Harriet's Story

Barbara Harbach, Composer

Barbara Harbach
Photo by Stephanie Zettl
The composer Barbara Harbach premiered her Freedom Suite for String Quintet at the University of Missouri-St. Louis' 2011 celebration of the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday. It is a musical meditation on Harriet and Dred Scott and their family that makes liberal use of the African-American spiritual.  On Thursday, April 7 at Unity Evangelical Lutheran Church she offered a world premiere of a song suite, Harriet's Story, that covers the same historical material. Part of a womens' studies conference at UMSL, the concert was free and open to the public.

One might expect the vocal piece Harbach has written for Marlissa Hudson to sing from Harriet Scott's perspective also would borrow from spirituals. But no.

"Harriet's Story came straight from my soul," Harbach told The American. "I read about the Scotts, and it just came from me."

Harbach is a widely accomplished, world-traveling composer, musician, publisher and educator. For melodies to come "from" her could mean it came from many different places.

"I consider Harriet's Story to be a dramatic song cycle with large, sweeping gestures in the first two movements," Harbach said.

"The third movement has an edginess to it. I still use a lot of melodies, it's still my own musical language, but it's edgier, more intense-sounding than my other works."

That is understandable, given that it is a slave's story. We know some facts about Harriet Scott, when so many of her contemporaries left little historical trace, because of the legal battle she and her husband, Dred Scott, waged to claim their freedom after one of their owners had taken them into free territory.

An all-white St. Louis jury granted the Scotts their freedom in 1850, but this verdict was overturned by the Missouri Supreme Court in 1852, whose opinion was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in an 1857 ruling so inflammatory that it helped to ignite the Civil War.

None of this well-known legal history is reworked in Harbach's libretto to Harriet's Story. The first movement, "Frontier Slave," describes the hard traveling of a slave trailing masters from state to state with "no rights, no rights." The second movement, "No Reason to Learn," goes to the heart of Harriet's fight for freedom - so her two daughters would have a better life.

Sweetest Eliza and dearest Lizzie,

My girls will read and write.

A hope for the future,

A future of freedom.

The third movement, "Sister Harriet," makes a lateral move to a different woman named Harriet, the abolitionist Harriet Tubman, and quotes her.

These historic voices will be delivered by Marlissa Hudson, a soprano from St. Louis now working in Washington, D.C. who recently released her first CD, Libera. "She's such professional," Harbach said of Hudson.

Hudson will be joined in performance by Alla Voskoboynikova on piano and David Gillham on violin.

"The violin is such a wonderful vehicle," Harbach said. "It's almost another voice. It can communicate sadness, happiness, anxiety, angst. It's a wonderful instrument to pair with Marlissa's voice."

The April 7 concert also will feature another performance of Harbach's Freedom Suite for String Quintet by the Dickson String Quartet - four African-American siblings, Ashley Dickson, Brandon Dickson, Benjamin Dickson and Daniel Dickson - joined on double bass by Charles Clements.

The program concludes with The Mechanical Cat - A Musical Preview, composed by Gretchen Hewitt, music, and Janet Goddard, lyrics, and performed by Jen Theby and John Flack.

Dr. Harbach is an acclaimed music professor at UMSL.  Her impassioned musical, Freedom's Suite, was heard in January and we thoroughly enjoyed it.  We are deeply grateful for her contribution to their commemoration and for the time, effort and talent given to honoring Harriet, Dred, and their daughters.  I hope to see you there that evening! (Note: location is NOT at the university.)

Story courtesy of Chris King, St. Louis American


See Link from performance for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at UMSL.


Check out Dr. Harbach's CD with the London Philharmonic