A Child's Requiem
Orchestra, SATB choir, children's chorus, and soprano solo | Duration c. 45'00”
Libretto by Esther Margaret Ayers
Commissioned by the Marquette Symphony Orchestra.
To obtain a perusal score, send a request to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Original program notes for A Child’s Requiem...
This large, historically informed work for orchestra, adult chorus, children’s chorus, and soprano solo is my most ambitious project to date. The work came into being over the course of just over two years, from the time I was a twenty one year old junior composition major at Westminster Choir College to the months following my graduation at twenty three (2011-2013). The process of composing this piece was one of intense collaboration that required me to place complete trust in my librettist, Esther Margaret Ayers, to produce quality texts to fit the given context. The death of a child is one of the most painful experiences imaginable, and in order to adequately address this pain we had no choice but to dig as deep as possible into the emotional recesses of the human mind. We entered as completely as possible into the sense of loss and despair that permeated the town of Calumet, Michigan, on Christmas Eve of 1913.
On that day, nearly 100 years ago, a Christmas party was held on the second floor of the Italian Hall for the children of the families belonging to the Western Federation of Miners, many of whom were recent immigrants to this country. In the midst of the difficulties of the Copper Country Strike of 1913-1914, this event was to be a time of joy for all; songs were sung and gifts were given to the children, likely the only gifts they would receive that year. This happiness was abruptly cut short when a man came into the hall from the stairway and shouted “Fire!” causing a stampede that would leave 73 people, the majority of them children under the age of 10, dead on the stairs leading down to the street. The man who caused the panic was never positively identified or made to pay for his actions, and speculation over the motive of this senseless crime has been the subject of everything from a Coroner’s Inquest and United States Congressional Inquiry to the many books that have been published debating the identity of The Man Who Cried “Fire!”
Although A Child’s Requiem follows the emotional journey of the victims and families involved in the Italian Hall disaster, the work is not an exact historical account of the event. Instead, the music is informed by local history to give a context for the broader subject of the death of a child. From the beginning of the compositional process it has been our goal to elevate the victims out of the catastrophe itself, to celebrate them as human beings who once walked the earth and not as a statistic used to apportion blame. The most iconic image associated with the Italian Hall disaster is the stone arch that still stands in Calumet as a memorial to the men, women, and children who lost their lives on the stairs behind it. The work as a whole is constructed to mirror the architectural framework that is found in the arch; seven blocks of stone in the arch, and seven movements, or sections, in A Child’s Requiem.
The first movement, On the Stairs, begins in a very dark place, a sonic landscape reminiscent of the twisting mine passages that still lie in the ground beneath Calumet. The first major theme is immediately presented in the strings, an unsettled theme which speaks very clearly of loss and fear. As the overall texture blossoms and brightens, this theme is rapidly followed by a second theme played by the brass, a strong, solid melody that acts as a counterweight to the first theme. The dialogue between these two themes (which can be considered as themes of death and life, respectively) forms the overarching drama of the work, the ultimate goal being the reconciliation of the two in the seventh and final movement. The text of this movement brings us to the Italian Hall on the day of the disaster, as the children stand in line on the stairs leading up to the Christmas party. It is also a foreshadowing of the events that will soon take place as the children descend the stairs for the last time. Throughout the entire movement there are representations of the stairs themselves as various instruments take turns rising and falling in a churning, stepwise motion. The final Kyrie section, which begins with the children singing the ancient Greek text on the first theme, involves the strong feelings of guilt and desperation associated with the children, their parents, and the man who shouted “Fire!”
The texture shifts to a slower, more nebulous pace as we move into the second movement, which is titled From a Dark Place: a Carol of Consent. This movement was originally composed as an Advent carol in 2011. The text both grapples with and releases doubt, consenting to certain hard truths that come to light when a child comes into one’s life. This carol was expanded upon in this work to accommodate the full forces of the orchestra. Again we feel the churning, stepwise motion in the music, but in this case the darkness contained in these passages is followed by great bursts of light that are mirrored in the sixth movement, Lux Aeterna. The final line of text reads, “Sing now from the Nebula: ‘Nova!’” signifying the emergence of a new light.
The third movement, In the Center, features the children’s choir. In terms of the story of the Italian Hall, this movement is essentially the Christmas party itself before the disaster began. The instrumental theme is a rousing orchestral fiddle tune and the children sing of dancing as the room spins around them, of the quiet center of joy inside the music. “Watch me, mama. Watch me, papa,” they sing out, over and over. This musical motif returns, transformed, in the final movement with the text “for the living”. It is important to note that afterwards the party was described as being extremely chaotic even before the cries of “Fire!” went up, given the sheer number of people and the many languages being spoken simultaneously by the various immigrant families. In order to convey this sense of jubilant confusion, the various themes from the entirety of the work, both primary and secondary, are layered directly on top of one another in the back half of the movement with little to no regard for contrapuntal processes. Many of these themes are featured prominently in the fifth movement in a more simplified and somber manner. The effect of this direct layering is a joyous cacophony that is the single most life-affirming moment in the work, but it also creates a critical mass of sound and excitement and turns into pure chaos in the following movement.
