Celebrating ‘Our Mendon’: Event honors town’s 350th anniversary with new theme song

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Mendon is the sort of place where “everybody knows everybody.”

However, since the Mendon Sings 350th Composers Competition had the names of the songwriters removed, none of the judges knew who the composers were, or where they came from.

The competition for a new theme song to help Mendon celebrate its 350th anniversary as a town this year had a $1,000 prize and drew entries from as far away as London, England, Germany and Italy.

But it turned out that the competition winner, “Our Mendon,” was written by one of the town’s own.

Rebecca Eland grew up in Mendon, has previously taught music at Henry P. Clough Elementary School in Mendon, and now lives with her husband two young children in Hopedale, which is, after all, part of Mother Mendon.

Eland’s “Our Mendon” will have its world premiere at a concert titled “Mother Mendon Sings” at 7 p.m. Saturday in Valley Chapel, Uxbridge, in which it will be sung by a children’s chorus. The concert is one of a number activities taking place this year to celebrate Mendon’s 350th.

“It’s very exciting, especially having grown up in Mendon. This little town is near and dear to my heart. It’s great to be part of this,” Eland said.

The three judges for the final round of the competition, in which pianist Wayne Ward played the three finalist songs and also sang them, were unanimous in choosing Eland’s song, said Joyce Firth, chairperson of the Mendon Cultural Council and one of the judges.

All three pieces were “quite wonderful,” she said. But two of them were “more anthem-like.” Eland’s “Our Mendon,” in contrast, has “a delightfulness. It’s a very pretty piece. When Wayne played it I got goose bumps.”

Then came another pleasant surprise when the identity of the composer was revealed. “It’s just so nice that she’s from around here,” Firth said. “We went round the world looking for a piece of music, and it was right in our backyard.”

The competition’s rules specified that the work must employ a children’s chorus with preference given to compositions that are accessible to non-trained, school-aged children. The song for the competition song had to be based on a text by Putnam W. Taft of Worcester who gave a toast — written like a poem — to Mendon on May 15, 1867, the occasion of the town’s 200th birthday.

The text begins: “The people learned, on the Sabbath day,/The golden rule of love,/At the little church with the spire upraised/Towards the arching blue above.”

Eland said, “As I read the text I was inspired. I started to hear the song in my head.” She said she’s attempted to write songs before. “I’ve tried, it hasn’t come easily to me in the past. It came to me when I read the text.”

She adapted the first and second stanzas and some of the third, and added lyrics of her own. “I tried to make it accessible to children,” she said. Eland was hoping to create “a nice melody that would be catchy,” she said.

“If they’re not humming when they leave I’ll be very surprised,” said Firth about what’s in store for the audience at Saturday’s concert.

“It’s a small little town. Lots of trees, lots of cows. Everybody knows everybody,” Eland said of her Mendon. “It was a great place to grow up.”

Firth is a transplant, but when she first visited it was love at first sight. “It’s pastoral. It was so quiet and beautiful. That was it — we had landed,” she said.

“Mendon to me me is a town that’s been around a long time, has a strong history, but still has a small town flavor to it. If you live here long enough you get to know everybody, and I mean everybody. And they get to know you,” Firth said.

With a population of about 6,000 and perhaps being best known as the home of Southwick’s Zoo, Mendon was officially incorporated May 15, 1667. The original 64 square miles included what would become the towns of Bellingham, Blackstone, Hopedale, Milford, Millville, Northbridge, Upton and Uxbridge.

“It was enormous territory,” Firth said. “Through the years they (the other eight towns) siphoned off.”

As Mendon began contemplating its 350th, “the original idea was to bring back together the nine towns that originally made up the town of Mendon,” Firth said.

At a meeting of the cultural council people were thinking about how to unify when someone suggested “bring Mother Mendon back her voice … We evoked the spirit of our ancestors, I guess,” Firth said.

The Mother Mendon Sings concert “took off from there.” A music director, Simeon Morrow, was hired, and it was Morrow’s idea to have a competition for a new original song, Firth said.

The concert will have an adult chorus from the nine Mother Mendon towns singing in the first half, and a children’s chorus for the second half. Musical highlights will include arrangements of Handel’s Hallelujah chorus, American classics such as “Shenandoah, Eland’s “Our Mendon,” and a sing-along. There will also be narration.

Wayne Ward, pianist with the Greater Milford Community Chorus and professor of music at Berklee College in Boston, was originally going to be the piano accompanist for Mother Mendon Sings, but had to drop out because of another commitment, Firth said.

But in the place where everybody knows everybody, Firth knew of Eland and that she might be available to fill in as pianist for the concert.

Eland has a masters degree in music education. Since becoming a mother she has been teaching piano privately at home, but agreed to play Mother Mendon Sings.

That was when she learned about the competition from Firth.

“There were five days left,” Firth said of the competition’s deadline. “I didn’t know if she got it in. I figured she didn’t.”

Eland did, attaching the score in a PDF file in her email submission.

After learning Eland had won, concert organizers thought it might be fun — particularly if invited media were on hand — to surprise her at a rehearsal. They sent Eland a score from another competitor in the contest, telling her that was the winner, Firth said.

At the next rehearsal, Eland was told ” ‘Rebecca I’m so sorry, you’ve learned the wrong piece,’ ” Firth said.

Eland asked Firth if she knew who was the winner. “I do. It’s you,” Firth replied.

“I was very surprised. Especially when I learned there were composers from across the globe,” Eland said. “I was surprised and honored.”

So on Saturday Eland gets to play the piano at the premiere of her own work — and be awarded $1,000. “I think it’s gonna be fun,” she said.

As for 350 years from now in Mendon, “Hopefully we’re leaving a legacy behind,” Firth said of “Our Mendon.”

“It would be neat putting a copy of the tape in the town archive. So we’ll see when they dust it off again,” Eland said.

Contact Richard Duckett at richard.duckett@telegram.com. Follow him on Twitter @TGRDuckett.

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