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The Passion of Octavius Catto

Uri Caine’s oratorio explores the life and murder of civil rights activist Octavius Catto (1839-1871) through a kaleidoscope of musical styles.

Uri Caine was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 8, 1956, and lives in New York City. The Passion of Octavius Catto was commissioned by The Mann Center for the Performing Arts and the Pew Center for the Arts. The world premiere was given by the Philadelphia Orchestra, André Raphel conducting, on July 19, 2014, at the Mann Music Center in Philadelphia. Dr. Jay Fluellen was the choral director for a specially assembled chorus, and Barbara Walker was the solo vocalist. Speeches by Octavius Catto himself provided inspiration for “We Know No East No West,” “There Must Come a Change,” and “The Streetcar Protests in Philadelphia.” The score also includes text by Caine himself (Prologue; “The Streetcar Protests in Philadelphia”; “Caroline Le Count’s Lament”); by Barbara Walker (“The Streetcar Protests in Philadelphia”); and Benjamin Tucker Tanner (“The Martyr Rests”). The present performances—employing some revisions made by Caine in 2018—are the first by the Boston Symphony Orchestra of any music by Uri Caine.

The score of the Passion of Octavius Catto calls for 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), 2 horns, 2 trumpets, tenor trombone, bass trombone, timpani, percussion (3 players: I. suspended cymbals, snare drum, xylophone, woodblocks, marimba, cowbell, glockenspiel, crotales, gong, flexatone, triangle, police whistle; II. tom-toms, tam-tam, tambourine, bongos, vibraphone, bass drum, sandpaper blocks, whip, maracas, starter pistol, sizzle cymbals; III. pop/gospel drumkit [chapters 3, 4, 6, end of 7, and 10]), strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses), piano/organ soloist, electric bass, alto soloist, and SATB gospel choir. The duration of the piece is approximately 30 minutes.

“Being a jazz musician doesn’t limit me to jazz,” a young Uri Caine once stressed to an interviewer. “I’m interested in all different types of music and relating them to improvised music, jazz,” he went on. “To me, jazz is a way of looking at things.” Best-known today for a series of genre-busting projects reimagining scores by classical composers like Mahler, Bach, and Beethoven as vehicles for improvisation, Caine has very much continued to live by those words. A virtuoso improvising pianist whose encyclopedic range of reference encompasses everything from the early stride of James P. Johnson to the free “energy playing” of Cecil Taylor and much else besides, Caine has been a stalwart of New York’s hyper-pluralist “downtown” jazz scene for over three decades. There he has fit right in, with his propensity for shuffling unpredictably between styles and expressive modes usually thought of as disparate, whether it be 1970s funk and European early music, or “smooth jazz” and Jewish cantorial traditions. After all, says Caine, nowadays “we hear music the same way we see films, with fast edits, jump cuts, and abrupt scene changes.”

Caine’s remarkable ability to “understand many different musical languages,” as his frequent collaborator, trumpeter-composer Dave Douglas, characterizes it, has origins not just in his upbringing as an improviser, when he was trying to absorb as much experience as possible, something that meant he might be playing at a Jewish wedding one night and a salsa gig the next. His musical polyglotism also relates to his extensive classical training: he received his undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied composition with the famously demanding George Rochberg. Rochberg’s music was well known for its defiantly non-ironic “polystylism,” and that extended to his pedagogical approach, too: Caine recalls being tasked with short pastiche exercises, to be written in the style of a Chopin prelude or a Beethoven development section. These helped him feel more “comfortable using different materials” and “entering into different worlds,” he now says. And although Caine’s output has long troubled tidy distinctions between composed and improvised music, that classical training has come in handy in recent years, since he has been in increasing demand as a writer of fully—or largely—notated concert scores. But whether he is composing for symphony orchestra or leading a trio at the Village Vanguard, what has remained consistent is Caine’s view of style as a continuum—that “way of looking at things”—through which purported opposites can be made to touch in unexpected ways, if only one possesses the requisite knowledge and humility.

Caine was born and raised in Philadelphia, a town long known for its first-rate but tight-knit jazz community. As a teenager, he had access to the company of a number of highly respected jazz elders, and in turn, senior members of the local African American population. They had not lost touch with the deeper history of the Civil Rights struggle in Philadelphia, and it was through them that Caine first became aware of the name Octavius Catto. Years later, things came full circle thanks to a book by a pair of Philadelphia Inquirer editors:

Growing up in Philadelphia, I heard the story of Octavius Catto but did not know more of the details until I read the inspirational and moving biography Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America, written in 2010 by Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin. The book describes the events of Octavius Catto’s life and also paints a vivid picture of the discrimination and violence against the African American community in Philadelphia as well as the struggles and achievements of Catto and his fellow activists to help end slavery, create educational institutions, and pass the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.

