Considering Matthew Shepard, an oratorio by conductor/composer Craig Hella Johnson, will be presented by UGA choral ensembles under the composer’s direction in two upcoming concerts: Friday, March 17, at 8PM, in Hodgson Hall; and Saturday, March 18, at 7:30PM, at the First Presbyterian Church in midtown Atlanta.

Students in MUSI 8130 (Seminar: “Innovating the Ensemble”) have examined this new oratorio. Three seminar members have contributed the following perspectives, all of which tie the oratorio to Bach and the larger oratorio tradition.

The Passion Oratorio Resurgence (by Iván Hernández)

The passion oratorio has seen a resurgence in the past fifty years. It has also undergone a transformation, particularly when compared to the great passions from the Baroque era. While these new works pay homage to their predecessors, primarily the passions of Bach, they have begun to stretch the genre in terms of form and content. Craig Hella Johnson’s Considering Matthew Shepard embraces the form and tradition of the passion without engaging the passion story of Jesus Christ. This raises the logical question, is Considering Matthew Shepard a passion? Though it does not address the passion story, it utilizes the genre to tell the story of another man’s suffering and death. The genre provides the opportunity to narrate the story and the space to reflect on its impact.

The three sections, Prologue, Passion, and Epilogue trace the story of Matthew Shepard’s murder and the events that followed, including moments from the trial and the sentencing of the killers. The story, which unfolds in the Passion, is told by narrators and is supplemented by solo and choral works which offer moments of commentary and repose.

Although Johnson considered something along the lines of The Passion of Matthew Shepard, It was very important for him not to call it the “Passion” or to call it anything too specific. That sort of ties things up in a little bow. He thought of the title Considering Matthew Shepard so it feels like people can come and have their own experience with this. He wanted to create music that allows people to have their own inner journey with the music and with the story and not dictate, here’s how you need to feel. He did not want to manipulate anything and wanted to exercise caution. Because some of this is so emotionally potent, it’s easy to step into it and kind of paint it a little extra purple. He would just say: “How do I tell the story with feeling, with care, with thoughtfulness but not creating a dogma of mind for them, for the listeners?” So Considering Matthew Shepard is where it landed. Then afterwards, he wondered if then, it would become the Passion of Matthew Shepard. He really lived with it. He just couldn’t let go of Considering Matthew Shepard. (source [PDF])

Through this work we appreciate just how the genre has evolved and how Johnson uses this form in a modern context while embracing its history. Moreover, Craig Hella Johnson has written a modern passion which shows that the genre has become a vessel that can hold nontraditional stories.

Stylistic Deviations (by H. Stewart Engart)

Composer Craig Hella Johnson chose, several times within his piece, Considering Matthew Shepard, to deviate in style from surrounding musical material. These deviations serve as references. Many of these deviations are to that of an earlier style, such as the quote from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Prelude in C Major from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, which begins the piece. On this Johnson stated in an interview:

I wanted to say that this was important and Bach helped me do that. The C Major Prelude is such an iconic world. The C Major Prelude also goes through a number of keys within the little prelude as it moves through harmonically so there is a way that it starts to hint at all. So it is just a little bit of a hint at a reference. The key of C Major is also, for me, significant. We begin in C Major; we end in C Major. All of that just to say it is referential in terms of establishing the significance of this, the simplicity of it, and the iconic nature of this whole story as well.

At the beginning of the compositional process Johnson viewed this piece as a setting of the Passion of Jesus. In the end, the piece became what Johnson called “a whole more than a just a story of the suffering. It needed to become this larger invitation to return to love and to return to remember who we are as human beings.” Regardless of the change in scope, there are several connections within the music to Bach’s earlier Passion settings. In addition to his direct quotation of Bach, Johnson included multiple pseudo-liturgical syllabic passages that are reminiscent of hymns or monophonic versī from the 12th and 13th centuries. These through composed passages use non-sacred text but serve as a reference point. On these allusions Johnson stated, “some of these references are meaningful for some of us that grew up with that story of Christ’s Passion.”

There are two other obvious references embedded within the music which function to establish character. The first of these two references is found in “Ordinary Boy,” where there is a layering of traditional children’s songs, such as “Frère Jacques,” that establishes a connection between the audience (which is familiar with the songs) and the “Ordinary Boy” character of Matthew. The second is a cowboy song titled “The Fence (before),” which illustrates Matthew’s loneliness through musical association.

The movement “All of Us” stands out in the piece because of its allusion to gospel music. This utilization of the humanitarian style of gospel music further illustrates the universal nature of composer Johnson’s message and the location of the movement, after the final quotation of Bach, serves as a sort of benediction to the piece as a whole.

Religious Symbolism (by K. Scott Eggert)

Beyond the connections with Bach’s music, Johnson links Shepard’s death with Christian symbolism in a variety of ways through the text, and occasionally in a rather provocative manner. In #7: “The Fence (That Night),” Johnson uses a poem by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), “Most Noble Evergreen,” to begin the piece.

Most noble evergreen with your roots in the sun:
you shine in the cloudless sky of a sphere no earthly eminence can grasp,
enfolded in the clasp of ministries divine.
You blush like the dawn, you burn like a flame of the sun.

The evergreen, in this poem, is a symbol of Christ—the evergreen tree in its unchanging viridescence being representative of the eternal spirit of Jesus, who overcame death. It is the first of a number of allusions to the crucifixion, working from the potent image of Shepard being left to die alone hanging on a fence. The conflation may make some uncomfortable, as will the later piece #9: “The Protestor,” which paraphrases the anti-gay rhetoric of the Westboro Baptist Church, who showed up to protest at Shepard’s funeral:

A boy who takes a boy to bed?
Where I come from that’s not polite
He asked for it, you got that right
The fires of Hell burn hot and red
The only good fag is a fag that’s dead.

The above lines are sung over the chant of “Kreuzige, Kreuzige,” the German for “Crucify Him,” quoted from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. So here Johnson creates a parallel between images of the Pharisees calling for the execution of Jesus, and the modern day Christian extremists calling for the extermination of homosexuals. This calls to mind the fact that those who demanded that Jesus be crucified did so out of belief that he had blasphemed against the Scriptures—much like those who so vehemently condemn homosexuality today also use Scripture as their justification.

Later, at the beginning of #12, “Fire of the Ancient Heart,” a quote directly from the 4th book of Genesis begins the piece: “What have you done? Thy brother’s blood calls to me from the ground.” Thus Shepard is also linked with Abel, the gentle son of Adam and Eve, slain by his brother Cain out of jealousy. Johnson certainly invites controversy with these references; it is clearly his intention here to provoke reflection, and perhaps outrage, among the pious.