“First they Came…” (2018)

Duration: 8′

Text: Martin Niemöller

Instrumentation: vocal quartet + string trio

Written for the 2018 Oregon Bach Festival
Composers Symposium

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“First They Came…”, for vocal quartet (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone) and string trio, was written for the 2018 Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium.  I had chosen this iconic poem due to my reaction of the current political state in this country. In 2017 I was living in England at the time, and I was horrified to learn about the Executive Order 13769, titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”, often referred to as the “Muslim ban” or the “travel ban,” signed by President Donald Trump on 27 January, 2017. Although this law was revised to a “watered down, politically correct version” from its predecessor, the symbolism in this poem between Nazi Germany and Trump’s America is quite alarming and “speculatively” prophetic.  Clearly the ugly insidious mask of fasicm is subtly creeping up into America’s homeland: anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, sexism, and of course, the hatred towards those of the Islamic faith is on the rise, and in some instances, an acceptable form of scapegoat behavior in the United States. When completing this work, by sheer “coincidence” I happen to stumble upon “The Handmaid’s Tale” TV series on Hulu, which is currently based on Margaret Attwood’s 1985 dystopian model.  The main protagonist and narrator, Offred the Handmaid, makes the following observation when reflecting of her “old life” as “June” before the great fall of America’s society to the “Republic of Gilead,” which caught my eye upon creating this piece based on Niemöller’s text:

      “Now I’m awake to the world. I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen.  When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the constitution, we didn’t wake up then, either. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”

Offred’s repeated theme of “not waking up” is strikingly similar to Niemöller’s repeated stance on “not speaking out”, and the gradual “heating bathtub” could also resemble the slow purging of the collective groups from his poem. Although Attwood’s vision of a totalitarian theonomic military dictatorship is not so quite far off from the Trump presidency, there are symptoms in our current political climate that are parallel to the Republic of Gilead. It is my hope that my musical approach to Niemöller written in 2018 is a cautionary tale, rather than being a prologue for what could transpire if we are not careful. Moreover, I will close this commentary of my musical rendition to Martin Niemoller’s “First they Came…” by stating a very special historical quote as a dire warning: “’Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.’ (George Santayana)

“First they Came…” was premiered at the Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium at the University of Oregon School of Music on 5 July, 2018, conducted by Dawn Sonntag.

-Brian Mark

First they Came…

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

-Text, Martin Niemöller