Art and social conscience don't always make comfortable bedfellows. If the border between aesthetics and didacticism becomes blurred, the result is a humorless but laughable screed. Of course, there are exceptions-Picas-so's "Guernica" comes to mind, as do the novels of Dickens, which, despite their flaws, negotiated that border to bewitch us with their storyteller's art. The secret of success is, I believe, for the artist to begin with the righteous cause and then forget it, submerging it and the self in the pleasure and discipline of creation. Composer Scott Robinson seems to have done just this in his cantata, The Final Statement of Warren McCleskey. (The source material was taken from a transcript published in the January 1992 issue of Sojourners . Regular readers will recall Joyce Hollyday's coverage of the controversial case in that and the July 1987 issue. McCleskey's execution, based on questionable evidence, has been used as an example of racial discrimination in the use of the death penalty.)
Robinson, a native of Syracuse, New York, now living in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, received a commission from the Lancaster Chamber Singers in 1992 to compose a piece for the group when its director, Jeffrey Riehl, heard Robinson's choral work, Child of Our Time. A grant from the City of Lancaster Arts Council helped fund the performance, held at the Brightside Baptist Church in Lancaster.
Robinson had followed the McCleskey case and was especially intrigued by the transcript of the prisoner's final words and the ritual of the execution, including the words of the warden and the prison chaplain. He decided to set the whole thing, verbatim, to music. "McCleskey's style of speaking is lyrical; it has a liturgical rhythm," Robinson says.
He set all of McCleskey's words for a mixed chorus; the part of the warden is sung by a baritone soloist and the chaplain by a tenor. The work is accompanied, starkly, by the unusual combination of piano, English horn, viola, and timpani.
Its performance, on February 10 and 11, 1995, was part of a celebration of Black History Month, with two other works by Robinson (a fanfare for two trumpets, horn, and trombone and another choral piece, Sing, My Tongue, the Glorious Battle with brass quartet), and various other performances. Because Riehl left the Lancaster Chamber Singers in 1993, the performance was conducted by Mary Beth Lake. Soloists for "McCleskey" were baritone John Hershey and tenor John Miller, with accompaniment by Rebecca Rairigh on piano, John Hamilton on viola, Paula Dramble on English horn, and Clem Lichty on timpani.
RATHER THAN drive home any particular points about the injustice of the legal system, Robinson has created a miniopera that unfolds with the profound inevitability of Francis Poulenc's Dialogue of the Carmelites. In his hands, the material becomes a meditation on forgiveness and the possibility of redemption. Its melancholy never becomes oppressive, residing in the unobtrusive but relentless line of timpani recurring throughout the piece and on the dour, monotonous recitative with which he has set the final reading of the court order for execution by Walter Zant, the warden.
Robinson himself calls the work "very conservative musically," and he is right; it is accessible to a lay audience without being facile. Built on small motifs which are elaborated into winding, contrapuntal lines, this is a well-crafted piece with plenty to interest the more sophisticated ear.
It is an austere work, with flashes of dissonance among the lyrical melodies. Because the writing is so transparent, the character of each accompanying instrument can be distinctly heard, as in chamber music. Robinson's choice of instruments is astute: The English horn becomes a clear, soothing voice of hope and redemption, while the viola takes on a rustic character, suggestive perhaps of the rural South. The timpani is the unifying force, constantly recalling the approaching annihilation, and the piano forms the work's harmonic backbone.
The tenor solo, whose words, spoken by the chaplain, are flat next to McCleskey's fervent and powerful statement, is nevertheless gratefully written for the voice. Robinson describes it as "a pretty tune within a not-so-pretty harmonic context," and that is accurate.
"Like any military or state chaplain, he has a less-than-ideal context," the composer explains. "He has pretty words to say, but they are formal and beside the point. That is why there is dissonance underneath."
After graduating from LeMoyne College with a degree in English (and a minor in religion) in 1986, Robinson took two years off to work with multiply disabled people, under the auspices of Catholic Charities in Syracuse, while acting as a classroom assistant for learning disabled, gifted, and autistic students in the Syracuse schools. He completed a master's degree in music composition at the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1990, and has since composed approximately 30 pieces, many of them commissioned works. He is an actor and musical director for the Pocono Renaissance Faire, and teaches theory and composition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Music in Lancaster.
Robinson, who was raised a Methodist and received his earliest exposure to music through the church, has struggled to resolve his attraction to music with his need to alleviate suffering in a more direct way. "Getting a doctorate in music seems a silly thing to do when there is ethnic cleansing going on in the world," he says.
SUSAN L. PEÑA is a free-lance writer living in Reading, Pennsylvania. She is a regular arts reviewer for the Reading Eagle-Times. For information about performance rights and commissions of "The Final Statement of Warren McCleskey," please contact Scott Robinson, 3721 Sentinel Heights Road, LaFayette, NY 13084.