FORTUNE’S BONES: THE MANUMISSION REQUIEM
BY DR. MARILYN NELSON
Dr. Marilyn Nelson, former Poet Laureate of the State of Connecticut (2001—2006), was commissioned by the Mattatuck Museum to write a eulogy honoring Fortune. Her Manumission Requiem, read by the author, is included in the permanent exhibit at the Museum, bringing an emotional resonance to the stories associated with Fortune’s life and the legends that have grown up around it. The poem, in seven (7) sections, has been published as a book, Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem.
A MUSICAL SETTING OF THE POEM FORTUNE’S BONES: THE MANUMISSION REQUIEM COMPOSED BY DR. YSAYE M. BARNWELL
In 2006, the Waterbury Symphony Orchestra, Inc. of Waterbury, CT commissioned Dr. Ysaye M. Barnwell to compose a musical setting of the poem by Dr. Marilyn Nelson. The cantata (written for orchestra, African bell choir, 60 voice choir and 8 soloists) had its world premiere in Waterbury, Connecticut, on May 9, 2009. As a way of introduction to the composer and the score, the Composer’s Notes are included here.
I am an African American woman (b. 1946). I have lived, studied and practiced African American culture, and have been involved in music to greater and lesser degrees, all of my life. I am also a scientist. My doctoral dissertation was an anatomical study, which involved the dissection of human specimens. I brought all of this to my first reading of FORTUNEʼS BONES: THE MANUMISSION REQUIEM. The poem gripped me and caused every aspect of my genetic, historic, cultural, spiritual, scientific and scholarly being to converge, and I knew that the opportunity to set this exquisite text, which details Fortuneʼs haunting story, would be the gift of a lifetime. Dr. Nelsonʼs poem sang itself to me.
The Requiem begins with the entrance of elders and a clattering of traditional African bells meant to waken Fortuneʼs spirit after more than 200 years. A bell or bells will be heard throughout the Requiem. The clattering is followed by a rhythmic bell choir on stage, set in 4/4, leading into the actual Funeral March which is set in 3 (6/8) rather than 4. In the Funeral March, which has no words, I have combined a persistent and seemingly upbeat traditional rhythm (played by the winds rather than traditional drums), with a more ʻcharacteristicʼ funeral dirge played by the brass. I have combined the elements of (up-beat) rhythm and dirge for several reasons. In a New Orleans style funeral march you would hear the dirge on the way to the cemetery and the upbeat march returning from the cemetery. Here, as is the nature of SANKOFA, there is a sense of coming and going at the same time; looking backward even as we are moving forward. Life, with all of its complexities, has gone on since 1798 when Fortune died and life continues with its hustle and bustle, even as we memorialize him today.
Poet, Marilyn Nelson, defined the register of each solo voice in the cantata. Dinah is identified as a contralto, and Fortune, a baritone. She also determined which sections would be instrumental, sung as a solo, or soloist with choir. This provided wonderful guidance for me as composer and I appreciated and concurred with each determination.
Dinahʼs Lament begins with the contralto voice followed by solo strings. The orchestral accompaniment grows reflecting Dinahʼs emotional shifts as she recounts her story.
As the Doctor recounts his experience with Fortune in On Abrigador Hill, he sings the refrain “I am humbled by ignorance”. That line inspired the choirʼs response which uses the chorus of the Spiritual “Live-a Humble, Humble”. The choir will, with a sense of irony and compassion respond “Humble, humble. Humble yourself. The bell done rung.” This entire section is set, musically, in a rhythm that may give the feeling of a macabre dance.
Kyrie of the Bones provides us with five reflections on Fortune, set in time between 1800 and 1960, each with its own musical context. All of the reflections are incredulous, and to each the choir will respond with an a cappella settings of the words “Lord Have Mercy. Gentle Jesus, have mercy. Have mercy Lord.”
In Not My Bones, Fortune speaks for himself, accompanied only by a cappella choir and percussion instruments paying what in African American culture is referred to as a ʻshout rhythmʼ.
Finally, in Sanctus, the full orchestra, choir, and soloists will be heard. The audience is encouraged to participate by singing the words “Call me home Lord. Call me home” as the Sanctus is reaching its conclusion. Godʼs Blessings on Fortune…da bell done rung. ~ Ysaye M. Barnwell, PhD, MSPH
THE STAGE MUST BE ABLE TO ACCOMODATE THE FOLLOWING:
1. an SATB choir of 150 singers (local musicians)
2. a full orchestra of 60 musicians (local musicians)
3. a 4-5 piece African Drum Ensemble (local ensemble)
4. Narrator (Dr. Marilyn Nelson), 3 principle soloists: Fortune (Stephen Salters), Dinah (Shannon Finney), and Dr. Porter (Caucasion/ local)
5. 5 secondary soloists from within the choir - 3 sopranos, 2 tenors - (Caucasion) - each will sing 4 lines
CONTACT DR. BARNWELL
MAIL: FORTUNE’S BONES PROJECT P. O. BOX 32164 WASHINGTON, DC 20007