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World Premiere Performance Honors George Floyd on IPR's Steinway Cafe

On December 16 at noon, the Unison Piano Duo will present the début of a new work by composer and Luther College professor Dr. Brooke Joyce

The nation was stunned by the heartbreaking death of George Floyd on May 25. In the aftermath of the protests that followed, Brooke Joyce, a professor and composer at Luther College, was driven to create a new work combating his sense of isolation produced by this painful chapter in American history.

“His death and the circumstances surrounding it shook me to my core. Not only was the act horrific, but the bystanders felt they were powerless to stop it. I couldn't think about anything else for a few days, and it became clear to me that music was a way for me to process what happened," Joyce said.

The work that emerged is a piece titled “He Hung His Head and Died (12 Variations for George Floyd).”

The Unison Piano Duo, back by popular demand, is comprised of internationally acclaimed pianists Dr. Du Huang and Dr. Xiao Hu. They will perform the piece on IPR’s Steinway Café from the Noble Recital Hall in the Jensen-Noble Hall of Music, where both musicians are on the Luther College piano faculty.

Inspiration for the piece

One of the earliest sources of inspiration that Joyce thought to explore in his composition was incorporating a spiritual as a building block for his work. Joyce thought about the harsh treatment of American slaves and acknowledged that spirituals were a musical witness to the history of Blacks in America.

“They are crucial to understanding our heritage. They come from a chronicle of a dark time in our nation's history. At the same time, they often are filled with messages of hope and perseverance, messages that still resonate in 2020," he said.

Joyce knew immediately he wanted to employ the African-American spiritual, “He Never Said A Mumblin' Word" in his composition.

“This spiritual is one I've known for a long time, having sung it in church and accompanied singers who performed it. Floyd's death seemed to be a kind of crucifixion, and the refrain ‘he never said a mumbling word’ seemed to sum up Floyd's final moments on this earth.”

First heard and recorded in the late 1920s by Victor Records, this spiritual, “He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word” chronicles the silent reserve of Jesus during his trial and execution. Joyce recognized the parallels of Floyd’s final desperation of calling out to his mother while having his life literally pressed from him. Joyce internalized the poignant correlation of Floyd’s final words to those in the spiritual.

To incorporate the spiritual into his new composition, Joyce took the 11 measures plus a pick-up note structure of “He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word,” to set the text into seven phrases. He then arranged the verse into 12 variations, correlating to the Stations of the Cross. When playing the 12 variations using a slow 60-beats-per-minute-dirge-like tempo, the total performance time translates into almost the exact same time that the police officer held his knee to Floyd’s neck for an interminable eight minutes and 46 seconds.

Joyce also selected seven unique pitches from the “a Mumblin” spiritual, creating a special seven-note-scale that became the architecture for his new work, “He Hung His Head and Died (12 Variations for George Floyd).”

Joyce’s first somber variation opens with the most disguised and farthest away from the original melody. As the movements unfold, the twelfth variation concludes with a simple statement of the original, “He Hung His Head and Died.” It builds a very sad close to a profound work.

Joyce wants the listener to feel the work reveal itself.

"The piece unfolds like a story, with an emotional arc that reaches highs and lows, often in quick succession. Our experience of living through the events of 2020 feels similarly dynamic. I want listeners to experience that journey through this piece, and at the end, perhaps feel as though we've arrived at a destination where we might find a moment of peace and hope for the future," he explained.

Other pieces in the program

In addition to Joyce’s “He Hung His Head and Died” for piano-four hands, the Unison Duo will also perform their duo-piano-setting-performances of Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G,” selections from “Bohemian Forest” by Dvořák, and one of Leroy Anderson’s most popular holiday works.

Jacqueline Halbloom is a Sr. Music Producer and Classical Music Host