George Tsontakis is a Greek-American composer and conductor born in 1951. He has studied with Hugo Weisgall, Felix Greissle, and Roger Sessions. His educational background includes a BA from Queens College (1974) and both and MM and DMA from the Julliard School of Music. He is the recipient of such prestigious awards as the Grawemeyer Award, the Charles Ives Living, and two Kennedy Center Friedheim Awards. Tsontakis composed Let the River Be Unbroken in 1994, to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Alexandria (VA) Symphony. It is a musical snapshot of the American Civil War, and incorporates folk tunes, hymns, slave songs, and optional narration, from both the Union and the Confederacy.
The piece offers the listener a musical journey through the American Civil War. The “river” is the Potomac, which represents the dividing line between the North and the South. It opens with a solo off-stage fiddle player, playing the Appalachian folk tune “Down With Whiskey”. The fiddle joins the others on stage and gradually, other strings enter along with the tune, and eventually the rest of the orchestra joins them. An ominous timpani roll underscores the fugue-like fiddle playing of the strings at the beginning, foreshadowing the war and division to come. The music builds to a climax where there is a “gunshot” signifying the assassination of President Lincoln. After a somber musical reflection, the piece ends as it began, with a solo fiddle. The “unbrokenness” of the river is represented in the folk tunes that Tsontakis uses, as these folk tunes were sung by both sides of a war that divided as well as eventually united America.
This piece is very tonal compared to his Third Piano Quartet (2005), which is reminiscent of earlier 20th Century composers such as Bartok and Berg. In a brief survey of works by this composer, it is clear that he enjoys using many styles in his compositions, from classical to modern techniques. I hear different tone colors, some minimalism, and traditional classical form in his music. He is a musically diverse composer with a rich musical palette.
I enjoyed getting to know this piece. The beginning reminded me of Unger’s “Ashokan Farewell”, as made famous by the PBS miniseries The Civil War, and as it turns out, Tsontakis cites this work as one of his inspirations for the opening fiddle tune. I loved the musical dialogue between the strings and the rest of the orchestra, although I admit I jumped when I heard the “gunshot”, as it was abrupt and seemed to come out of nowhere. However, that is a fitting musical representation of the assassination of Lincoln.
Eric Moe. "Tsontakis, George." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed May 2, 2014, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/42549.