So far we have seen that there are distinct pairings of movements throughout the work in keeping with the structure of the arch. The first movement is paired with seventh, the second is paired with the sixth, and the third is paired with the fifth. The problem with a structure such as this based on an odd number is that eventually there must be one movement that stands alone; the keystone of the arch. Movement four, äiti (the Finnish word for “mother”), is this keystone; the moment of death itself, when joy and happiness suddenly turn to terror and panic.
Panicked shouts in four languages (Slovenian, Finnish, Italian, and German) erupt on the transition into this movement. As the children’s chorus attempts to maintain composure and calm in the disaster unfolding around them, the adult chorus issues harsh shouted orders which heighten the sense of fear and loss of control. A subtle undercurrent of the Christmas carol God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen undulates beneath the overall texture, reminding us that the disaster is occurring on the cusp of the holiday. When the fear builds to the point of becoming acute, the first theme from the entire work – the theme associated with fear and death – is reintroduced as the subject of a fugue played by the orchestra, which has the effect of crystalizing or concentrating the theme. On top of this pitch-related fugue, the adult and children’s choruses begin a second “language fugue” in which the text is slowly layered in each of the five languages present in the movement. Upon entering the stretto sections of each fugue, control breaks down completely; the orchestra fragments and begins playing seemingly random notes as the choir again begins to speak in a frenzied fashion in several languages.
It was very important for me as a composer to relinquish control in this movement. I spent many sleepless nights debating the various compositional methods I could use to attempt to convey the overwhelming sound that needed to exist at this moment in the work. In the end I felt that it would be best to draw upon the actual nature of the disaster itself, the complete confusion and inability to contain the situation, and to take control away from myself and give it to the individual musicians. The orchestra is often given very limited instruction in the notated music, such as to play a certain musical contour but with notes entirely of their choosing. The adult chorus is given a list of words in languages that correspond to their voice part, and are to choose which words to say and when. By giving compositional control to the musicians themselves, the decision-making process becomes one of atomization in the performers, and the result is a truly disturbing, chaotic sound.
Despite the amount of important material contained in the fourth movement, it is actually relatively short. As the sounds of the disaster begin to fade away, a single child finds herself alone on the stairs beneath the pile of still bodies, whose eyes are fixed on her, unseeing. As she too begins to fade, the movement closes with the words “ei kukaan nähdä minua,” meaning “nobody sees me” in Finnish. Following the fourth movement there is a moment of silence written into the score, intended to be a quiet place in time where one can pay their own personal respects to the dead.
The first four movements are what I consider to be the first part of A Child’s Requiem. There is a tremendous amount of darkness contained there, but in the second part of the work there begins an ascension into a place of light. Movement five, O Child of Mine, is about the grieving process; it is the lament of a mother who has lost her child on the stairs. Although this lament is painful and still dark, it sets in motion the great internal pieces that must realign after such a loss. The mother, isolated and alone in her grief, must come to terms with the horror of her present and the memories of her once living child. Time is fluid in the fifth movement, as it covers not only the immediate reaction to the disaster but the long dark of the winter months that followed it, months that were most assuredly spent in the grieving process. The movement ends with a simple request by the mother; “O Child, let me go too.”
The Lux Aeterna is the only movement of A Child’s Requiem in which the text is taken entirely from the original Latin Requiem Mass. The sentiment of this text is such that one would be hard-pressed to find a better way of wishing eternal light and rest for the souls of the dead. The stepwise motion of the stairs and the bursts of light found in the second movement return in the sixth, but this time in a decidedly transcendent fashion. The purpose of this movement is essentially to put the children “to bed.” Given the disputes that continued to rage after the Italian Hall, the identity of the children fell by the wayside and they essentially became a statistic. What was remembered more than anything was the infamy and dark celebrity of the man who shouted “Fire!” This movement seeks to restore importance, even after 100 years, to the children, to celebrate the departed both in life and in death, and asks for peace and rest to be granted to them for all time.
In much the same way that the Lux Aeterna is for the dead, the seventh and final movement, Sisu, is for the survivors of the disaster and the families of the victims. Those who remained were forced to cultivate a renewed sense of courage and continuity in order to survive the notoriously bitter living conditions of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Not a brash sense of bravery as one finds on the battlefield, but of long-term toughness, of doing what is necessary to move forward in the face of adversity. In short, these men and women had to find the meaning of that elusive Finnish word that has been associated with the Upper Peninsula since foreign immigrants began pouring in by the thousands: “Sisu.” The end of this movement and of the entire work displays the final transformation and reconciliation of the two primary themes, as an awareness and acceptance of our short time on this earth burgeons from the orchestra and the choir sings the final text:
For a living, for the living,
In this lovely land that is so hard.
We make our home, here,
Above the grave, beneath the stars.
- Thomas LaVoy, December 1st, 2013