The piece was Peterson’s first major work and written with encouragement from his producer and dear friend Norman Granz. During those initial recording sessions, Granz urged Peterson to create a tune with a “definitive early-blues feel”.
For inspiration, Peterson drew upon various church renderings of Negro spirituals recalled from his childhood in Montreal. He aimed to maintain the unadorned, yet poignant quality of these early Baptist hymns while composing the beginning chorus of Hymn to Freedom. Upon its completion, Peterson and Granz decided that lyrics would complement the music and contacted Malcolm Dodds, composer, arranger and choir director of The Malcolm Dodds Singers; a backup group for many popular artists of the day.
Dodds turned to his collaborator Harriette Hamilton, who had been writing lyrics for the choir group’s original compositions for several years. According to Hamilton, “all the lyrics had to do was express in very simple language the hope for unity, peace and dignity for mankind. It was easy to write.”
With Peterson on piano, Ray Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums, the trio recorded the piece on Night Train (Verve 1962), which became one of their most commercially successful albums. Critical acclaim moved Peterson to record Hymn to Freedom on several albums that followed.
During the 1980s, fellow Canadian jazz musicians Oliver Jones and Doug Riley recorded their own renditions of Hymn to Freedom.
In 1986, 10 children’s choirs from around the world met in Helsinki, Finland, for the International Choral Sympaatti (the biggest international festival for children’s choirs ever organized in Finland), and performed their version of Peterson’s Hymn to Freedom.
In 2000, the Deutsche Welle Choir of Fifty Voices performed Hymn to Freedom in Aachen, Germany, where Peterson was awarded the UNESCO International Music Prize. Today, it has been adopted as the unofficial anthem of youth choirs throughout the world, and is frequently chosen as a choir’s closing piece.
In 2002, Oscar Peterson and his trio, along with various other Canadian artists, performed the Hymn at the end of a Gala Tribute Concert to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II during her Golden Jubilee celebrations in Canada.
Hymn to Freedom is, indeed, one of Peterson’s most relevant and timeless pieces. Acknowledgements are due to this Canadian legend for creating this superbly moving composition, capturing a period of Western history that saw radical change, and becoming a powerful force for freedom and equality.