VIEWPOINT Eumeralla: A War Requiem for Peace

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Published: 14th June, 2019

This Viewpoint concentrates on a landmark work in Australian music:  the EUMERALLA requiem, by opera singer turned composer Deborah Cheetham AO. It was given a major performance with the MSO on 15 June, but was given its premiere at the 2018 Port Fairy Spring Music Festival.  Mary Sutherland was among the enthusiastic crowd and penned this review.

The finale of this year’s Port Fairy Spring Music Festival was EUMERALLA: a War Requiem for Peace, presented as a solemn ceremony to lay to rest the spirits of the men, women and children massacred at Eumeralla 170 years ago. A mixed audience of about 500 indigenous and non-indigenous Australians listened spellbound to this premiere performance in the basketball stadium.

Deborah Cheetham AO, the composer, said she had a feeling of inescapable restlessness as she visited the massacre site of the Gunditjmara in 2013 among the lava flows near Mount Eccles in Western Victoria. The voices of those lost were so loud she could not stay for more than one night and couldn’t sleep. It aroused in her a desire to write a requiem to be sung in the Gunditjmara language but to be sung by non indigenous and indigenous Australians as brothers and sisters together.

She writes that “it is her hope that this will help the spirits of those who fell, and their aggressors, to find a lasting peace so that we, their descendents, might find our way to a deeper understanding of the legacy of these battles … this will break the silence of so many decades and serve to amplify the importance of our nations’ shared history.”

The process of composing Eumeralla began with the Latin text of the requiem. But as Benjamin Britten had found before her, Deborah Cheetham found she had to go beyond the original text to honour the Aboriginal context. She said “The turning point came in writing the Agnes Dei, confronting the image of the Lamb of God sacrificed in order to take away the sins of the world – I was confronted by the inescapable truth of our shared history. It was after all Aboriginal people who were sacrificed for the lambs.”

For the audience this pivotal message was overwhelming and compelling together with the idea that the settlers “cast us aside unknown.” They didn’t even try to understand the first people, to make way for their sheep and lambs.

This requiem is a powerful voice for reconciliation by recognising some of the horror of our shared history. As Deborah Cheetham said, “either side of my family could have been involved in this massacre”, and that is a constructive starting point.

Eumeralla was sung for the first time in the country of the Gunditjmara at Port Fairy and will be performed in Melbourne at the end of Education Week in June 2019 with the MSO at Hamer Hall. We urge everyone to go to hear this very fine, confronting but reconciling requiem.

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Quotes from the composer and additional background information:

 “One day I hope to walk on that country and feel no restless spirit – just the strength of two thousand generations of lives lived and culture sustained.” – Deborah

Southwest of Melbourne lies a battleground, haunted with the memory of war and loss. The scars of the Eumeralla Resistance War (1840 – 1863) lie heavily upon the country.

“I first walked on this battlefield in 2013. The voices of those lost were so loud that it woke something in me and my immediate response was music. A song. A Requiem. A War Requiem, named in honour of one of the most brutal resistance wars fought on this continent.”

Eumeralla, a War Requiem for Peace brings into focus a period of Australia’s history that is yet to be fully understood. Written and composed by acclaimed Yorta Yorta soprano, composer and Artistic Director of Short Black Opera, Deborah Cheetham AO, this requiem for peace, will be sung entirely in the ancient dialects of the Gunditjmara people.

“It is my hope that this requiem will help the spirits of those who fell to find a lasting peace and that we, their descendants, might find our way to deeper understanding of the legacy of these battles.”

“Eumeralla: A War Requiem for Peace will break the silence of so many decades and serve to amplify the importance of our nation’s shared history.” – Deborah Cheetham AO

In 2019 we celebrate the United Nation’s International Year of Indigenous Languages, and the 10th birthday of the Dhungala Children’s Choir.

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Eumerella:  A War Requiem for Peace sold out for its performance on June 15, 2019, at Hamer Hall.  However, it will be recorded by the ABC and played on Classic FM on July 10, 2019.
The Requiem features the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Northey. Soloists include Deborah Cheetham AO soprano (Yorta Yorta), Linda Barcan mezzo soprano, and Don Bemrose baritone (Gungarri), with the MSO Chorus, Dhungala Children’s Choir, and students from the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and from Melbourne Youth Orchestras.