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The 54th Regiment, memorialized in music

Berklee composer honors civil war ‘Heroes’ with song

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
The 54th Regiment, memorialized in music
Composer Julius P. Williams PHOTO: ROBERT TORESS

As part of the rededication ceremony for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment Memorial on the Boston Common, Berklee College of Music Professor Julius P. Williams composed a song celebrating the monument. Commissioned by the Partnership to Renew the Shaw 54th Memorial and performed by the Boston Children’s Chorus, “Those Heroes Who Healed the Nation” conveys the bravery of these soldiers through song.

Utilizing text from Frederick Douglass and poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Williams pulled on the strong sounds of the trumpet as the foundation for the music.

“The first thing I thought about was that military bands had the trumpet, and the trumpet is a call to arms and also a call for sorrow when somebody dies. It’s a memorial instrument in the military,” says Williams. “The other piece was to have words that inspire people, inspire heroes.”

Because the commission for the piece occurred during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Williams worked separately from the chorus for safety. Chorus and composer sent recordings back and forth, sharing feedback until the composition felt just right. After this work process, having all the performers together in person to perform the piece at the memorial event was particularly powerful.

“Heroes” debuted during the June 1 memorial rededication ceremony, where the Boston Children’s Chorus performed the piece. A video recording available on YouTube captures the full spirit of the composition, with vocals performed by the Boston Children’s Chorus and soprano Brianna Robinson, and instrumentals by trumpet player Richard Kelley, violist Ashleigh Gordon and pianist Nancy O’Connor.

Elizabeth Vizza, president, Friends of the Public Garden said in a statement, “We not only are celebrating the restoration of this memorial but are using the occasion as a call to action in the ongoing work of social justice and racial equity. We couldn’t be happier with Williams’s piece to dramatize this moment and inspire us to this cause.”

The initial performance was so well received that Williams has rewritten “Heroes” for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Boston Pops will perform the piece during the July 4 concert.

In addition to his professor role at Berklee, Williams is the artistic director and conductor of the Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra and a composer-in-residence with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 2019, he was named the first African American president of the Conductors Guild.

Of the new piece, Williams says, “It’s an exciting time for that particular piece, and it does represent the crossroads of America. These people were heroes who were fighting this war. They were heroes not only fighting for the country but fighting for their own livelihood.”