Program Notes: Denmark Vesey Takes the Stand

Denmark Vesey Takes the Stand [1996-97]
Music theatre for tenor singer-actor and small ensemble
Ca. 55 minutes

I. Entrance - Moses (Gullah spiritual]
II. Aria I - Incitement and Reasoning
II. Instrumental Interlude - Charleston [hymntune]
IV. Aria 2 – Arousal
V. Aria 3 - Invocation of Bishop Morris
VI. Sinfonia I - The Night of the Great Terror
VI. Aria 4 – Apologia
VII. Sinfonia II
VIII. The Sentence
IX. Exeunt - The Gallows

The figure of Denmark Vesey has intrigued several composers. The life, mission and ultimate catastrophe of the charismatic leader of the black slave revolt in Charleston in 1822 are the stuff of true opera, and there are already at least two operas on the subject, by Paul Bowles [1937] and by the Charleston-born composer Thomas Cabaniss [1986-91]. There may have been a third, had George Gershwin lived, for there is evidence to suggest that he was looking for black subject-matter of a political nature as a sequel to Porgy and Bess. DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, Porgy's authors, wrote a libretto which, following Gershwin's death in 1937, eventually became Dorothy Heyward's play Set My People Free, produced on Broadway in 1948.

Her text, kindly provided to me by the Heyward estate, forms the basis of my own music-theatre piece. I had originally intended to use the transcript of Denmark Vesey's own remarks from his trial in Charleston in June 1822. Although he had nominal legal counsel, Vesey mounted an eloquent and passionate defense over some two days of the closed hearings, but his remarks do not appear in any of the historical commentaries of the time, or beyond. Unable to locate the primary source material, I have taken excerpts from Dorothy Heyward's play, several Old Testament quotations [known to have been spoken by Vesey] and part of the sentence handed down by the Presiding Magistrate, Judge Lionel H. Kennedy. Only two lines of new text have been created.

The work begins with the Gullah spiritual, Moses, recorded by Alan Lomax on St Simon's Island, Georgia, in 1961. Slowly, the instrumental quartet - bass clarinet, viola and cello, over a sustained organ drone - weave a counterpoint which introduces the first Biblical quotation from Denmark Vesey. In two ensuing arias, he outlines the plans for the insurrection : as the bells of St Michael's ring the all-clear at midnight on Sunday June 9, 1822, over eight thousand black slaves would begin the massacre of every white citizen of Charleston. Their fragile security is reflected in the treatment of several hymn-tunes from Jacob Eckhard's Choirmaster's Book of 1809, known to have been used in Charleston at the time. Thus would liberation be achieved, setting off a chain of events which would eradicate slavery throughout the South. Or such was the plan.

Bishop Morris [Moses] Brown lends further Biblical argument and prays for patience and understanding from whites and blacks alike. An instrumental Sinfonia depicts The Night of the Great Terror. Less than an hour from its execution, the plan has been betrayed. There is confusion and panic. Vesey urges his followers to return quickly to the houses of their masters, entreating them not to yield the names of their leaders, who are already being rounded up. Their hope for freedom, he declares, remains in his liberty: their time will come. In a solo Aria, Vesey reflects on the need to move people to change their lot: Freedom don't die, except if men forget. During the ensuing judicial sentencing, he remains steadfast and uncowered, countering every Biblical citation with others of his own. A spoken Epilogue relates the aftermath of the trial to the present day.

The first performance of the work was given in Charleston, South Carolina, in October 1996. The tenor soloist was William Brown, for whose extraordinary theatrical artistry the role was conceived and written. A revised score was presented in Pittsburgh on January 20, 1997. The work is dedicated to two longstanding friends of the composer, Ed Marks and Vera Barad.

Copyright Vincent Plush
Honolulu, HI – February 1992