Sanctuary Road (Oratorio)

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Sanctuary Road is an oratorio,  the second in a series of my large-scale works I call “American historical oratorios.”  

In addressing this important chapter in American history, Mark Campbell chose to focus on William Still, an African-American conductor on the Underground Railroad. Still was based in Philadelphia and facilitated the escape of some 800 fugitive slaves, recording in detail their accounts and eventually compiling them in his landmark 1872 book, The Underground Railroad.  The astonishing stories of Ellen Craft, Wesley Harris, and others make up the substance of the libretto’s narrative. At the center of it all stands the majestic Mr. Still, whose words and resolute spirit guided me as a composer through the challenge of imagining this work’s musical universe.

In Mark's libretto, William Still assumes the roles of both narrator and active participant. As narrator, Still begins the oratorio by stressing the need to document and remember the history of the Railroad, a sentiment echoed by the other solo voices and chorus (“Write”).  As an agent in the action, in movements 5, 10, and 13, Still conducts interviews with fugitive slaves for the records that will form the basis of his book. 

In the third movement, “Reward!,” the chorus joins the action as slave-hunters issuing wanted posters for the capture and return of slaves to the South.    The chorus returns as both actor and observer in “I Waited,” a setting of Psalm 40 and a continuation of movement 7, “This Side Up,”  in which Henry “Box” Brown recounts his amazing escape in a crate mailed from Richmond to William Still in Philadelphia. The story goes that when the crate was opened, Brown stood up and recited the psalm to the assembled abolitionists.  The chorus’ most unusual dramatic role comes in 15. “Interlude: 1861-1865,”in which  I imagine their wordless singing as the ghostly voices of fallen soldiers in the Civil War. 

In the Finale, Still tells of recovering his Underground Railroad records kept hidden during the War, among them letters from fugitive slaves written when they reached Canada.  The soloists sing excerpts from the letters expressing gratitude to Mr. Still, and the oratorio ends with an anthem of freedom for the combined forces. 

We too owe a debt of gratitude to William Still. The activities of the Underground Railroad were necessarily secret during its years of operation, but his “record of facts” ensures that the courage and virtuous resolve of these people struggling for freedom will always be remembered. 

"Moravec's powerful gift for melody and a thrusting line gave each of the soloists an opportunity to shine in rendering a variety of characters."
"An episodic journey through history"
“Largely tonal, intensely dramatic"
The Classical Review
“Sanctuary Road is a modern choral masterpiece, representing struggle and hope in the best of the oratorio tradition.”
Black Grooves
“…the piece, especially when its richly melodic and emotionally expressive score is so accessible, is in its entirety a triumph.”
"As WRTI continues to mark Black History Month, we feature an album that celebrates, through contemporary music, the writings of the 19th-century Philadelphia abolitionist William Still. Still wrote a book titled The Underground Railroad in 1872, which detailed his efforts aiding runaway slaves. Three years ago, that book inspired the Pulitzer-winning contemporary American composer Paul Moravec to write Sanctuary Road, a work he calls an 'American historical oratorio.'"
"The year opened with Sanctuary Road, a lyrical and historically vibrant oratorio by Paul Moravec, reintroducing William Still, an American hero who ushered hundreds of enslaved people to freedom via the Underground Railroad and then documented it all."