“We have been practicing silence about our history for a very long time. In this country, we don’t talk about slavery, we don’t talk about lynching, we don’t talk about segregation, we have a hard time talking about race…We react to the effort of trying to talk about it as if that’s the threat. Not our continued silence." –Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)
William Grant Still, And They Lynched Him on a Tree
And They Lynched Him on a Tree was a collaboration between a Black composer, William Grant Still, and a White poet, Katherine Garrison Chapin. The project was encouraged by Alain Locke, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, and Charlotte Mason, the self-named “Godmother” and patron of that movement, and Chapin’s aunt.
The work was premiered in 1940, a year after Billie Holiday recorded her famous performance of “Strange Fruit,” Aber Meerpol”s song in protest of lynching. The New York Philharmonic, under the direction of Artur Rodziński, premiered the work for a large audience. Invitees included a Supreme Court justice, a U.S. senator, a Cabinet Secretary, and First Lady and human rights activist Eleanor Roosevelt. Chapin chose the premiere date to help promote passage of an anti-lynching bill that had passed the House of Representatives and was stalled by the threat of filibuster in the Senate.
According to a report by our Community Partner, the Equal Justice Initiative, in the period between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950, more than 4,400 African Americans were lynched as a form of racialized terror. Such lynchings differed from “frontier justice.” They targeted African Americans in communities who maintained functioning criminal justice systems for their White citizens. Largely tolerated by state, and federal officials, some were public spectacles, attended by huge white crowds, and “conducted as celebratory acts of racial control and domination.” The legacy of this racialized terror for America was profound:
“Lynching profoundly impacted race relations in this country and shaped the geographic, political, social, and economic conditions of African Americans in ways that are still evident today. Terror lynchings fueled the mass migration of millions of black people from the South into urban ghettos in the north and west throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Lynching created a fearful environment where racial subordination and segregation was maintained with limited resistance for decades. Most critically, lynching reinforced a legacy of racial inequality that has never been adequately addressed in America.” (EJI)
It was in this context that Katherine Garrison Chapin approached William Grant Still to write And They Lynched Him on Tree. According to Judith Anne Still, the composer’s daughter, Still’s decision to set Chapin’s poem was also inspired by a lynching that he himself had witnessed earlier in his career, while traveling with blues legend, W. C. Handy in Ohio. The two musicians were picked up at the train station in a buckboard and were headed to perform at a dance for White people, when they came upon a crowd dragging a young Black man from a jail. The driver pulled into the brush on the side of the road, and told Still and Handy to hide which they did. The crowd hung the Black man. After they dispersed, Still, Handy, and the driver left.
William Grant Still went on to have a career as an American composer marked by a long list of “firsts.” Among them, he was the first African American composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra, the first to conduct a major symphony orchestra, and the first to have an opera performed by a major American company. Still’s setting of Garrison Chapin’s libretto is operatic in nature. It calls for a “White chorus” in the role of a lynch mob, a “Negro chorus” that discovers and mourns the victim, a mezzo-soprano soloist as the mother of the slain man, and a narrator. All come together to lament “the long dark shadow that falls across your land” and call for justice.
Though a courageous act of advocacy, Chapin’s poem does to an extent soften the topic. Unlike many lynching victims, the victim in her poem has been tried and found guilty of an undefined crime. The evil the work deplores is the White mob’s impatience in taking the law into their own hands. We do not witness the actual lynching, only the white mob dispersing from it and the black community’s horror at discovering the body, “Here’s the limb, and here’s the tree. Oh my God, have mercy on me!”
The rest is left to Still’s music and to the listener’s imagination. Per his correspondence, Still struggled to set the lynching in music: “To date, I’ve considered and discarded about forty or fifty themes.” Finally he settled on the marked rhythmic motive with which the orchestra opens (labeled “Excitement” in his sketchbooks.) It builds up in frenzy to a striking C-flat chord that depicts the hanging, before dissipating in energy like the departing lynch mob. Their calls and chatter, over the “Excitement” motive, are set to the strange tritonal melody that Still’s sketchbooks labeled “The Wounding Power of Prejudice.”
