The world premiere of “A Child’s Requiem,” composed by Steven Sametz and performed by the UConn Concert Choir, UConn Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Angelicus, a children’s choir organized by the non-profit Joyful Noise was held at Jorgensen Thursday night. The fifty-minute piece, for which Sametz was awarded the prestigious Sackler Prize in Composition in 2013, was conceived in response to the 2012 school shooting in and deals with the themes of grief and loss of innocence. The heavy work of art, sections of which recreated images and sounds from the shooting itself, reflected the composer’s view of the role of artists in society. As Sametz stated before the performance, “artists have a responsibility to be in our society. We don’t just live in bubbles.”
In the pre-concert panel talk, Sametz explained his inspiration for the piece and described the phases of the project. Sametz had grown up only 20 miles from Newton and he was deeply affected by the new of the tragedy on Dec.14th, 2012. Only weeks after the shooting, Sametz visited the Newtown area and was struck in particular by the idea that the event could have happened anywhere. He broadened the scope of his project to deal with the comparison of children’s grief to adult grief more generally instead of focusing so closely on Newtown.
Sametz sent requests to teachers and community leaders across the nation to interview children who were dealing with grief and to send him the children’s responses. He received about 500 replies, many of which were deeply moving. Much of the text of the requiem is quoted from these replies. In particular, Sametz used responses from two schools. One of these schools was selected because the students had been trained by the school’s own “resident poet,” and the student responses were exceptionally eloquent. The other was located in inner-city Philadelphia, where gun violence was common. Those children told stories such as, “My dad was about to go outside with me and someone had a gun and shot my dad.”
To illustrate the conflict between the innocent world of children and the violent world of adults, Sametz used words from Emily Dickinson and Ralph Waldo Emerson in addition to the quotes from the grieving children. Sametz also illustrated these differences by letting the youth choir represent the innocent worldview of children and having the orchestra and adult choir handle the darker material. Harmonically, the violent and scary adult world was brought to life with the discordant octatonic scale, while the peace of childhood was represented with more assonant harmonies voiced by the Chorus Angelicus and often the harp and vibraphone.
The requiem began with a prologue with dark octatonic harmonies that allowed the tension to build without ever resolving. The second, most provocative movement began with the sounds of a classroom full of children, which gave way to thunderous cymbals and drums representing gunshots. The Chorus Angelicus then made their way onstage, whispering the opening words of the piece – “Stay in line; Hold hands; Keep your eyes closed” – in a chilling representation of the Newtown Elementary students escape from their school. This and later movements featured soloists from the UConn choir and Chorus Angelicus, with pauses between movements during which members of the youth choir delivered the quotes that Sametz collected from grieving children. The fifth movement was based on Bach’s Prelude No. 1 from “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” The famous arpeggio accompaniment moved from toy piano to harp and vibraphone as the piece progressed.
Because the subject matter was sensitive, Sametz made it clear during the pre-concert discussion that he had respected the privacy of Newtown families and victims and he had not pressured them to contribute to his project. Sametz was grateful for the work of Dr. Jamie Spillane, the conductor and director of the UConn Concert Choir, and the other UConn faculty who helped bring his piece to life.
Sametz’ piece received a standing ovation from its first ever audience. After intermission, the UConn Concert Choir and the UConn orchestra performed Antonin Dvorak’s “Te Deum.”