Seven Last Words of the Unarmed

Joel Thompson
Joel Thompson, composer

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!

5 Responses to Seven Last Words of the Unarmed

  1. Janet Barnes Friday, August 7, 2020 at 12:27 pm #

    I found this article and the accompanying video to be nothing short of mind-altering – and hopefully life-altering as well. It is a call to action. Like many white people, I support the Black Lives Matter movement. I am outraged and heart broken by the ever-increasing number of innocent and unarmed black Americans who have been killed by police, or more accurately, who have been killed by racism. Yet for me it has felt like a largely abstract problem about which I have felt powerless to bring about change. But this article, and the linked performance of this incredibly powerful piece of choral music, completely changed my perspective. The issue of racial injustice in this country is not abstract for me, as a white woman living in a mostly white community. It is not something that affects other people. Racism is intensely personal. It is about the suffocation of promise and hope and youth and dreams and the very future of this country. And I better find a way to be an engine of change rather than a witness to injustice. Reading the article by my fantastic choir director and watching the video performance of “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” that accompanies it has motivated me to find my path to action. Thanks Mike!!!

  2. Kathy Baird Tuesday, August 11, 2020 at 3:29 pm #

    Music is powerful. I heard Seven Words a few years ago and I realize now that its focus on the last words of these men forced me to recognize immediately what we witnessed this Spring in Minneapolis. We heard George Floyd say “I can’t breathe” (Eric Garner’s last words) as life was slowly and intentionally forced from his body by a man who seemed not to fear repercussions for his act from his department or our society. We have given our permission for these hateful acts by not paying enough attention the many, many times they been carried out before.

    The conversation that follows the Tallahassee Symphony’s performance is facilitated skillfully and caringly by Sheriff Walt McNeil of the Leon County (FLA) Sheriff’s Office. Two members of the Orchestra’s board describe the difficult conversations they had on their journey to performing Seven Last Words. Joel Thompson describes what led him to write Seven Last Words. He wanted to bear witness to the lives of these seven men. The seven movements present each man in a unique way, honoring their individuality. As Mike said, it is not an easy listen. What I found most moving listening to Joel Thompson is that he is a loving person who wrote this from a place of profound grief. I love this space he has created where we can all converge to seek meaning and hopefully direction out of these tragedies.

    Thank you for bringing this to our attention, Mike. I urge everyone to carve out a few hours to listen to and watch these performances. Each one brings power in its own way. And don’t miss the conversation that follows the Tallahassee Symphony’s performance
    Giving this enough time was critical to my sense of the power of the piece and of hope for the future.

    My mind keeps returning to the song we raised with the Andover Baptist Church Choir a year ago: “Encourage my soul and let us journey on . . .”

  3. Diane MacDougall Tuesday, August 11, 2020 at 5:41 pm #

    Joel Thompson’s “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” was heartbreakingly beautiful music expertly performed and filmed by the University of Michigan. It is a great piece ! We all abhor that young lives are ever lost in violence, ignorance, or misunderstanding. It is hard to hear and to imagine the tragic, grief inducing, rage resulting from these killings. We are left desperate for hope and vow to learn from this experience. I was personally uplifted by hearing the piece “Glory” played after the first piece with its hopeful redeeming message and visual of arms linked in brotherhood. It was thrillingly beautiful musically.
    If the Andover Choral Society were to perform the “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” piece I would love to suggest that we again partner with the Andover Baptist Music Program in a joint concert singing both the “Glory” piece and reprising “The Storm is Passing Over” that we sang with them 15 months ago. I further suggest we forge a relationship that goes beyond the concert stage offering fundraising, scholarships, and financial support in some way.

    As Joel Thompson said in the after concert interview he wanted to ” use music to build community”. This can be our path also to model non-divisive action.

    Joel Thompson himself said he did not intend this piece to be anti-police. I was happy and relieved to hear this since police are our first responders–we all want and need their help if we should need to call 911. In the interview after the concert of this piece in Tallahassee, the organizers acknowledged their desire to support police who take a solemn oath to protect.

    I loved Joel Thompson’s creative input that the second part of the concert was to include Beethoven 9th whose main theme is “All Men Are Brothers”

  4. Jean Behrend Thursday, August 20, 2020 at 6:52 pm #

    The musicianship of the singers and conductor is breathtaking. The music is powerful, uplifting and tragic at the same time. I cried for these men and their families. Thank you, Michael, for bringing this work to our attention.

  5. Brian Quirk Sunday, September 6, 2020 at 11:39 pm #

    Where the chorus says relatively softly as if weakend by surprise,”You shot me” and it turns into a cacophony, I was reminded that it happens repeatedly. Rochester NY, a major center of the abolitionist movement in the 1850s, is in the news as I respond. Even after months of protests in response to George Floyd’s blatant murder, it has happened repeatedly. Arguing against police forces and secret military units seems to aggravate them into stubbornness, but can we do less? An element of Thompson’s work is to keep something pretty here, a calming influence, a plea for understanding. The Glory piece is a good follow up, saying all would benefit by respecting each other. Racial tension increases at times when people feel threatened, and we are in one of those times. Covid and a wobbling economy make every one anxious and short tempered. Reminding people to get along with each other seems corny, but it is the root of healing. These two pieces are a step in that direction.

Leave a Reply