Several years ago I first heard about the piece The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed by Joel Thompson, a choral work that sets the final words of seven African-American men who were killed by police or people in positions of authority: Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Kenneth Chamberlain, Amadou Diallo, and John Crawford.
Prior to this spring I knew of the work, but hadn’t made the time to study it or even listen to it, largely because it was originally written for men’s chorus and I don’t currently conduct a men’s chorus! (It turns out that the composer has recently completed a version for mixed voices.) And then COVID-19 hit followed by the killing of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, and the massive public outcry that followed. It was time for me to finally make the time to watch and hear Thompson’s The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.
The structure of Thompson’s work is inspired by Joseph Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ, which consists of seven movements that correspond with the seven last sets of words that Christ is said to have spoken before dying on the cross. Haydn’s work was intended as a Good Friday meditation for the faithful. Similarly, Thompson’s The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed calls on listeners to think deeply about the humanity of these seven individuals, the many Black men (and women) they represent, and the systems of racial injustice that pervade American society.
Great art should do more than entertain. Great art should connect you to things that are going on today.Eugene Rogers, director of the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club and conductor of the premiere of Joel Thompson’s “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed“
As conductor Eugene Rogers said in the documentary film about the piece, “Great art should do more than entertain. Great art should connect you to things that are going on today.” Connecting the music we perform at ACS to our lives today has been an ongoing goal of mine. Our performance of Haydn’s Creation connected to issues of climate change. The Florence Price premiere highlighted issues of under-representation of both women and African-American composers in the ‘classical’ music field. Our World War I concert concluded with Irving Berlin’s Give My Your Tired, Your Poor at a time in our country where immigrants are suspect and immigrant families are being separated. Our concert this spring was going to connect with living composers directly connected to Andover.
The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed is not an easy listen. It’s not a feel-good piece. Watching and listening to this piece is uncomfortable. It’s sad. It’s enraging. It’s also deeply moving. The piece itself, just fifteen minutes in duration, is beautifully crafted. I highly encourage you to listen. I particularly recommend the documentary video Love, Life & Loss, viewable from below, which includes commentary by the composer and the conductor as well as a full performance of the piece itself.
If you’re interested in reading more about Joel Thompson, he was recently featured in a New York Times article. There’s also an entire website devoted to The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed. The website includes a number of links to other performances of the work, including the version for full orchestra.
The version below is of just the The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed and ‘Glory’ from Selma.
After you’ve had a chance to view the documentary film linked above, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!