In April 1993, the racially-motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence, a black British teenager who aspired to be an architect, by a group of young white men at a London bus stop horrified the United Kingdom and the world. The tragedy of this hate crime was compounded by the systemic failure to quickly bring Lawrence’s killers to justice due to investigative missteps and institutional racism in the police force, a finding that was confirmed by a government inquiry in 1999. Nearly two decades passed before two of Lawrence’s killers were finally convicted and sentenced.
Six years after Lawrence’s murder, British composer Philip Herbert paid tribute to him with a poignant elegy composed for 18 string players—each representing one year of Lawrence’s life—that the composer describes as “a gesture of empathy” and hopes will help us “press together across our communities to help realize [Stephen’s] dreams.” Tonight the Minnesota Orchestra performs the work in Lawrence’s memory amid our own country’s long-overdue national reckoning with systemic racism and police violence against African Americans, eight months after Minneapolis became a focal point following the police killing of George Floyd.
Words from the composer
Philip Herbert offers the following program note on Elegy, prefaced by this quote from Victor Hugo: “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”
“Elegy was composed in February 1999 as a gesture of empathy after watching the shocking news coverage of the tragic murder of Stephen Lawrence. It was subsequently premiered, by invitation from the Prince’s Foundation, for the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust’s first Annual Memorial Lecture in September 2000.
“The piece is richly scored for 18 string players, one for each year of the life of Stephen Lawrence. It is a chorale for 18 string players in three sections, imbued with the influence of English pastoral composers.
“The music is a slow, emotional and reflective piece, moving between C major and various minor tonalities throughout. The music is full of soulful harmonies with gentle dissonances in sonorous chords, under a plaintive melody, which characterise the heavy emotions brought to mind by this tragedy. Particularly poignant moments occur, in the first section of the piece, where there is music for soloists, in a sextet for three violins, one viola and two cellos. Later on, the mood is intensified by somber cello solos (in the first and last sections of the piece), which are accompanied by rich harmonic textures. The middle section is characterised by a solemn theme, accompanied by a march-like texture in E-flat major moving forward to climax, before the recapitulation of material presented at the beginning returns. This section is abbreviated and ultimately leads to a cadence in C minor.”
A message for Minnesota
Herbert further addresses the issue of how Elegy may be interpreted by audiences in Minnesota and the U.S. in 2021 with the following comments:
“There is a need to place a higher value on the strength that comes from diverse peoples living together harmoniously, across the world. We all have something valuable and very positive to contribute to the larger part of the puzzle of life in the U.S. and across the world today. Stephen Lawrence, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others were deprived of the right to a life where they could use their talents for the good of wider society. Nevertheless, we can press together across our communities, to help realize the dream of a what it means to live in a world that is transformed by higher levels of love, respect, peace and harmony. By doing this, we can experience the transformative power of Hope.”
Herbert also offers three quotes from other sources:
“There is no music having a single sound. Different sounds are needed to give music harmony.” (Dogon oral tradition)
“Harmonious communities thriving together respectfully, bring about a spirit of the much-needed peace today, just like the state and tranquility of calm waters.” (Dogon oral tradition)
“Water is peace, focus, wisdom, and reconciliation, the state of peace we would like to have in our life.” (West African oral tradition)
A life cut short, and justice delayed
Born in London in 1974, Stephen Lawrence was the eldest of three children of Jamaican parents who had emigrated to the U.K. in the 1960s. His goal was to pursue a career in architecture, and at the time of his death he was studying at Blackheath Bluecoat School and Woolwich College. Among his extracurricular pursuits was competitive running with the Cambridge Harriers athletics club.
On the evening of April 22, 1993, while waiting for a public bus with his friend Duwayne Brooks, Lawrence was murdered by a group of five to six white youth who had shouted racial slurs while making their unprovoked attack. Brooks was able to escape, but Lawrence died from his injuries. Five probable suspects were quickly identified, but police were slow to make arrests, and charges were dropped before a trial could take place after authorities claimed a lack of supporting evidence. In 1996 a private prosecution resulted in the acquittal of three of the suspects after key evidence was ruled inadmissible.
After several years of continued international outrage over Lawrence’s murder and the lack of convictions, in 1999 the British government commissioned the “MacPherson Report” that found the police guilty of mistakes and “institutional racism,” and made dozens of recommendations on changes to policing and public policy, including adjustments to the principle of “double jeopardy” that would allow for retrial of acquitted defendants in exceptional circumstances if new evidence emerged of their guilt. (In the U.S. criminal justice system, there are no exceptions to double jeopardy.) In 2011, new DNA evidence did indeed emerge implicating two of the original suspects, who were both found guilty and sent to prison in 2012. Lawrence’s parents and other supporters continue to advocate for prosecution of his other killers.
