On May 4, 1970, my sixth birthday had just passed and I remember the nightly conversations about the draft as we sat to eat family dinner in the kitchen. At the time, I did not understand the words "the draft" but I knew that it meant my three older brothers (all born in the early 1950s) would have to go to fight in a bad war. This was very scary to me at age six. The thought that mankind is still engaged in wars and slaughter remains hideous and terrifying.
Freedom, responsibility, democracy, love, grace, death, life, pain, humility, tragedy, forgiveness, universality, and reflection are themes considered in the text and music of Song in Sorrow
which was commissioned by Kent State University for the 30th commemoration of May 4, 1970.
The granite memorial at Kent State University, surrounded by 58,175 daffodil bulbs, which symbolize the number of our country's losses in Vietnam, reads "Inquire, Learn, Reflect." These three words inspired Song in Sorrow's
three movements (which are played without a pause and form a slow/fast/slow arch) Sing Again, Black Despair,
and When Soft Voices Die
. All titles are takes from poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
In reflecting on the events of May 4, several occurrences found their way into the text and the music. The first is the tolling of the victory bell, which was rung by the crowds and also served as their meeting place. The composition opens with large orchestral bell strokes and through out the entire piece, in different contexts, supporting specific texts, you will hear bells ringing.
The six solo female voices, which stand near the solo soprano at the front of the stage, take her text and music, vocally and gracefully expanding them from the specificity of an individual voice out into a collective, community ceremony. The large chorus provides the same expansion taken one step further toward universal observance
There are several solos in the front desk string parts which thread through the opening and closing movements. These symbolize the distant voices of the four dead students: Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder, and Sandra Scheuer.
The rhythm of the chant "1,2,3,4. We don't want your f—ing war." finds its way into the rhythmic structures of the music, as well. In fact, the last thing we hear at the end of the piece is a quiet allusion to the rhythm of this slogan (slightly modified), played by the strings col legno (with the wood of the bow) and reinforced by the marimba. The juxtaposition with the prayer words, sung simultaneously by the chorus ("earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust"), may be startling, but it encapsulates the basic duality expressed in the piece: a requiem for the victims and a protest against the circumstances that caused their deaths.
It is my hope that this composition can modestly reflect upon the totality and universality of the tragedy which took place at Kent State University, as well as the grave adversity and suffering that took place in Cambodia, Vietnam, and throughout mankind's history of bloodshed and warfare."
Augusta Read Thomas