In combining the story of Victoria’s colonial Eumeralla wars and the traditional Latin Mass, composer and soprano Deborah Cheetham realised she needed to break with the past to keep faith with history.
It’s a new work, developed in 2018 and performed three times so far, with WA Symphony Orchestra finally bringing it to Perth on Friday after repeated COVID cancellations.
“It is essentially a Requiem Mass, so many readers will be familiar with that format,” Cheetham says. “What I’ve brought to it is a story that belongs to us as Australians, and language which is almost as ancient as any language in the world could be.”
Her inspiration came out of a spirit of place arising from the bloody 19th century conflict between settlers and the Gunditjmara people
“That was a resistance war that was waged over a period of 23 years and the reason it could last as long as it did was that land down there in Gunditjmar country in the south west of Victoria is a lava flow so horses couldn’t get into many of the places and so that lava flow was kind of like a fortress,” Cheetham says.
“But ultimately the war raged on and it took so many lives, after those 23 years there were just 77 survivors of the Gunditjmara people. Everything that we know about their culture, language, customs and ways really is built from those surviving 77.”
It’s a story almost unknown in Australian history, yet it resonates at a time when Australia’s ancient heritage is being re-evaluated.
“It was my original intention to use the English translation of the Latin text, but in the end I couldn’t use that direct translation. Some of the symbolism was just so in conflict really with the story I was telling,” Cheetham says.
“As a soprano I’ve sung the Latin text many times I’m familiar with it but I got to the ‘Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi’, which is basically, ‘The Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world’. This is incredibly important symbolism in the Christian faith, I understand its importance and I don’t diminish that one bit, but the truth was that the Gunditjmara people were murdered so that sheep could come on to their land.”
Cheetham decided the text had to change, though the structure is still based on the time-honoured ceremony of the Mass.
“There are other historical instances — Benjamin Britten — he departed from the Latin text and used the poetry of Wilfred Owen, the World War I poet, to tell a story that had a specific emotional need, an historical need, and so taking courage from that decision that Benjamin Britten had taken before me I just thought, ‘Well I need to do that, I need to use other poetry’,” she says.
“And this other poetry was ultimately translated into Gunditjmara language by senior Gunditjmara language custodian Vicki Couzens and linguist Travers Eira. They spent months reconstructing a language which is no longer conversational, and the grammar required for poetry and the text for that created really the basis for this work.”
Cultures around the world mark the transition at the end of life with ceremony, Cheetham notes.
“Music is an important part of those ceremonies, so another point of connection there,” she says. “So we look for those points of communality and then we build on that. Then there are differences of experience but those experiences then are better understood, and that’s what I hope to achieve with each performance of Eumeralla, that Australians and audiences more generally have a deeper understanding of what our shared history is, so we can build something that’s more positive than what we’ve had up until now.”
It’s a topical proposition, given current debate on the Voice to Parliament, constitutional recognition and the role of the Crown in Australian history.
“Music shouldn’t exist in a vacuum, it should be part of the world that we’re living in,” Cheetham says. “People will bring their knowledge and their experience and the conversation they’re having and the new thinking and new ideas, they’ll bring that as audience members, as orchestral players, as choristers, they’ll bring their contemporary experience to that performance and it will be informed, either consciously or sub-consciously, by what is happening in the world around us. I think that’s the great power of music to harness the Zeitgeist and to transmit a message or an understanding, it’s the most expeditious way, really.”
In addition to music, Cheetham commissioned 19 artworks — one for each movement of the mass — to assist in story telling.
“These artworks are by Gunditjmara and Yorta Yorta artist — we’re connected through my Yorta Yorta heritage — Tom Day, who has basically recreated the story of the Eumerallla wars in art form and they’ll be projected behind the performance, so bring another dimension. I think we’re very familiar with this idea that ceremony is not only about music, it can be about other art forms that elevate the experience.”
A children’s choir composed of 10 Penrhos College girls with 10 girls and two boys from Dhungala Children’s Choir, part of Short Black Opera in Victoria, bring another distinctive edge.
“Together, combined, they create a kind of instrument for which there’s no comparison, there’s no other instrument that can compare with a children’s chorus, and when they enter at bar 100, it’s like a ray of light has shone through some clouds on to a space that you can see, maybe in the middle distance,” Cheetham says. “It’s such a special moment when they sing, I know audiences will identify with that, it somehow opens up your heart.”
Most of the 120 choristers are drawn from WASO Chorus and UWA Symphonic Chorus, with Cheetham’s fellow soloists — WAAPA luminary and mezzo-soprano Linda Barcan, and Gungarri baritone Don Christopher — part of the project from the start.
“This will be our fourth time, but the first time that the entire orchestra has been made of professional, core members of the symphony orchestra, and we’re really excited to bring that under the expert leadership of (conductor) Benjamin Northey, and of course (chorus director) Andrew Foote who has been working very hard with the choirs to put this Gunditjmara language and the meaning of it into each and every singer,” Cheetham says.
“So it’s going to be a very special night on Friday and it’s the third time we’ve tried to bring it, so here we are!”
Eumeralla, a war requiem for peace, is at Perth Concert Hall on Friday, September 30, at 7.30pm.