Allen Wittig is not your average undergraduate student. At 57 years of age, he is already the holder of a bachelor’s degree in humanities from University of Maryland University College (UMUC). He’s also a retiree from the U.S. Air Force Band Career Field, where he served in the capacity of a music arranger, saxophonist and music director for jazz ensembles. Wittig had the relative experience necessary to take on the challenge of setting historical songs into modern orchestration.
VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) awarded Wittig a grant to research music of the Civil War era, through to the Battle of Gettysburg, and apply what he discovered to compose an arrangement for orchestra and chorus. His efforts represent one of many student research success stories at VCU, which celebrates its Third Annual Research Week from April 19 to April 27. (A complete list of Research Week events can be found here.)
Wittig originally planned on using letters, speeches and newspaper articles from this time as lyrics for composing his own music.
“However, when I discovered a large body of American music from this era I couldn’t ignore it,” Wittig said. “As a result, my piece is more of an arrangement of mid-19th century tunes, introduced and held together by original music.”
Wittig’s faculty mentor for the project, Antonio Garcia, director of the jazz studies program in the VCU School of the Arts, said Wittig’s relative experience allowed him to take such a project to the “next level.”
“To research, construct, and oversee the performance of an orchestral/vocal composition would be beyond the attainable scope of the vast majority of students with less experience,” Garcia said.
“His work brings together performers spanning the Department of Music — and hopefully an audience spanning our varying cultures across the campus and Greater Richmond.”
Garcia helped Wittig to recognize the social impact his work could have on both VCU and the greater Richmond community in hopes that it would provide a cultural connection between VCU’s music department and the local community. Wittig said the piece helped him put into practice various arranging, composing and orchestrating techniques.
“I hope that my work will appropriately commemorate the history of what led to our nation’s tragic Civil War,” Wittig said. “I gained a sense of satisfaction from the process: composing an abstract, developing a plan to achieve it, researching it and putting the research in concrete form.”
Garcia described Wittig’s project as particularly challenging, daunting and intimidating, because the topic is very delicate.
“The topic – the very environment surrounding the most divisive and bloody division in American history – demands a depth of research and a deep awareness of and sensitivity to the context in which it is viewed by people of all backgrounds who may experience the piece,” said Garcia.
Garcia admired the ambition of the project.
“I believe such a program reinforces VCU’s interest in being a research university, a creative university and international university,” said Garcia. “And I am pleased to have assisted Allen in his pursuit.”
Wittig’s composition received its premiere performance in March during a concert by the VCU Orchestra and the Commonwealth Singers as part of the Year of Freedom.