Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd=piccolo, 3rd=alto flute), 3 oboes (3rd=English horn), 3 clarinets (2nd=E-flat clarinet, 3rd=bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd=contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 2 percussion (I = snare drum, 3 tom-toms, bass drum, slapstick, 2 rattles; II = triangle, small bell, 3 cymbals, 2 caxixi, large bell), recorded audio track, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 11, 2022, Jeri Lynne Johnson conducting
About this Piece
Courtney Bryan composed Sanctum in 2015 while working on her postdoctoral degree in African American studies at Princeton University. As part of her research, Bryan was exploring the holiness preaching tradition as inspiration for this piece, in particular the sermons of Pastor Shirley Caesar—known as “the first lady of gospel”—and Reverend C.L. Franklin—a Detroit-based minister and civil rights activist who was also the father of Aretha Franklin.
Bryan explains in a 2021 interview with Oberlin Conservatory that Sanctum started taking a new direction in reaction to high-profile cases of police brutality that were in the news. The first was the story of Marlene Pinnock, a Black woman who was filmed by bystanders as she was being beaten by a California Highway Patrol officer on the side of a highway in Los Angeles. As Bryan was working on Sanctum, Mike Brown was killed by the police in Ferguson, Missouri, which resulted in widespread protests and in many ways started the modern Black Lives Matter movement.
Sanctum emerges out of recordings from holiness sermons, chants used in Ferguson protests, and a heartbreaking interview with Pinnock, who was asked by a reporter what her reaction was to seeing the video of her beating for the first time. Bryan said the recordings helped determine the tempo and key of the music she composed over them. There are also two main melodic themes that further set the emotional landscape of the piece. The first melody that’s heard early in the brass suggests a forward motion and unrest while the later melody is delicate, which Bryan said she “composed while thinking about the strength and vulnerability of [Pinnock] sharing what happened to her.” Yet another theme emerges from a recorded sermon that quotes the text of Charles Albert Tindley’s hymn Stand By Me. Bryan in turn quotes the melody of that hymn tune, suggesting the call to stand together by protestors in reaction to the ongoing brutality. —Ricky O’Bannon