An epic requiem for the Black victims of lynchings and police shootings comes to Fort Worth
A classic work for a full symphony and chorus, "An African American Requiem" was acclaimed last year at the Kennedy Center. Now the composer-conductor will lead its 'red state' premiere.
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American history has been marked for centuries by lynchings and the murders of unarmed African Americans. It's a vast and violent topic, but it's not inspired much in the way of classical music.
Until now. Saturday, the Fort Worth Opera will present a new, classic requiem commemorating the many Black victims of America's racial violence.
A requiem is based on the Catholic funeral Mass — complete with a "dies irae," or "day of wrath," a musical section evoking the Last Judgment. But although "An African American Requiem" follows many such traditions, it explicitly addresses the conflicted and often violent situation of Black Americans the past 400 years.
During a recent rehearsal, pianist Charlene Lotz played a jarring version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" until she reached the line, "the land of the free" — and everything halted.
The musical note for "free" was never played.
"It's the moment that people remember the most," said composer-conductor Damien Geter.
His reasons for the abrupt shut off are "not anything deep," the 43-year-old musical artist said. "The way that I was thinking, the way that I was feeling then, like, 'the land of the free?' Who you talking about?"
"Then" was 2016, when Geter decided to create a full, 90-minute requiem about lynchings. At the time, Geter, a bass-baritone who's sung at the Met and the Chicago Opera Theatre, had been performing Puccini's "La Bohème."
He loves that opera. But still, "I was at a crossroads as an artist," Geter said. "I wanted to create art that spoke to the times that we're living in. And so I decided to write a requiem that was dedicated to victims of racial violence -- because Philandro Castile had just been murdered [by an officer of the Minneapolis-St. Paul police]. And it seemed like unarmed Black folks were just getting killed all the time."
Geter is originally from Virginia but he'd been teaching and composing in Oregon. The Portland-based Resonance Ensemble commissioned his 90-minute requiem, and last May, the work premiered with the Oregon Symphony.
Two weeks later, it received acclaim at the Kennedy Center in Washington. The Fort Worth performance is only the third. But it's also a debut of another kind.
"I've never brought it to -- I'm just going to say it -- a red state," Geter said. "I have a little bit of nerves around this and how people are going to take it. But you know, that's actually the point of the piece: to open up conversations."
It's easy enough to imagine how a work of gospel music or the blues might address racial murders. But much of this requiem, like all traditional ones, is in Latin.
So why such a classical piece -- to address our times?
"One, I'm a classical composer," Geter said. "And this piece may have elements of gospel music in it, but it is a classical piece. That is the medium that I'm most familiar with. And the other part was that I wanted audiences who go to those classical concerts — who don't look like me — to listen to it, to take it seriously."
"An African American Requiem" does have elements of Black music, including a rousing, hand-clapping kumbaya. And the lyrics not in Latin are very much in English. Geter sets to music a lacerating speech from 1909 by the great Black journalist Ida B. Wells. She lists the public justifications for lynchings. These include "practicing voodooism" and "threatening political exposure."
Geter also sets to music Eric Garner's last words -- after police put him in a chokehold in 2014: "I can't breathe."
"I couldn't do a requiem about racial violence in this country," Geter said, "and not include those words. Those words, they changed the culture of this country."
As a classical composer, Geter said he was particularly inspired by Giuseppe Verdi's grand masterwork from 1874 and by Benjamin Britten's War Requiem from 1962. But Verdi was honoring a friend who died, the novelist Alessandro Manzoni. Britten's requiem derived from his pacifism.
So Geter's requiem is different: It's about the murder of thousands of people across four centuries.
What's also different, Geter said, "is that the acknowledgment of slain African Americans in this country has been hushed up, put down for hundreds of years."
But what is the same among all requiems, Geter said, is their sense of loss.
And the fundamental need for remembrance.
"An AfricanAmerican Requiem," presented by the Fort Worth Opera with the Fort Worth Symphony, Van Cliburn Concert Hall at TCU, Saturday, Jan. 28, 6 pm.
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