Blog / Listen: Murder & Redemption

Listen: Murder & Redemption

Posted on 10 Jan 2017 by Leo Messias

Image: Pekka Kuusisto. Photo by Kaapo Kamu.  

From February 2 to 14, Pekka Kuusisto kick-starts the ACO 2017 national season with the world premiere of a murderous psychological drama re-imagined as a journey from folk to classical music, featuring special guest Sam Amidon: Murder & Redemption.

This special program was curated by Pekka himself, and intertwines Janáček’s evocative string quartet Kreutzer Sonata, a Tolstoy-inspired tale of uxoricide, with John Adams’ transcendent Shaker Loops and Brackett’s redemptive Shaker song Simple Gifts.

Classic American folk murder ballads and songs of salvation in new arrangements by Nico Muhly pepper this program, and are also performed by folk musician Sam Amidon, who NPR called an artist who “opens a window on the American past and lets us feel it like nothing else around.”    

A stunning musical narrative is unravelled from this intricate pairing of classical and folk tunes. From darkness into light, the listener is inadvertently taken through the history of the founding of America through tales typical of New World mythology - featuring bloodshed, grief, loss and, ultimately, redemption.

Explore the music below ahead of the national concert tour and discover the fascinating stories behind the pieces in the program.

TRADITIONAL (arr. Muhly) Kedron

Incarceration, physical abuse, social ostracism...they all led to a common theme in sermons and hymns of the time – the need for patience. It’s a sentiment captured in the traditional song Kedron, originally published in Charles Wesley’s Short Hymns of 1762, and then transported along with the religious exiles to the New World, where it first appeared in a South Carolina publication in 1799. From then on Kedron became a frequent entrant in folksong and hymn compilations right through the 19th century, its lyrics so simple, speaking of the inevitability of death and of Christ’s exemplary patience as he died on the Cross.

JANÁČEK String Quartet No.1 ‘Kreutzer Sonata’: I. Adagio con moto

Janáček loved folk music more than most composers but he was neither simple nor free. Unfortunately for him he remained celibate in his relationship with a woman less than half his age who he described as the greatest love of his life. So, unable to consummate the relationship, he poured out his tortured soul in one of the great string quartets of the 20th century, The Kreutzer Sonata.

TRADITIONAL (arr. Muhly) Way Go Lily

Way Go Lily is essentially a children’s game-song from the slavery-days in the Old South. And like so much folk music emerging from that brutal environment, its upbeat, playful melody deliberately masks its strident call for resistance and rebellion. A game-song superficially but explicit in its intention to turn the tables on the slave-masters, first with a hickory and then with a shotgun. 

JANÁČEK String Quartet No.1 ‘Kreutzer Sonata’: II. Con moto

TRADITIONAL (arr. Muhly) Wild Bill Jones

The playfulness of Way Go Lily gives way to Wild Bill Jones, a classic that represents one of the defining genres of British and American folk music – the murder ballad. This is a simple folk version of the sexual jealousy tale depicted in literary form in Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata. The song’s protagonist is out walking one day when he encounters his girl in the arms of Wild Bill Jones. He asks the suitor to desist, Wild Bill refuses, and so a weapon is drawn, not the ‘curved Damascan dagger’ of Tolstoy, but a revolver. And that’s that - Wild Bill is no more, and the protagonist is now an outlaw.

JANÁČEK String Quartet No.1 ‘Kreutzer Sonata’: III. Con moto – Vivace – Andante – Tempo I


TRADITIONAL (arr. Muhly) How Come That Blood

Some murder ballads seem particularly universal, and none more so than How Come That Blood. This song is about a mother who quizzes her son on the source of the blood on his shirt. First, he says it’s the blood of a hawk, then a greyhound, then a mare, but eventually the truth of the fratricide is revealed. From there, it’s down to practical matters. The murderer will emigrate with his wife, leaving their three children behind with their grandmother.

JANÁČEK String Quartet No.1 ‘Kreutzer Sonata’: IV. Con moto

JOHN ADAMS Shaker Loops: I. Shaking and trembling

John Adams’ Shaker Loops came at the end of a process of aesthetic revival and renewal that began with Aaron Copland’s rediscovery of the Shaker tune Simple Gifts, that he made famous through its inclusion in Appalachian Spring. Adams’ minimalist masterpiece Shaker Loops is that most precious of cultural artefacts, that, like Copland at his best, probes deep into America’s historical past while forging ahead into the artistic expression of the future. An astonishing and hugely popular work that established his international reputation, Adams demonstrated that the Shakers may be gone but their profound impact on American culture lingers on.

BRACKETT Traditional Shaker hymn: Simple Gifts

The song had been composed by Shaker Elder James Bracken back in 1848 and never gone beyond the community of Believers. In 1945, Aaron Copland used it as the climax of his Appalachian Spring, and suddenly, this humble little Shaker ditty with its revivalist dance-caller’s refrain of ‘To turn, turn will be our delight,’ had transcended its origins within the small Shaker community in Maine where it originated to become an iconic American cultural artefact - part of a Pulitzer Prize winning orchestral work.

JOHN ADAMS Shaker Loops: II. Hymning slews, III. Loops and verses, IV. A final shaking



2 - 14 February 2017
Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Newcastle and Sydney.

Pekka Kuusisto
 Director & Violin
Sam Amidon Voice & Banjo


TRAD. (arr. Muhly) Kedron
JANÁČEK (arr. strings) String Quartet No.1 ‘Kreutzer Sonata’: I. Adagio con moto
TRAD. (arr. Muhly) Way Go Lily
JANÁČEK (arr. strings) String Quartet No.1 ‘Kreutzer Sonata’: II. Con moto
TRAD. (arr. Muhly) Wild Bill Jones
JANÁČEK (arr. strings) String Quartet No.1 ‘Kreutzer Sonata’: III. Con moto – Vivace – Andante – Tempo I
TRAD. (arr. Muhly) How Come That Blood
JANÁČEK (arr. strings) String Quartet No.1 ‘Kreutzer Sonata’: IV. Con moto
TRAD. The Redemption Set
ADAMS, John Shaker Loops: I. Shaking and trembling
BRACKETT Traditional Shaker hymn: Simple Gifts
ADAMS, John Shaker Loops: II. Hymning slews, III. Loops and verses, IV. A final shaking