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Commissioned song for 50th commemoration to be unveiled at Commencement

  • Melodious teamwork:
    Melodious teamwork:  (From left) Visiting Director of Choirs Miles Canaday, Associate Professor of biology and 50th committee member Shantá D. Hinton and Director of Choirs James Armstrong worked together to have a song commissioned for the 50th commemoration of William & Mary's first African-American residential students and prepared for a first performance by the W&M Choir at Commencement.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Inspired by listening to an original score, Shantá D. Hinton thought that if the opportunity ever came to produce one, she would make it happen.

Two years later, the William & Mary associate professor of biology pinpointed that pivotal moment. As a committee member for the university’s current 50th commemoration of its first African-American residential students, Hinton took on the task of having a song commissioned for the occasion.

The result is “Messages to the Human Heart” by Hampton, Virginia, composer Jeraldine Herbison. It will be unveiled at Commencement in Zable Stadium on May 12 and sung again at the W&M choir concert at 3:30 p.m. in the Commonwealth Audiorium.

As part of W&M’s yearlong commemoration of the enrollment of Lynn Briley, ’71, Janet Brown Strafer ’71 and Karen Ely ’71 50 years ago, the three alumnae will receive honorary degrees at Commencement.

The spark of an idea for the song came to Hinton while she was attending a Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration event in Norfolk in 2016. The Virginia Symphony Orchestra played the score for “Glory” from the film “Selma,” and Hinton was so impressed by the passion of the score’s producer that she filed the idea away.

“It was a thought that how great would it be to show these ladies who weren’t welcome by all on campus that not only will we welcome you, and we do welcome you, but some of the last notes that we will hear for Commencement 2018 will definitely be for you and about you,” Hinton said.

“That as a community, we can sit and enjoy this moment together and enjoy what music means.”

{{youtube:medium:right|y-l_N5doNec, Rehearsing "Messages to the Human Heart"}}

Hinton, who played clarinet in her high school marching band and is a music lover, envisioned a piece that would honor the past but emphasize moving forward. She enlisted the help of W&M Director of Choirs James Armstrong, and the two started mulling specifics about what type of song they wanted and who should write it.

“I wanted it to be something that was upbeat to the African-American community — that showed the strength, the solitude, the fortitude, and so that was important as well,” Hinton said.

Armstrong said his conversations with Hinton went a long way toward his understanding of what type of piece they would request to be written.

“She spent time with me during her sabbatical chatting,” Armstrong said. “We chatted very broadly and openly about a whole variety of things from race to artistic quality.”

Hinton also wanted the song to be able to be used again at future university performances and events and to be something that people outside W&M would want to perform.

“And then, because they want to hear that piece, they will know that it was commissioned for the three ladies who desegregated this campus,” Hinton said. “And how wonderful is that? To me that’s when you truly have understood what these ladies meant and this is how you truly honor them — that it goes for many years, that it is timeless.”

Armstrong started searching for appropriate composers for an unaccompanied piece for chorus, casting a wide net before settling on three finalists. The committee’s first choice, Herbison, is a Richmond, Virginia, native and former music laureate of Virginia with an extensive musical composition and teaching background. She accepted the offer to commission the piece.

Within a few months last fall, the song was completed and delivered for the choir to begin rehearsing it. In the midst of Visiting Director of Choirs Miles Canaday working on it with the choir, Herbison visited on Feb. 14 to advise on the nuances of the score.

She said that she combined several things in deciding on the song lyrics and researched hymns as part of her inspiration. Expanding on the theme of the three women who were W&M’s first African-American residential students, her message became about how people treat one another.

Composer Jeraldine Herbison concentrates on fine-tuning as Visiting Director of Choirs Miles Canaday directs a choir rehearsal of the song she wrote. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)“And after all, if we thought about the entire message, then I would think that that is what happened when those girls were accepted,” Herbison said. “That somebody ran through that whole gamut of things and for that reason, we have lots of changes in the way we treat women and the way we treat one another.”

She had never heard her score with all the voices until that rehearsal day, she said. Herbison suggested subtle tweaks to notes and pronunciations here and there, marking her score in pencil, as the choir worked its way through the three movements.

“Read the poetry and think about it as a poem first, and then go back and sing the pitches,” Herbison said.

Students asked questions, including one about how she chose the range and especially the high notes for the sopranos. Several mouths hung open amid wide smiles as Herbison explained that she didn’t think the notes were particularly high.

The song is difficult but one that the choir has enjoyed working on, according to Canaday. In mid-spring the choir worked on getting the piece to sound more like poetry set to words.

“It was quite challenging,” Canaday said. “The biggest challenge were the highest notes, especially for the sopranos.”

The meaning and uniqueness of the piece will carry forward, he said.

“I think she smartly did not mention the occasion in the text, so that it can be performed in the future,” Canaday said. “And the message really is of unity and what we as humans have in common, rather than what divides us. And I think that’s a really powerful message, and it absolutely will have a life beyond May 12, 2018.”

Visiting Director of Choirs Miles Canaday directs the William & Mary Choir's rehearsal of the commissioned song. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)The choir’s months of polishing will culminate in the song’s debut on that Commencement day, which is expected to be a special moment for the entire university community.

“That’s the beauty of continuing to support new creations, new music in this case, and especially new music for choirs,” Armstrong said. “It’s enlivening, exciting for everybody. And then ultimately it becomes an enlivening agent when you go and share that music with other people who are in the audience. “

Hinton plans to take in the moment, along with everyone else present, as an opportunity to reflect on how the song makes them feel.

“How does it make them very inclusive at the College of William & Mary?” she said. “Because to me this piece solidifies that the campus is moving to be inclusive.”

Having a song sung on one of the happiest days of the year and trying to capture that spirit is important, she believes.

“That one moment in time will have various different meanings for everyone,” Hinton said. “But one thing it will be for all of us at that one time — it will surely be happiness, right? And I think that’s important, especially now with what we’re dealing with just of being inclusive as a world, not just on this campus.”