One of a number of 19th-century Civil Rights leaders whose accomplishments were not only reversed, but very nearly forgotten following the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the full onset of government-sponsored segregation, Catto was an educator, community organizer, and star baseball player murdered on Election Day 1871. Though Catto lived his all of his thirty-two years in freedom, he and others like him had nevertheless been denied the vote and were subject to random mob violence and all manner of other indignity—all this in the North. As Biddle and Dubin write, then, “the men and women of Catto’s generation presaged the better-known civil rights era, sitting down as Rosa Parks did, challenging baseball’s color line as Jackie Robinson did, marching for the right to vote as Martin Luther King, Jr. did. But they did all these things a century before.”

Composed and first performed as the Black Lives Matter movement was just beginning to gain steam, The Passion of Octavius Catto dramatizes its subject’s key achievements and other episodes from his biography, while also speaking implicitly to our current moment and the way the history of race relations in the U.S. has only continued to repeat itself. The score sets some of Catto’s speeches, alongside a handful of related historical documents as well as a few texts of Caine’s own devising. Inspired by the dramatic shape of Bach’s passions, which achieve their expressive variety through the use of numbers that follow diverse stylistic and generic conventions, each of Caine’s ten movements, or “chapters,” as he calls them, similarly marshals a different configuration of vocal-instrumental forces. Yet the predominant idiom in the Catto Passion is not that of the German Baroque. Instead, Caine draws on the forms and sounds of a later choral-liturgical tradition—namely, the gospel music of the Black church that came to full flower during the middle of the 20th century. (This is a tradition with significant Philadelphia roots: for many decades, the “grandfather of gospel,” Charles Tindley, ran the Broad Street Methodist church now named after him.)

Though Caine is quick to note that he is by no means a gospel specialist or authority, it was nevertheless one of the many styles he developed some facility with as a young gigging keyboardist. He cites Aretha Franklin’s seminal 1972 gospel album Amazing Grace as a significant influence when he was first working his way through the jazz scene. In addition to the standard orchestral-choral forces, the Passion therefore calls for an improvising piano trio (Caine, alongside electric bass and drums) and a female gospel soloist (a part conceived for his longtime collaborator, vocalist Barbara Walker). Caine is in good company in these respects: there exists a small but robust genre of jazz “masses” by the likes of Mary Lou Williams, Duke Ellington, and Vince Guaraldi, and one way of understanding the Catto Passion is in relation to this heritage.

However, the Catto Passion’s explicit gospel chapters are also offset by movements that refract something of the sensibility of Caine’s improvisational language. These movements, which tend to correspond to violent moments in Catto’s story, fuse some of the angular sonorities of 20th-century American orchestral writing with “period” vernacular idioms like the quadrille, cakewalk, and ragtime. (Caine has a deep interest in the prehistory of jazz, something on full display on his 1999 album The Sidewalks of New York: Tin Pan Alley, which examined the roots of the Great American Songbook.) Caine is the first to point out that this is not, strictly speaking, “historically correct”: for one, ragtime postdated Catto’s death by two decades. Nevertheless, this was Caine’s way of invoking some of the rich traditions of Victorian-era music-making by African American virtuosi in the North—a largely forgotten heritage overshadowed today by the towering accomplishments of post-1900 jazz artists. It is no coincidence that the relationship between this forgotten heritage and 20th-century jazz so strongly resembles that between Catto and the Civil Rights heroes that followed him seventy-five years afterwards.

Following a brief instrumental prelude—a trumpet-led “call to arms”—the Prologue sets the stage for what is to come with a stately full-chorus hymn (“Listen, this is the story of Octavius Catto”), freely embellished in slow gospel style by the soloist. Establishing the climate against which Catto would have grown up, “The Mobs Burn Down Pennsylvania Hall, Philadelphia” is a spiky pocket concertino for piano and orchestra. The reference is to an incident from the year before Catto’s birth, the destruction of what was to have been the nerve center for the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society a mere four days after its inauguration. As Caine writes, “a mob outside, outraged by the ‘race mixing’ in the hall, stormed the building and burned it down. The firefighters did nothing to save the building, and later, a commission of inquiry blamed the burning on the Abolitionists.” Though the bulk of Catto’s life’s work dated from the Civil War years and their aftermath, the memory of this “legal lynching,” as historian Beverly Tomek characterizes it, continued to resonate in the minds of Philadelphia residents during the 1860s and 1870s.

