It’s astonishing that we’re still considering Matthew Shepard two decades after his murder at the hands of two young men who hated him for being gay.
After all, hate crimes are lamentably common in 21st-century America. The FBI reports more than six a day, most involving violence against persons. (A quarter involve destruction of property.) Experts say that’s a gross undercount.
And not uncommonly, hate crimes are deadly. Some of these penetrate our consciousness, such as the recent mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh by a man who told officers he wants all Jews to die. Or the 2016 massacre at the gay-oriented Pulse nightclub in Orlando. But the fact is, most fatal hate crimes don’t perturb the mediaverse.
Surely no individual hate crime victim is as well-known as Matthew Shepard.
There was something about this particular young man’s savage murder that commanded worldwide attention – a combination of factors that has never been fully understood. Network TV anchors intoned news of the shocking events of October 7, 1998, when Matthew’s killers took him to a lonely field, lashed him to a split-rail fence, beat him so fiercely his brain was beyond recovery, and left him there to bleed and suffer in the chill Wyoming air.
Within days, President Clinton was calling on Congress to make hate crimes a federal offense. More than 50 candlelight vigils attracted thousands of people across the nation. Hundreds attended Matthew’s funeral, including picketers from the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas with hate-distorted faces, wielding signs that proclaimed “God Hates Fags” and “Matthew Burns in Hell.” (Some Christians!)
That was only the beginning of the Matthew Effect.
Eleven years later, in 2009, with Matthew’s parents looking on, President Obama signed legislation bearing Matthew’s name and that of James Byrd Jr., an African-American man who, three months before Matthew’s murder, was dragged behind a pickup truck until he was decapitated. Just last month, Robert Bowers, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, was charged under the Shepard-Byrd Act -- another undeniable sign of the Matthew Effect.
Most tellingly, perhaps, Matthew’s story lives on in many books, in The Laramie Project (one of the most frequently performed amateur theater productions), in poetry and in song. And now – as you will hear – it’s memorialized in a full-blown oratorio by the American composer Craig Hella Johnson.
Johnson’s panoramic work moves from the dark tale of Matthew’s slaying to humankind’s age-old impulse toward murderous hate. “We All Betray the Ancient Heart” one throbbing movement observes, using “betray” in the sense of “unintentionally reveal.”
Ultimately the oratorio reaches beyond that primal legacy toward redemption through inclusion and community, as in a movement called “Meet Me Here,” written in the mode of a Southern church tune:
We’ll sing on through any darkness
And our Song will be our sight.
We can learn to offer praise again
Coming home to the light.
Inclusion and community are what Judy and Dennis Shepard have been promoting over the past 20 years – “erasing hate” through the work of the foundation that bears their son’s name. The Matthew Shepard Foundation documents hate crimes and lobbies for anti-hate crime legislation. It also promotes tolerance and acceptance in its work with schoolchildren, college students, law enforcement officers, politicians – whoever will listen.
A growing number are listening. Judy Shepard says she’s surprised by the impact their son’s murder continues to have on so many people.
“Most legacy foundations last two to five years, and after that, people seem to forget about the event or person,” she wrote in a recent email exchange. “Not Matt. His particular case was one of the first that struck a chord with the nation and even the world. Maybe it was because he looked like the boy next door.”
So…let’s talk about Matt.
“It’s important to remember that Matt was a real, actual human being before he was a symbol, a martyr, a tragedy, a call to arms,” says Lesléa Newman, whose poetry is woven throughout Considering Matthew Shepard.
He was “an ordinary boy,” the oratorio reminds us, full of “ordinary yearning and ordinary fears, with an ordinary hope for belonging.” As you listen, be aware that you’re hearing Matthew’s own self-description, written when he was a college student. Likewise, you hear his mother’s actual testimony, once uttered in a Wyoming courtroom, that “he was my friend, my confidant, my constant reminder of how good life can be – and how hurtful.”
Close friends and casual acquaintances alike paint a picture of Matt as uncommonly kind, open-hearted and trusting. He aspired to make a difference, perhaps as a diplomat; he was good at languages and interested in human rights.
But he also struggled with insecurities and social pressures. Attention deficit disorder undermined his academic performance. He was bullied because of his small physique (5-foot-2, 105 pounds). He suffered from depression that sometimes put him in the hospital; he had suicidal thoughts.
And he was the victim of physical assault before his fatal encounter with Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the two contemporaries now serving double life sentences in a Wyoming prison for his murder.
One episode, which does not appear in the oratorio, speaks volumes about Matt’s vulnerability – what his mother once characterized as his air of victimhood. When he was a senior in an American high school in Switzerland (while his parents lived in Saudi Arabia, where his father worked as an oil-field safety engineer), he took a trip to Morocco with several friends. One evening as he strolled alone in Marrakesh, Matt was accosted by a gang of youths, robbed, beaten and repeatedly raped.
“He was never the same after Morocco,” Judy Shepard told a writer from Vanity Fair shortly after his death. “And neither were we. We were always worried about his physical safety and his mental state – that he would despair and hurt himself. It seemed to him it was taking forever to feel safe.”