The difficulty continued at the premiere. Chapin was forced to change the ending at the urging of the conductor Rodziński: “I am afraid that unless the end were entirely changed it would be nearly impossible to perform the work…the last sentence, “The dark shadow will fall across your land”...would cause tremendous antagonism.” Rodziński was also worried that conducting such a work might imperil the chances of his sister-in-law and niece to obtain asylum in the United States from Poland. After a debate, Chapin worked out alternate versions. The chorus sang one version and another was printed in the program. A third version was printed in the score. Today, Coro Allegro and the Heritage Chorale of New Haven sing a hybrid version of the text that calls for justice and the affirmation of our common humanity (an ending that Still’s music leaves unresolved).
Coro Allegro's first performance of And They Lynched Him on a Tree 20 years ago was nearly derailed when the local church choir slated to sing the role of the Black chorus pulled out of the planned collaboration. The reasons cited were the difficulty of the subject for their members as well as their discomfort with Coro’s LGBTQ+ membership. The Heritage Chorale of New Haven, who had been formed especially to sing Still’s work with another chorus in New Haven, graciously stepped into the breach at the last minute. Together, the two groups performed the Boston premiere as the first African-American and LGBTQ+ choruses to collaborate on Still’s work.
This afternoon’s performance celebrates the 20th anniversary of that collaboration and of the Heritage Chorale of New Haven. The directors of both choruses feel the importance of revisiting Still’s work in 2019, in context of the upsurge of racial violence that has triggered the Black Lives Matter movement. Jonathan Q. Berryman of The Heritage Chorale of New Haven notes: “Never in my adult life have I felt like there was such a long dark shadow that falls across our land.”
Coro Allegro Artistic Director David Hodgkins concurs:
“These past 20 years have not garnered the kinds of social change that I expected. As a country, we’ve gone from lynchings to shooting up churches, going into Bible studies, synagogues, and mosques, and just killing people. The bad behavior has become much more brazen. People are not even hiding behind hoods. If we, as the White community, or the LGBTQ+ community, or as any community in America, don’t start taking a stand for the marginalized or the brutalized, then we are no better.”
Almost 80 years after the premiere, the Justice for Victims of Lynching Bill of 2019, the most recent of 200 attempts to pass such legislation, has finally been approved by the Senate, and stands a strong change of passage by the House. Perhaps it is an encouraging sign that Judith Anne Still reports that never before have so many groups, including those from southern states, wanted to perform And They Lynched Him on a Tree.
“Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape. This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”—Bryan Stevenson, Director, EJI
-- Yoshi Campbell and David Hodgkins
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Fred Onovwerosuoke, Caprice for Piano & Orchestra
Commissioned by Coro Allegro for pianist Darryl Hollister in 2017
Movement 1 - Incolatus
Worlds in variance
Echoes of tomorrow
Movement 1, Incolatus, is a paraphrase on its sibling poem. It is a snapshot of one life’s journey bedecked by reveries, mirages, and intrigues. Of triumphs, echoes thereof often hazed by another drowsy night. The movement closes reassuringly, as would the proverbial Ghanaian sage: the preening bird hops from branch to branch, announcing the breaking of yet another day.”
Movement 2- Evigilans
Where only a few tread
Tickling, tingling childhood
– memories of innocence –
Of storms turned waves
Thrusting forward, forward
Movement 2, Evigilans, opens suddenly with rousing “Sikuti” dances, inspired by celebratory traditions of the Maasai and Samburu warriors of Eastern Africa. The middle section draws from a variety of imageries of African responsorial traditions. Then recapping through reminiscences of childhood memories – of innocence, toys, playtime, etc. – the work closes with an annotated reprise, a befitting accolade to a beloved friend and a bold quest charting new musical frontiers!