“We Know No East No West” is the Catto Passion’s first full-fledged gospel chapter. It sets portions of a pair of Catto’s speeches, the first delivered in February 1865 at the Pennsylvania State Equal Rights Convention, the second in April 1870, in the immediate wake of the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted the right to vote irrespective of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” (Nevertheless, the race terror of Jim Crow and the inception of discriminatory “Black Codes” made the Fifteenth Amendment de facto null and void until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.) Backed by the piano trio, the soloist assumes the role of Catto himself, leading the chorus into a rousing assertion of the inviolability of their cause: “No East, no West, no North, no South—one destiny for all.” There follows the stylistically heterodox “The Streetcar Protests in Philadelphia (March 1867),” which dramatizes Catto’s struggle to desegregate local public transportation. Here the soloist now sings from the perspective of Caroline Le Count, Catto’s fiancé-to-be, who took a leading role in the desegregation campaign: in March 1868, she “tried to board a streetcar after tending to soldiers wounded in the Civil War and was refused entry,” Caine writes, an incident that meant “Philadelphia’s eighteen streetcar companies were put on notice that segregation was now illegal in the city.” The holy-rolling opening invokes the slow but steady propulsion of the streetcars, while the following episode pits the soloist, in call-and-response, against the clamor of the orchestra, bringing Le Count’s mounting frustration to life, as a “weary schoolteacher condemned to walk through storm and cold” (these words come from a contemporary issue of the National Anti-Slavery Standard). At the center of the movement, though, is a lyrical passage for the soloist, in which she reaffirms her essential dignity and self-worth, no matter what may come.

Another instrumental movement, “Baseball Star of 1867,” treats Catto’s exploits on the baseball diamond. A consummate middle infielder, he notably led an attempt to have his team, the all-Black Philadelphia Pythians, gain entry into the white Pennsylvania Baseball League. Though the music alludes to the genteel popular sounds of Catto’s day, Caine also quotes liberally from “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”—another historical “inaccuracy,” he notes wryly, given that the anthem for America’s Favorite Pastime was not composed until 1908. Its frenetic musical windups lead without pause into “There Must Come A Change,” a funky gospel treatment of another Catto speech, this one emphasizing his philosophy of non-violent resistance and his educational doctrine. This chapter moves directly into “The Amendments,” a jubilant setting of lines from the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, whose passage Catto lobbied for vigorously.

“Murder (October 10, 1871),” the final instrumental-only movement, depicts Catto’s assassination on the very day that was so central to his political mission. Election Day that year was marred by widespread white rioting and intimidation tactics, all of which, Biddle and Dubin indicate, recalled the burning of Pennsylvania Hall thirty-three years earlier. Catto was killed by a member of the Irish Democratic party machine, whose electoral power was directly threatened by the enfranchisement of African Americans; for this reason, the first half of the movement has the flavor of a cubistically deconstructed Scots-Irish jig. After four shots of a starter pistol to match the four gunshots that killed Catto, eventually comes a ghostly imagining of the abandoned crime scene, followed by his funeral procession, with the trumpet somberly intoning Tindley’s “We Shall Overcome.” Packing all the punch of a cathartic Broadway ballad, “Caroline Le Count's Lament,” an arietta for the soloist, centers upon the question, “Why do they kill our knights in shining armor?” As perhaps befits a true passion, however, Caine’s score ends on a note of collective grandeur—or more precisely, triumph—with the gospel recessional “The Martyr Rests.” Starting with a setting of words from minister Benjamin Tucker Tanner’s eulogy for his friend, the movement soon transitions back to the mood of the Prologue, as if stoically nodding at the immutable nature of the Civil Rights struggle—the way that, as Caine says, Catto’s story “reminds us that the fight for equal rights in the United States is never finished and continues to this day.”

Matthew Mendez

Matthew Mendez is a New Haven-based musicologist, critic, and annotator who was the 2014 Tanglewood Music Center Publications Fellow. He was the recipient of a 2016 ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award for outstanding music journalism.