Stephen Lawrence’s legacy is honored in many ways, including through the Stephen Lawrence Prize for achievements in architecture, the Stephen Lawrence Center and the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust. In 2018, then-Prime Minister Theresa May declared that April 22 would be known each year as Stephen Lawrence Day.
A more complete chronology of key events in the pursuit of justice for Lawrence’s killing can be found here.
The journey of Elegy
The premiere of Elegy: In Memoriam—Stephen Lawrence was given in London by 18 string players of multi-cultural backgrounds on September 7, 2000, by invitation from the Prince’s Foundation; the occasion was the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust’s first Annual Memorial Lecture, at which His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales delivered remarks.
Since that premiere, notable playings of Elegy have included the London Mozart Players’ recording in 2004 at All Saints Church, East Finchley, in London; the Chineke! Orchestra’s first performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, in 2015, which was attended by Stephen Lawrence’s mother, Baroness Doreen Lawrence; the Chineke! Orchestra’s subsequent recording in 2018 for NMC Recordings; and in 2019, The Sphinx Virtuosi’s performance of Elegy at Carnegie Hall.
Of special note in Elegy’s story is the role of double bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE, the Founder, Artistic and Executive Director of the Chineke! Orchestra, who has been an ardent promoter of the work. Herbert explains that Nwanoku “introduced me to Afa Dworkin, President and Artistic Director of The Sphinx Organization, who in turn programmed it in a tour where the Sphinx Virtuosi performed it in a program with the theme ‘For Justice and Peace.’ For the Juneteenth of 2020, the Sphinx Virtuosi performed Elegy in a virtual performance. I found this performance to be just as moving as the one that they gave, of the same piece at Carnegie Hall in October 2019.”
About the composer
From an early age, Philip Herbert’s talent for music was nurtured by his parents, and later at the Yorkshire College of Music, where he was awarded a scholarship to further develop his musical studies at the piano, with the late Dr. John Foster, and Irene Ingram. He went on to complete a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education at King Alfred’s College, Winchester, and later to read music at postgraduate level at Andrews University in Michigan. He also gained piano teaching and piano performing diplomas from the Royal Academy and Royal College of Music, respectively.
Herbert has studied the piano with such teachers as Diana Owen, Guy Jonson, John Owings and the late Kendall Taylor CBE. Owing to his passionate interest in choral music and music for solo voice, he was awarded a Graduate Assistantship enabling him to work as an accompanist to the late Dr. Harold Lickey, the Head of Vocal studies at Andrews University who taught singers at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, as well as being the director of the choral ensemble The Andrews University Singers. He also went on to study choral conducting with the late Simon Johnson, Assistant Chorus Master to the Philharmonia Chorus.
Herbert is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He has taught music at all educational levels while making music through composing, performing as a pianist and conducting. He has coordinated master classes, workshops and concert series. In addition, he has devised courses and community projects for young people and adults, with creative and interactive contributions from some of Britain’s finest musicians, across an eclectic range of musical genres. He has also been involved in projects that have been broadcast on BBC Radio 2, 3 and 4 as well as BBC TV.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Herbert has maintained a busy schedule of new projects and commissions, while his music has continued to receive performances and recordings. The Chineke! Orchestra’s recording of Elegy: In Memoriam—Stephen Lawrence was released in January 2020 on the NMC Recordings label, and the Detroit Symphony, the Houston Symphony and The Sphinx Virtuosi have also performed the work, with The Sphinx Virtuosi performing it as part of a Juneteenth virtual performance in remembrance of Stephen Lawrence, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others whose lives were taken unjustly. His Suite for Solo Steel Pan Strings is due to be recorded by the BBC Concert Orchestra in 2021.
Recent and upcoming commissions have come from BBC Radio 3; EMI Production Music; Dr. Des Oliver, London Symphony Orchestra Discovery Jerwood Composer in Residence; double bassist Leon Bosch; the Nevis Ensemble; Mish Mash Productions; and the Villiers Quartet. Other projects have included an invitation from composer Errollyn Wallen CBE as one of three participants in a “Re-Imagining J.S. Bach” project to perform a keyboard piece by Bach and also write new piece of music inspired by that keyboard work for the Spitalfields Festival in July 2021. In addition, by invitation of Dr. Philip Cashian, Head of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, Herbert has written a piece for marimba entitled Kumbekumbe (meaning “commemoration” in Swahili), as part of a collection of 200 pieces newly commissioned for the bicentenary celebrations of the Royal Academy of Music.
Instrumentation: 8 violins, 4 violas, 4 cellos and 2 basses
Program note by Carl Schroeder.