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Music for Troubled Times

By Richard Knox

We live in a troubled time. The world is beset by worries about a brutal European war with an unimaginable outcome. At home we’re assaulted by the slaughter of innocents, deeply entrenched racism, corrosive divisions in our civic life, a lingering pandemic. Over us all hangs a darkening cloud of anxiety over a rapidly warming planet and global warming’s impact on future generations.

It’s slight comfort that our ancestors lived through horrors and worries that, to them, seemed equally dire and just as intractable.

For them and for us, music has always been a response to pain as well as joy, offering laments as well as celebrations. I thought of this recently as I sat in Boston’s Symphony Hall, listening to a stirring rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem followed by a profoundly moving performance of Britten’s War Requiem. Few collective experiences can match music’s power to reach deeply into our souls.

That’s the intent of this New Hampshire Master Chorale performance, which pairs disparate responses to two troubled times – 18th-century Europe and 21st-century America.

Contemporary trouble

First come two pieces by the young Black composer Joel Thompson that present different perspectives on America in our moment. As it happens, this performance coincides with Juneteenth, commemorating June 19, 1865, when Texas declared an end to slavery.

Seven Last Words of the Unarmed thrusts us into the wrenching final moments of seven black men killed either by police officers or a vigilante. Thompson wrote it in 2014 after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner died during a botched misdemeanor arrest on Staten Island, along with five Black men killed earlier. Then he put the composition in a drawer. “I didn’t think anybody would listen to it, or even want to hear it,” Thompson later told the New York Times.

When unarmed Black men kept dying in similar encounters, Thompson pulled out the score and persuaded the (Black) director of the University of Michigan men’s glee club to perform it. Early performances proved Thompson right. Some chorus members didn’t want to perform it. UM alums complained. Some audience members stormed out, even ripping up the program as they left.

But two years ago George Floyd’s death gave Seven Last Words its moment. The video of Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nine and a half minutes galvanized attention as no other such killings had.

Groups are now programming performances like this one. Audiences are more receptive. Iranian-born journalist and film-maker Shirin Barghi launched #LastWords, an art project that illustrates the last words of the men commemorated in Thompson’s piece. You’ll see her stark images projected during this program, along with a pre-concert talk by journalist Samantha Searles, a Report for America corps member and volunteer for Black Lives Matter Nashua who has reported on gun violence and its prevention.

Prescient, as it happens

NHMC director Dan Perkins acknowledges that Seven Last Words “is horrifying, but it’s also important and useful that we’re able to bring it to our audience.”

In fact, this entire program seems prescient. “I chose these pieces last spring,” Perkins says. “As we got closer to spring 2022, current events seemed to match up with what we’re singing about.”

Thompson patterned Seven Last Words after the renowned Seven Last Words of Christ by Franz Joseph Haydn, his companion on this program. Each movement is brief, just as each of these tragedies occurred in a flash of chaos and false assumptions.

Although the killings share a dispiriting sameness, the musical settings are diverse. Formally they range from all the way from fugue to aleatoric (random). The mood varies from intensifying anxiety (“Officers, why do you have your guns out?” and “What are you following me for?”) to dreamy (“Mom, I’m going to college”) to panicky (“I don’t have a gun! STOP!”) to disbelieving (“You shot me!” and “It’s not real”) to desperate (“I can’t breathe”).

Thompson has hidden a musical message within the piece that may only be appreciated by classically trained musicians -- an allusion to

the 15th-century French Renaissance secular song L’homme arme (The Armed Man). Unlikely as it seems, the catchy tune has been appropriated by dozens of composers for at least 40 Mass settings. In Thompson’s hands, the allusion is more apt: The original lyric contains the line, “The armed man should be feared.”

The America to come

Thompson’s America Will Be! is an uplifting antidote to Seven Last Words. But it’s no cheerful anodyne. It speaks to the heart of a raging national argument about what America aspires to be and who is entitled to be called “truly” American.

The composer has written that when he was growing up, “I imagined that America was like living on Sesame Street in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – a land of opportunity and freedom.” As Thompson grew up, he realized that “not all principles are easy to put into practice” – an understatement if there ever was one!

Four years ago a commission from Freedom High School in Florida gave Thompson the opportunity to address the disparity between America’s historic aspirations and what the nation actually is. Freedom High is unusually diverse. Singers in its concert choir speak no fewer than 10 languages in addition to English, including Spanish, German, Japanese, Sindhala (from Sri Lanka), Arabic, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Filipino and Haitian Creole.

Thompson invited Freedom High choristers to complete, in their native languages, the prompts “I hope…”, “I dream…” and “I sing….”

Their responses are incorporated into the song’s lyrics.

The unfulfilled dream

The core of America Will Be! draws on the African-American poet Langston Hughes’ 1936 poem “Let America Be America Again.”

I’m the one who dreamt a dream while still a serf of kings

A dream so strong, so brave, so true that even yet it sings:

To build a homeland of the free.

Hughes’ words are interwoven with quotations from Emma Lazarus’ great poem, inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty welcoming immigrants to America:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses

Yearning to breathe free.

Give me the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these to me!

The song closes with a chorale acknowledging that this promise has failed uncounted millions of its people, especially those of color:

For all the songs we’ve sung and all the dreams we’ve dreamed,

America was never America to me.

But it concludes with a determined hope that in 2022 remains unfulfilled:

And yet I swear, America will be!

Another time of war

This brings us to the grand centerpiece of this concert, Haydn’s Mass in Time of War. That was his title, not imposed by others, as is sometimes the case. He wrote it on commission from his patron, Prince Nicolaus II Esterhazy, in 1796.

It was a fraught time. Austria was on the losing end of a disastrous war with imperialistic France. The young General Napoleon Bonaparte notched victory after victory as he marched toward Vienna. Haydn’s biographer H.C. Robbins Landon noted that as Haydn composed this Mass Vienna issued a proclamation declaring that “no Austrian should speak of peace until the enemy is driven back to its customary borders.” It was a display of bravado that might come from today’s headlines about Ukraine’s standoff against Russian invaders. From the Austrian point of view, the circumstances clearly called for musical fortification.

The Mass, of course, is a timeless expression of faith, hope, glorification and yearning. Haydn, at this point at the height of his fame and powers, chose to root this Mass in the optimistic key of C-major. That joyful mode is largely maintained throughout the early movements – a reverential Kyrie (Lord, Have Mercy), a brilliant Gloria (Glory to God in the Highest), a confident Credo (I believe…), and a Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts) that gives God the customary laud.

But the Benedictus (“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord) ushers in an unsettled, foreboding mood marked by pizzicato strings and short, staccato phrases sung by soloists.

The following Agnus Dei (Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world) opens as a subdued prayer but soon shifts to an urgent forte. Then comes the rumble of a distant drum, introducing the famous passage that gives this Mass its nickname of Paukenmesse, or “timpani mass.” Over this ominous drumming, the chorus pleads ever more urgently for the Lamb of God to “have mercy on us…grant us peace.”

Suddenly, announced by the cannon fire of a furious timpani roll, the Agnus Dei explodes into a blazing, militaristic fanfare that accompanies the chorus in a final, forceful -- perhaps desperate -- plea for peace.

That prayer would not soon be answered. Haydn would not live to see the end of the Napoleonic wars. But the Boston Baroque conductor Martin Pearlman has noted that shortly before Haydn’s death in 1809, Napoleon stationed a guard at the aged composer’s house to ensure he came to no harm.

Richard Knox is a writer and Master Chorale baritone who lives in Sandwich.

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