Making music from an 18th-century massacre
For 30 years composer Marjorie Merryman was a leading member of Boston's musical community. Formerly based at Boston University, Merryman moved this fall to Minnesota to become chairman of the music department at Macalester College, but she has hardly severed ties with her old friends. Next weekend conductor David Hoose and the Cantata Singers present the Boston premiere of "One Blood," Merryman's 35-minute work for chorus and orchestra about the Deerfield Massacre and its aftermath.
On Feb. 29, 1704, a group of French soldiers and Native American warriors attacked the English settlement at Deerfield. Many were killed, and 112 people were carried off into captivity in Canada, among them the Rev. and Mrs. John Williams and five of their children. His wife was killed by the Mohawks on the march to Canada, but within two years Williams and all but one of the children were able to return to their home; a daughter, Eunice, decided to remain with the Mohawks. She lived with the tribe for the rest of her life, though she occasionally returned to Deerfield to visit, along with her Mohawk husband and her children.
Merryman was drawn to this story by a book, John Demos's "The Unredeemed Captive," which was given to her as a Christmas present a few years ago. "I didn't think it was a potential story for an oratorio -- it's very complicated, and you can't say in a nutshell what it's all about. But I couldn't stop thinking about it, so I started trying to put something together. I went to Deerfield, and I structured the libretto around various historical documents and the Bible -- composers love works in the public domain.
"The hardest part was finding texts for the native peoples because there is no written text from that period from that side; the later texts are a literature of defeat, which was not the case in 1704. But it was important not to tell the story from just one side."
Merryman made no attempt to re-create music of the period. "The Puritans didn't approve of music, for one thing, and whatever the native music might have been like, nobody knows. So the only attempt to be authentic is to be true to what I take to be the feelings in it; my music aims to be expressive and to provide an emotional foundation for the texts."
The work was originally written for the Newburyport Choral Society, which also premiered "Jonah," an earlier Merryman oratorio; the first performance was in 2000.
"I love the sound of the chorus, of the immediacy of feeling that comes from human voices -- that was completely essential for this piece. There is nothing unusual about the orchestration except that in the Indian texts I use a fair amount of percussion, trying to be evocative of natural sounds. There is also a storm in this piece -- lots of composers have written storm music, so I figured, why not me?"
Merryman's music is an expression of her warm and supportive personality; so is her melodious speaking voice. She used to sing but gave it up because all the talking she was doing in the classroom was affecting her voice. "But I always sing everything I write, and that might be the reason it sounds the way it does."
David Hoose conducts the Cantata Singers in Marjorie Merryman's oratorio "One Blood'' (with Mozart's Requiem) Friday at 8 p.m. and next Sunday at 3 p.m. in Jordan Hall. Call 617-267-6502; www.cantatasingers.org.
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