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Muskingum Band Honors John Glenn with Specially Commissioned Composition

Muskingum Band Honors John Glenn with Specially Commissioned Composition

Even before Captain Ryan Nowlin started writing “Godspeed, John Glenn,” he knew he would not be able to condense the late Ohio senator, astronaut, and veteran’s complex life into a single, 11-minute band piece.

“It was impossible, it is impossible, and I didn’t—it was too much,” said Nowlin, who currently serves as assistant director of “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band. “When I think of him, I think of what he has accomplished, what he has done and what he has stood for, how he served his country from start to finish, and that sense of patriotism and loyalty. That is what I wanted to capture.”

Nowlin, who joined the Marine Band eight years ago after teaching high school music courses in his home state of Ohio, was asked to write the piece by Dr. David Turrill, an associate professor of music and director of bands at Muskingum University. Upon Turrill’s suggestion, the university commissioned a composition in honor of Glenn, who had graduated with his Bachelor of Science degree in engineering in 1943 and was also a recipient of an honorary Doctorate of Science in engineering.

When it came time to select a composer for the piece, Turrill said he immediately thought of Nowlin.

“There were just a lot of signs pointing to Ryan because I’ve played some of his pieces that I really liked and they work really well,” he said. “He’s from Ohio, he’s in the Marines ... and I think John Glenn is a little bit of a hero of his, too.”

As a kid growing up in Broadview Heights, Nowlin said he looked up to Glenn and imagined following in his footsteps and traveling to outer space.

“I, like any other boy, wanted to go to space,” he said. “As a sixth grader, I wrote President Bush to start a ‘kids in space’ program.”

Although he hasn’t made it to space yet, Nowlin has used music to give glimpses into Glenn’s life and legacy. While not designed to be a programmatic piece, “Godspeed, John Glenn,” touches on the themes of loyalty, bravery, and, perhaps most importantly, love.

“I think what I took away from all of my reading about the senator was his relationship with his wife, Annie. It was incredibly special,” Nowlin said. “They grew up next to each other, and when he was 4 years old they were put in a playpen together. From that day forward ... well over 80 years, they were together. The piece is for her and for that connection.”

Nowlin infused many sentimental allusions to John and Annie Glenn’s relationship into his composition, as well as several nods to the important role music played throughout their lives.

“When he was growing up in New Concord, Senator Glenn, a trumpet player, would play ‘Echo Taps’ with his father. So, I used an echo in the piece to signify the importance of that experience in his upbringing,” Nowlin said. “But instead of two trumpets, I used a trumpet and a trombone, Annie’s instrument, playing the echo.”

“Be Still My Soul,” the hymn that Annie played for John on the organ at the Methodist Church whenever he returned from a military assignment, also makes an appearance in the piece.

“I knew that I wanted to provide shades of that hymn throughout, but never state it explicitly until the climax of the piece,” Nowlin said. “That’s the way that I constructed the entire work.”

The Muskingum University Wind Ensemble premiered “Godspeed, John Glennon April 13 at “O Beautiful for Heroes Proved,” a musical celebration honoring John Glenn. At the event, “A Memory of Wonder,” a choral composition written by Muskingum University Associate Professor of Music Dr. Zebulon M. Highben, was performed for the first time by the university’s Concert Choir. Highben’s piece, based on texts written by Dr. Jane Varley and Dr. Vivian Wagner of the Muskingum University English department, evoked vibrant imagery of John Glenn’s record-breaking spaceflight.

“Godspeed, John Glenn” was also performed by the Muskingum Valley Symphonic Winds, a community/professional concert band also conducted by Turrill. The band, which has been a longtime Ohio Arts Council grant recipient, performed the piece as part of “An American Salute,” its final concert of the season, on April 29.

Turrill said he thinks a commissioned piece allows the community to share its gratitude for all that John and Annie Glenn have done for their alma mater and hometown. He added that he met John Glenn once when the former board member visited Otto and Fran Walter Hall, which houses the university’s music department.

“One of my faculty colleagues said, ‘So, have you met John Glenn?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Well, look right over there.’ And there he was in our piano lab, which bears his name,” Turrill said. “He was such a great man, and upon meeting him, I found him to be so warm and friendly. Just being in the presence of someone who has done so much and who means so much and who you respect as much as you do is remarkable.”

Nowlin said he hopes “Godspeed, John Glenn” leaves its listeners with the same sense of respect and awe for the man who inspired the music.

“I want them to listen in a way that just lets them experience that feeling of loyalty and that connection that John and Annie had. I wrote it so it comes full circle. It starts far away and it ends far away, and that’s because he’s gone and he’s left us with this,” he said. “It’s so the audience can feel that honest sincerity. I just hope that they feel that sense of pride in this great Ohioan, this great Marine, and this great American.”

For more information about the Muskingum University Wind Ensemble and the Muskingum Valley Symphonic Winds, visit muskingum.edu and symphonicwinds.org.

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Article by Amanda Etchison, Communications Strategist



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