Ultimately, he decided to return to Laramie and enroll at the University of Wyoming, his parents’ alma mater. He felt that living in a town of 27,000 would give him a sense of community and, as his mother says, “he’d feel safer there.” The painful irony, of course, is that an unspeakably cruel end awaited Matthew in Laramie.
Craig Hella Johnson, director of the Texas chamber chorus Conspirare, says the Matthew Shepard story “pierced my heart,” and he long intended to pay musical homage to it. He initially composed a hymn to love, community and acceptance called “All of Us.” Over time, the concept expanded into a 105-minute full-length concert work.
It’s safe to say that Considering Matthew Shepard is unlike any other oratorio you’ve encountered. It is clearly part of a 300-year tradition of choral story-telling that embraces both religious and secular subjects. Bach, Handel, Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Elgar and mid-20th-century composers defined and re-defined the oratorio, making it, with opera, perhaps the most malleable of musical forms.
In Johnson’s hands, this oratorio is anything but classic. It retains explicit elements of classical oratorios – a combination of dramatic choral pieces interspersed with solo arias, narratives (either sung or spoken), and hymn-like chorales that offer universal commentaries. At its heart is a Passion, depicting the agony of Matt’s brutal murder and meditations on it. Passages of darkness and unbearable pain are relieved by those of comfort and hope.
Within this structure Johnson takes us through a gamut of musical languages that includes country and folk, musical theater, contemporary choral scene-painting, blues and Southern hymnody. You’ll hear quotations from a Bach keyboard prelude and his St. John Passion, Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols and the cadences of Gregorian chant.
Johnson’s original starting point, All of Us, became the culmination. It’s a soaring, gathering-up gospel tune, a paean that lifts us out of the darkness of Matthew Shepard’s murder and the other evils that beset us:
Never our despair,
Never the least of us,
Never turn away,
Never hide our face;
Only all of us,
Free us from our fear…
The libretto is also drawn from eclectic sources. In addition to the actual words of Matthew and his parents, other sources include the 11th-century German mystic Hildegard of Bingen, the American poet Michael Dennis Browne, Bengali and Persian poets, the words of Blake and Dante, native American prayers, contemporary Wyoming poets and more.
The poetry of Lesléa Newman, whom we are privileged to have as a pre-concert lecturer, is a recurring thread. Her 2012 poetry collection, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, imagines the fence that Matthew’s killers tied him to as a “witness” to the crime, along with various “innocent bystanders” such as the moon, the pickup truck, the pistol that inflicted the fatal wounds, a deer that kept vigil throughout the long night of Matt’s suffering, and others, inanimate and otherwise.
Johnson uses several of Newman’s “Fence” poems to anchor listeners to the brutal and poignant reality of Matt’s murder. “I tried to look at this hate crime from as many perspectives as possible,” Newman says, “to invite the reader to experience the situation as though they were there.”
Johnson says his aim in employing such a radically diverse mix of musical and lyrical styles was to build “a tent as big as it possibly can be…to say this tent needs to be broad, large, include everyone” – that is, all of us.
The overall effect is both accessible and powerfully eloquent. New Hampshire Master Chorale director Dan Perkins says the unique mix “helps to reach and move a much wider and more diverse audience.
“I like to believe that the musical language is something Matthew Shepard would have liked,” he adds, “and I’m certain our younger audiences will be more drawn to it than, say, opera or traditionally classical oratorio.”
Perkins says the Matthew Shepard story is, unfortunately, timeless.
“History proves to us that the flames of hate and intolerance will always resurface when fanned by cultural and political leaders in times of hardship and change,” he says. “The story has to be told again and again to maintain a balance in which kindness, love and tolerance dominate. The task will never be finished.”
Performance Details - Tickets Available Here
Friday, November 16 at 8PM – South Church: 292 State St. Portsmouth, NH
Saturday, November 17 at 7:30PM - First Congregational Church: 177 N. Main St, Concord, NH
Sunday, November 18 at 4PM - Plymouth Congregational Church: 4 Post Office Square, Plymouth, NH
The New Hampshire Master Chorale, led by Dr. Dan Perkins, is a non-profit choir established in the spring of 2003. This premier chamber ensemble is dedicated to excellence in the art of choral music performance. Members of the group are trained singers, auditioned from throughout New England, who have performed as soloists and in choral ensembles throughout the world. You can get a taste of the NHMC on our SoundCloud page: soundcloud.com/nh-master-chorale or find us on Facebook and twitter: www.facebook.com/NHMasterChorale and twitter.com/nhmasterchorale.
Tickets available at nhmasterchorale.org and at the door — $30 general, $25 senior, $15 group of 10+
Free admission for undergraduates and students in grades K–12.
The New Hampshire Master Chorale also utilizes a “Pay What You Are Able” ticket policy so that anyone can attend regardless of financial ability. We welcome all donations to support this.
The New Hampshire Master Chorale is funded in part by a generous grant from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts.