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Remembering Columbine – Reflections by Artistic Director Tom Morgan

25 years ago, the Columbine school shooting rocked the world. Ars Nova Singers participated in a memorial concert just days after the tragedy. Colorado Public Radio is reprising their hour-long feature “Remembering Columbine Through Music” through the end of this month. The first half hour is the story of “American Elegy.” The second half hour is the story of the music performed by Ars Nova Singers at the public memorial 5 days after Columbine.

You can stream it here: https://www.cpr.org/classical/
Click on “Remembering Columbine” on the right side of the page.

Artistic Director Tom composed these words in April, 1999, writing about the experience of that April day:

“I was okay until I saw the angel. At the edge of the field between Clement Park and the Columbine High School athletic fields stood a quietly melting snow angel, surrounded by flowers. As you face it, the school can be seen directly to the south in the distance. The grass around the angel is green; somehow something grows, even here, reaching out from under the winter of our hearts. Since Wednesday, the 21st, the day after the shooting, the whole Denver metro area had returned to winter, as if nature itself could not bear the sweetness of spring.

The memorial site is just to the east of the angel. Through the visitation of thousands the site has been trampled into mud; not even several loads of hay strewn for a carpet could keep the earth from rising up to engulf the flowers, the cards, the banners, the memories, the prayers.

At 3:00 pm we were standing on the hillside, facing west. We could hear the drums first, then the bagpipes. The procession of dignitaries was close behind, followed by the families of the victims, and then the masses, thousands upon thousands in the grey cold. At the memorial wreath, Al and Tipper Gore and Colin Powell were within 15 feet of us as we sang Deep Peace, by Colorado composer Bill Douglas. The singers and I walled off our emotions, focusing on the shape of the phrases, turning our attention to the sustained legatos and harmonic analysis, instead of the unspeakable, senseless loss.

“Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the gentle night to you.
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.
Deep peace to you.”

At the end of the piece, Al Gore looked directly into the face of one of our singers and said “God bless you.” The hillside was silent for a moment; the angel melted. The political dignitaries moved aside, and the families of the victims moved forward to lay flowers. There was a palpable change in the air as we began a new harmonization of the hymn Abide with Me. From a proper calm decorum (and the genuine wish for our politicians to contemplate the meaning of “deep peace”) to something less secure, our emotions much closer to the surface, as we could feel the reality of these families, forever changed.

“Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee,
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”

As we sang the rest of our program, the thousands behind me went silently by, many pausing to listen to Josquin’s Agnus Dei, William Appling’s arrangement of the spiritual We Shall Walk Through the Valley, Herbert Howells’ poignant setting of Psalm 23 (from the Requiem), John Tavener’s Song for Athene, and the Welsh lullaby Suo Gan. The silence of the hillside easily overwhelmed the drone of helicopters. The sky turned cold. We put on our coats and began our seven-piece set again.

We had assembled this unamplified hillside performance in 48 hours, after an invitation from the Jefferson County Commissioners and the Governor’s office. Every singer that I talked with was extraordinarily grateful for the opportunity to participate, to use our gifts and our art in a meaningful way at a time when everyone felt powerless, numb, empty.

So often in choral music we express humanity’s highest ideals: love, joy, peace, praise. The world needs to hear us, is desperate to hear us. And occasionally, they will stop in silence and listen. Remember the angels. Deep peace to you.”

– Thomas Edward Morgan
Artistic Director
Ars Nova Singers