Two months before the second anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, “America’s Requiem – A Knee on The Neck” will have its national debut in the DC area. Composed by Adolphus Hailstork with the libretto, also known as lyrics, from Herbert Martin, this sprawling operatic work is made possible in collaboration with The National Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorale, The Washington Chorus and The Howard University Chorale. Performances are scheduled for March 26 at Strathmore Hall in North Bethesda, Md. and on March 28 at Capital One Hall in Vienna, Va.
The Past is the Present
Hailstork and Martin, both in their 80s, have collaborated before on similar requiem cantatas, a medium-length narrative piece of music with voices. Collaborating on music that explores the implications of Floyd’s murder was a mission the gentlemen felt compelled to pursue. Martin sent Hailstork a poem he wrote about the murder. That poem was written within one week of Floyd’s murder
“I emailed Herb and asked if he wanted me to put it to music. He said ‘yes,'” said Hailstork, age 81, in response to the feelings expressed by his collaborator. “I was furious! I was where Herb was when he wrote that text. It gave me an outlet for my feelings.”
At age 89, Martin recalled “the talk” from his mother when his family lived in Alabama. At age 12, Martin was responsible for going downtown to pay the household utility bills. The money was pinned inside of his shirt.
“What I remember most vividly, in the midst of facing death, Floyd started to ask for his mother’s help,” said Martin referencing a childhood memory. “My mother told me, when you go downtown, this is what you must do.”
Speaking with Hailstork and Martin, they knew what could happen by not heeding the warnings from “the talk” given to Black boys. They, along with the world, saw consequences play out repeatedly on television.
In addition to the orchestra and vocal groups for “America’s Requiem – A Knee on The Neck,” soloists mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, tenor Norman Shankle, and baritone Kenneth Overton will also be on stage at Strathmore and Capital One Hall.
The other half of the program with the Floyd requiem will be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor. Commissioned in 1791, it is widely speculated that Mozart was writing the work with the intent of having it played at his own funeral. While the piece was left unfinished at the time of his death, Mozart’s student Franz Xaver Süssmayr completed it a year later in 1792.
Written as “a mass for the dead,” Mozart’s stirring requiem complements this musical tribute to Floyd, offering rest for his soul and the many lost souls to senseless acts of violence. The production is being performed by the previously mentioned ensembles and vocalists, with the addition of soprano Janai Brugger.
Commenting on History
This upcoming work about Floyd is the fourth time Hailstork and Martin have combined their talents to create message-driven music. “Pity These Ashes, Pity This Dust” premiered nearly two years ago to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. The operatic storytelling of the event also featured mezzo-soprano Bridges, one of the soloists in “America’s Requiem – A Knee on The Neck.”
The journey to this new requiem for Floyd allows Hailstork and Martin to stimulate conversations about similar moments in American history. For these gentlemen, the murder immediately made them think about Black Americans, such as Emmett Till and Breonna Taylor, who also were victims of unjustifiable violence due to racism and discrimination.
“What can an artist do? I can speak on the issues and put them in my work,” said Hailstork. “These are the tragedies and triumphs of a people who have been beaten up for 400 years. Does anyone speak for them? Who writes pieces that speak for the existence of African Americans in the United States? I’ll take on that job.”
Tickets are available online at https://nationalphilharmonic.org