On October 6, 1998, University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was kidnapped, beaten, brutally tortured and left to die. Since his death six days later, the crime that was perpetrated against Shepard has become infamous and his legacy still resonates in legislation that expanded the definition of hate crimes to include sexual orientation. And now, reports Brad Turner for Colorado Public Radio, Shepard’s story is resonating in another way—as a new choral work.
Conspirare, a Texas-based choral group, has released the debut recording of “Considering Matthew Shepard,” Turner reports. The oratorio, which clocks in at just over an hour and a half, was penned by Craig Hella Johnson, a Grammy-winning conductor and composer who served as the 2013 Texas State Musician.
“I knew I needed to respond in some way," Johnson told host Ryan Warner in an interview with Colorado Matter. He did so in a way that’s uniquely his own—as a classical composer. Inspired by the musical form of Passion settings, the musical settings of the suffering and death of Christ, Johnson used the intimacy of a small choir and a chamber ensemble to compose a piece that draws on everything from yodeling to gospel music to spoken word.
Johnson obtained permission from the Shepard family to write the piece, which uses Shepard’s own writing. Since their son’s death, his parents have helmed the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which shares Shepard’s story while working to create a dialogue about diversity and acceptance. Perhaps the crowning achievement of the Foundation has been the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a 2009 Congressional Act that expanded the federal government’s ability to prosecute hate crimes. The act, which was also named after James Byrd. Jr., an African-American man who was brutally murdered by white supremacists, also expanded hate crime laws to include those based on sexual orientation, gender identity, sex or disability.
Johnson’s composition made its world premiere in February in Austin to rave reviews. Austin American-Statesman critic Luke Quinton called the piece “a stunning work, largely because it succeeds at being so audacious.” And the recording made its debut at number four on the Billboard classical chart.
What is it about Shepard’s story that’s so enduring even as it’s so painful? For Johnson, it’s the hope embedded in a story filled with hate. “It needed to become a larger invitation to return to love,” Johnson told Warner. “I wanted to say this is important.”