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Fred Onovwerosuoke, A Triptych of American Voices: A Cantata of the People
I embarked on creating a grand work in three movements, each, starkly unique in form and style, hence the word “Triptych.” Guided by three great American poems I set out to compose a grand musical treatise in three parts, subdivided into nine sections – “Prologue,” “Indigenes & Immigrants,” “Fiesta,” “Why the Caged Bird Sings,” “We the People,” “As I Grew Older,” “Responsorials,” “Heed the Gentle Voice, and “We Need To Talk.” Each section helps to forge one contiguous narrative. The entire work is a partnership of voices and musicians sharing aspects of a protest song. It is a commentary on the current political climate in America. Of a people apparently entrapped in unrelenting ideological partisanship. But it all begins with the leitmotif first uttered by the flute in the overture – a simple bird call that ‘nagged’ me for almost a whole year before I eventually wrote it down… Then ensues a brief instrumental narrative on the origins of our United States of America, in the “Indigenes and Immigrants” and “Fiesta” subsections that were inspired by Native American dances and Pow Wows.
In the first poem "Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar (whose line “I know why the caged bird sings” was famously quoted by Dr. Maya Angelou), the caged bird would rather be out with other free birds smelling the flowers, but instead he is locked up in a cage, his wings bruised and bloodied from futile attempts to escape. We seem to perpetuate age-long oppressive policies that put our own people in cages. We see people with different cultural or socio-economic experiences, label them as ‘the other’ and then build walls to marginalize them.
Part II begins with a quote attributed to George Orwell. “A people that elect corrupt politicians – impostors, traitors, thieves – are not victims; they are accomplices…” This quote is an appropriate jab, if you will, on the 2016 election. Structurally, it’s a protest chant set to a backdrop of urban beats. But this segues quickly to Langston Hughes’ “As I Grew Older,” a poem which to me alludes to walls, inhibition, and evokes the festering wounds of Black Lives Matters. The misguided battle cry to build a wall on our southern U.S. Border is really a race thing, an ethnicity thing, a sexuality thing, a trans, an accented-speech thing, a gender thing, an ‘other’ thing...
“Take Jazz seriously!” so the French composer Maurice Ravel was quoted in the March 1928 edition of the Musical Digest. And literally taking Ravel’s advice to heart, I liberally called on Jazz lingua as the appropriate medium to recast Hughes’ poem in a double-speak about suppression, stoicism, and incredible bravery. Oppressed peoples often would rather shroud untold suffering and be seen to play along, as if to trivialize the hurdles life has dealt them. But deep inside, an oppressed populace knows well the severity of walls, shattered dreams, etc. However, toward the end of this segment, at “The wall,” the full impact of Langston Hughes’ poem is meted out with great intensity.
Part III opens with a communal chant in the Fon dialect, from ancient meditation rituals still practiced in Benin Republic region of West Africa, and other regions of the African diaspora in Haiti, Cuba, other parts of the Caribbean and Latin America. The male members, female members of the community take turn in echoing the caution of the priestess. In “Heed the Gentle Voice of My Drum,” the soloist serenades us to faint hypnotic drumbeats, a divination practice also found among Native Americans. We hear the voice of the ancestral sage, beckoning and cautioning a community, seemingly enveloped in tribal partisanship and disarray, to reason wisely.
The closing segment of the work draws from Michael Castro’s poem, “We Need to Talk,” written in the wake of the Ferguson unrest in St. Louis. It is a wake up call for a society seemingly in apathetic stupor. Castro’s text is a reminder that frustrations, when left unaddressed, become volcanic, and from time to time will erupt in civil unrest and disrupt the very comfort we take for granted.
Back in 1987, President Ronald Reagan said: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” So in compatriot fervor this work amplifies Dr. Michael Castro’s call to all those who harbor or perpetuate all kinds of overt and covert bigotry:
“Get out of your closed minds,
It’s claustrophobic in there;
Take off your armor,
Put away your gun:
Try to get out!”