born in 1911 in McMinnville, began his career in Cookeville, at Tennessee Tech, where he taught and studied during the Depression. The university is commemorating the centennial of his birth on Friday, Oct. 7, with a full day and evening of public presentations and performances.
"I meet many people who come to the Bryan Fine Arts Building out of curiosity or who had a relationship with music at the university, and I've gotten to know several who knew Bryan," says Arthur LaBar, chairperson of the Tennessee Tech Department of Music and Art. "Without exception, these people speak with the highest respect, almost reverence, for Bryan. They recount how he, as their teacher, positively affected and inspired their lives. I'm very excited about the Bryan Centennial events."
"A Celebration of the Life and Music of Charles Faulkner Bryan" takes place in Tennessee Tech's Bryan Fine Arts Building. There is no admission charge for any of the public events, and everyone is welcome. Here are the featured events:
• "Charles Faulkner Bryan's Legacy for Music Education," presented by Carolyn Livingston, 10:10-11:05 a.m., Wattenbarger Auditorium. Livingston, a TTU music education alumnus, is the author of Charles Faulkner Bryan, His Life and Music, published in 2003 by the University of Tennessee Press.
• "Musicians as Writers," presented by Carolyn Livingston, 11:15 a.m.-12:10 p.m., in Room 223.
• "The Appalachian Dulcimer," presented by Ralph Lee Smith, 1:25-2:20 p.m., Room 223. Widely acknowledged as the nation's foremost authority on the folk instrument, Smith will be the first musician to tune and perform on the instruments in the Bryan Collection in decades.
• The University Orchestra and the Tech Chorale, TTU's premier student orchestral and vocal ensembles, in concert, 7:30 p.m., Wattenbarger Auditorium. The program includes selections by Bryan, as well as dulcimer music by visiting artist Ralph Lee Smith. TTU's director of university orchestras is Dan Allcott, and the university's choral program is directed by Craig Zamer.
Classically trained in voice, piano and composition, Bryan wrote in several symphonic forms, often incorporating the simple melodies and lyrics of Appalachian songs. But he also performed the folksongs solo; on tour, he played them as originally written, on piano or dulcimer, the only alteration being his clear and formal tenor.
Landmarks in his career include the 1942 Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra premiere of the second movement of Bryan's only symphony, the 1945 Guggenheim Foundation composition fellowship based on his "Ballad of the Harp Weaver," and the 1947 premiere of his "Bell Witch Cantata" by Robert Shaw and the Julliard Chorus and Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York.
These were all firsts for a Tennessee composer. Bryan appears to have struck a chord with audiences in both the South and the North.
From the beginning, his ambition was striking. The second son of a middle-class family who financed his way through the Nashville Conservatory of Music using the capital from an insurance policy, Bryan graduated in 1934 with a bachelor's degree in public school music. The next year, he was appointed director of the music division at Tennessee Tech (then a college-level school known as Tennessee Polytechnic Institute).
Early upon his arrival at TPI, where the Tennessee Folklore Society had just formed, Bryan realized that there might be a way to combine his two passions: promoting folksongs and using them as inspiration for his larger works. Bryan heard great beauty in both the lyrics and music of folksongs, in all their manifestations: from simple children's ditties like "Skip to m'Lou" to ballads and field songs, but most especially to the sacred music of Appalachia – the spirituals heard in churches, which were still largely segregated institutions in the early to mid-1900s.
"Bryan was certainly ambitious," says LaBar. "How else can you explain how a young man from rural Tennessee rose to national prominence in classical music? But he never lost touch with the music of the people who raised him. And he was also ambitious for those around him, especially his students.
"At the risk of his own position as a faculty member at a white college, Bryan befriended and mentored a young black singer from Memphis, J. Robert Bradley, which points out the other trait that seemed to guide Bryan through life – service to others. Bryan and his young family maintained a friendship with Bradley their entire lives, well after the teacher-student relationship had ended."
Bradley went on to become one of the brightest lights on the gospel stage, leading the National Baptist Convention's choral program for decades, and he always gave Bryan credit for his success.
When Nashville's Peabody College offered Bryan a graduate fellowship for the 1939-40 academic year, Bryan left TPI. For his graduate thesis, he completed his first symphony -- which he'd begun writing at TPI -- an ethereal and complex orchestration that includes strains of two of the most popular hymns ever written, "Amazing Grace" and "Goin' Over Jordan" (or "Wayfaring Stranger").
During World War II, Bryan directed several government programs related to music, but found little time for his own work. Eager to resume his musical career, he spent the post-war years performing, teaching, studying with German composer Paul Hindemith at Yale University – and composing, always composing.
It was a giddy time in American music, and Bryan occupied a transitional niche. Folksongs in all their mutations – from sacred to secular – were still largely confined to churches and front porches, but they were on the verge of finding a more mainstream audience. The golden age of gospel was beginning, and the protest music of the 1960s wasn't far off.
Bryan contributed to the folk music revival by collecting music at the source – recording songs in people's living rooms – and going on the road as a performer and lecturer. Stylistically, he foreshadowed the classically smooth Burl Ives and the emerging Pete Seeger more so than the less-studied Woody Guthrie.
But by the time he reached his 40s, Bryan wasn't well. No one knew for sure what was wrong. He suffered inexplicable illnesses, and he'd been born with a heart murmur, which is why he stayed state-side during World War II. Doctors ruled out allergies, brain cancer, endocarditis, and still he suffered. He slowed his pace, taking on a faculty position at a private school in Alabama, and while he never really got well, he refused to let his physical ailment interrupt his career.
On July 7, 1955, Charles Faulkner Bryan died. He was 44 years old.
The potential was there, after such a promising start, to go on to wider acclaim, but dying at such a young age resulted in Bryan's work being relegated to near-obscurity. His family donated his papers to the Tennessee Tech Archives, and the collection is extensive, including boxes and boxes of scores and notes, but most of the few existing recordings of his music are ravaged by time. Had it not been for the scholarly work of his biographer, Carolyn Livingston, the story of Charles Faulkner Bryan and his music would likely have been lost forever.
Instead his legacy continues. In 1981, Tennessee Tech acknowledged his contributions to American music by naming its cultural arts center in his honor. And in 1992, when the board of the Tech Community Symphony Orchestra decided to change the orchestra's name, it chose Bryan in tribute to the Upper Cumberland native with the talent, drive and devotion required to help roots music reach a wider audience.
Other public programs are being developed for the Bryan Centennial. For an up-to-date schedule of events, visit the TTU Music Department's web site at www.tntech.edu/music and the Bryan Symphony Orchestra's web site at www.bryansymphony.org.
The Bryan Centennial coincides with the first subscription concert of the Bryan Symphony Orchestra's 49th season. The performance, which includes one of Bryan's most celebrated compositions, begins at 3 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 9. Tickets are $30 for adults, $26 for seniors 65 and up, and $8 for students. Call 931-525-2633 for availability. The performance is sponsored by Regions Bank.