New Oratorio 'Considering Matthew Shepard' Finds Hope in Misery

Jul 13, 2017

Last fall, a recording of Considering Matthew Shepard, a beautiful oratorio by Craig Hella Johnson, was released.

The story of Matthew Shepard has moved and infuriated the world since his murder in 1998.

You know the old saying, Read 'em and weep? I read the libretto of Considering Matthew Shepard while listening to the recording.

And I wept.

Shepard was a young, gay man from Wyoming who was beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead. He was discovered after 18 hours, and died five days later.  

Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney were convicted of Shepard's murder. Each is serving two consecutive life sentences. During the trial, the "gay defense" was used, claiming that McKinney feared sexual advances from Shepard and killed him in self defense. 

Ultimately the judge rejected this defense. 

There are volumes of poetry, books, movies (Michele Josue's Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mineand a play (The Laramie Project)​ that share Shepard's story. Melissa Etheridge wrote a song called "Scarecrow" ​about the ordeal. Elton John's "American Triangle" eulogizes Shepard.

And now Craig Hella Johnson has written a "fusion oratorio" called Considering Matthew Shepard. Johnson is the founder and artistic director of the Conspirare choir. He's created an extensive discography, ranging from the Russian liturgy to works he has commissioned.

Considering Matthew Shepard includes texts by Johnson, Michael Dennis BrowneLeslea Newman, Sue Wallis, Hafiz and others.

Newman's October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard has a special poignancy.

"One of the last things Matthew did that Tuesday night was attend a meeting of the University of Wyoming's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Association. The group was putting final touches on plans for Gay Awareness Week, scheduled to begin the following Sunday, October 11, coinciding with National Coming Out Day. Planned campus activities included a film showing, an open-poetry reading and a keynote speaker. The keynote speaker was me." —Leslea Newman

While listening to the gorgeous and often devastating words, I found Johnson's music moving, understated in a beautiful way, and all-inclusive. He uses a wide range of rhythms and choral sounds, from Bach-like chorales (The Well-Tempered Clavier is quoted) to blues and rock. 

Deer Song is, for me, the highlight of the score. It's introduced by this recitation:

"Sheriff's Deputy Reggie Fluty, the first to report to the scene, told Judy Shepard that as she ran to the fence she saw a large doe lying near Matt — as if the deer had been keeping him company all through the night."

Being the pest I am, I've already suggested a collaboration between several choral groups in Columbus to perform the local premiere of Considering Matthew Shepard.

Please join me for Musica Sacra, featuring Considering Matthew Shepard, at 8 p.m. this Sunday. Tune in to Classical 101 or stream the program. We'll savor this fine new oratorio, shed some tears and find the hope together.

And please check out one of Shepard's legacies, the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

Considering Matthew Shepard by Craig Hella Johnson is featured on Classical 101's Musica Sacra, 8 p.m. Sunday, July 16.