Not many bands have music written especially for them, but in 2002 the Somerset County Community Band commissioned "Flight of Valor," a composition to honor the heroes of United Airlines Flight 93.
Nationally-known band composer James Swearingen based the work on the hymn "It is Well with my Soul," written in 1876 by Horatio Gates Spafford. Spafford's wife and four daughters were heading to Europe when their ship collided with another. The girls perished, and Mrs. Spafford sent her husband the telegram, "Saved alone." Spafford later passed the spot where the ship sank, and was moved to write the words, later set to music by Philip Paul Bliss.
Band president Dave Breen had planned to look into an original work, either for the band's 15th anniversary in 2003, or the borough bicentennial in 2004. "But the events of September 11 changed my focus," he explained "and I remembered reading about music written to honor the students killed at Columbine High School.
"We have a lot of music written or arranged by James Swearingen; he's the favorite of our director, Dan Croft. I contacted Jim, and he agreed to do the composition within our time frame: that we would have it in time to prepare for the Community Memorial Concert scheduled for the evening of September 11, 2002.
"Somerset Eagles Aerie 1801 and the Ladies Auxiliary made this project possible," Breen continued. "I had hoped for a grant to cover part of the cost of the composition, but when the Eagles heard about our problem, they stepped forward with the entire amount. We probably could not have done this without them."
In an interview in School Music News Magazine the following year, Swearingen provided some insight into the composition. He said he was honored to be selected to compose the piece, especially when he learned that because he was a favorite of director Dan Croft, band officers had been considering asking him to create an original work. He added that the title Flight of Valor was suggested in conversations with Breen, and that he decided to use it.
Swearingen said that the hymn he used had long been a favorite of his, and that he had considered using it several times; this time, however, it felt right. He said he had later learned the hymn was also a favorite of Todd Beamer, one of the passengers on Flight 93.
Flight of Valor musically tells the Flight 93 story. The composition begins as passengers board the plane, not knowing that they will become "citizen soldiers". When news of other planes striking the World Trade Center reaches them, they decide to act. Tension increases as they struggle with the hijackers, but the battle ends suddenly, in silence. The work concludes with the peaceful, yet triumphant, strains of "It is Well with my Soul."
Over the years, we've had the pleasure of playing with and hosting other community bands. Groups from other Pennsylvania communities as well as bands from Ohio and Maryland, have come to play concerts in Somerset.
In 2008, many of our members went to Ohio to perform with the Youngstown Area Community Concert Band; the following summer, they joined us for our annual Somerfest concert.
In 2009, members of the Macungie Band (from the Allentown, PA area) came to the area for a concert in Johnstown. They received permission to play at the Flight 93 Temporary Memorial, and invited us to join them for a program which included "Flight of Valor" (see story above). In the spring of 2010, we visited Macungie to join their band in a special "Heroes Concert" to benefit the Flight 93 Memorial, then under construction about eight miles outside of Somerset.
Also in 2009, SCCB members participated in a Flight 93 Memorial benefit concert in Greensburg, PA, hosted by the music department of Westmoreland County Community College.
In 2011, the Jeannette Community Band returned to Somerset to join SCCB in their annual Somerfest concert. In 2012, the Potomac Concert Band from Cumberland, MD was our guest. Jeannette returned in 2014.
Band plays during reception prior to
commissioning of USS Somerset
About 40 musicians, including friends from Jeannette and Macungie Bands, played during a VIP reception Feb. 28, 2014, the evening before the commissioning of the USS Somerset, one of three new ships named to honor the victims and responders of 9/11 events. The highlight was a performance of Flight of Valor (see audio link and information below). Composer Jim Swearingen and his wife made the trip as guests of the band.
The next day, members attended the ceremony at Penn's Landing in Philadelphia.
US Army Band Arranger directs
Side-by-Side with area school
SGM Paul Murtha, chief arranger for the US Army Band (Pershing's Own) was the guest conductor for a joint concert with the Johnstown Christian School band.
Murtha, a native of Johnstown and uncle of two JCS students, spent two days working with members of both bands. Musicians performed seven of his arrangements, including an encore of the Veggietales theme.
James Swearingen conducts SCCB in the premier of Flight of Valor.