As protests erupt in cities across the country against police violence and inequity, I felt it was best to use this column to share something that may help further understanding, compassion, and hopefully – change.
For those of us who are part of the Sphinx community, this very special piece has been held dear since its premiere at SphinxConnect three years ago as the most profound contemporary musical expression of the grief, rage, and despair experienced by the disenfranchised and oppressed in our country.
If you are an American choral director, you need to know this piece. There is simply no other artistic response to the pain and fury being expressed in communities across our nation that is more contemporary or relevant.
The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed by Joel Thompson, performed by the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra and the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club, conducted by Eugene Rogers, February 12, 2017. This was the premiere of the fully orchestrated version of the work. This was also my introduction to the work, and I will never forget the audience’s stunned reception of the piece. It was one of the most memorable concerts I have ever attended.
The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed is a moving choral work by Joel Thompson originally scored for male chorus, string quintet and piano, then later scored for full orchestra for the premiere at SphinxConnect 2017. A moving film of a performance of the original score produced at the University of Michigan may be viewed here.
Eugene Rogers, who directed the premieres described above, is Director of Choral Activities at the University of Michigan, and was chair of the ACDA Diversity Initiatives Committee. (He just stepped down and his successor Arreon A. Harley-Emerson begins his tenure as the new national chair this month.) Eugene begins his tenure as Artistic Director of The Washington Chorus in July.
When I spoke with Eugene at SphinxConnect 2020 in February, he told me that The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed was soon to be made available in a version for SATB choir, which would make performances accessible to many more choirs across the country, once choirs are able to rehearse and perform safely again.
Seven movements represent the last words from seven lost lives – the lives of black men killed by police: Kenneth Chamberlain, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, John Crawford, and Eric Garner. Using the text structure of the Joseph Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ, each victim’s last words are set in a different musical style and Thompson incorporates the L’homme armé (The armed man) renaissance French secular tune throughout.
The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed by Joel Thompson, performed by the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra, Morehouse College Glee Club, and Florida A&M University Concert Choir, conducted by David Morrow, March 31, 2019. This performance is followed by a panel discussion with composer Joel Thompson, Leon County (FL) Sheriff Walt McNeil, and TSO Board members Byron Greene and Patrick Slevin. This performance is particularly special to me because my son, cellist Holden Bitner, is a member of TSO and participated in this performance.
©2020 Walter Bitner
Walter Bitner is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, conductor, and teacher, and serves as Director of Education & Community Engagement for the Richmond Symphony in Richmond, Virginia. His column Off The Podium is featured in Choral Director magazine, and he writes about music and education on his website Off The Podium at walterbitner.com.