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Malleus (2010)

Instrumentation: 1 Picc / 2 Fl / 2 Ob / 1 E Hn / 1 Cl in E-flat / 2 Cl in B-flat / 2 Bsn / 1 Ctbsn / 4 Hn in F / 2 Tpt in C / 2 Tbn / 1 B Tbn / Timp / 2 Perc / Harp / Pno / Strings
Also available for: 2 Fl / 2 Ob / 2 Cl in B-flat / 2 Bsn / 4 Hn in F / 2 Tpt in C / 1 B Tbn / Timp / 2 Perc / Harp / Pno
Duration: ca. 12'
Recipient of the Macht Prize for Orchestral Composition and the Symphony in C Young Composers Award; Selected for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Young Composers Readings, directed by Marin Alsop
Premiere Date: October 22, 2011, Baltimore, MD

Program Note

Harsh economic circumstances, ongoing conflict, and zealotry create volatile living conditions for any community. Such was the social reality of late-17th century New England. The aforementioned tensions, combined with preexisting jealousies and a host of unfortunate illnesses, left residents of one particular village looking for scapegoats. Ultimately, this resulted in hundreds of falsified accusations, scores of unjust imprisonments, and, during the summer of 1692, the killing of twenty men and women. Each charge was the same: witchcraft.

The Salem Witch Trials, as the proceedings are now known, were tragedies of injustice that bespeak the resultant cruelty of indiscriminate, hate-enflamed judgment. Three hundred years after the trials, a small area of Salem’s central cemetery was portioned off to serve as a memorial to those who died during the Puritanical inquest; twenty granite benches, each engraved with an innocent’s name, line the low walls.

It was to this somber place of remembrance that my wife and I journeyed in late autumn of 2009. Returning home after several performances on the East Coast, I was drawn to visit Salem and the memorial. Admittedly, this was due in part to outright curiosity: much of Salem seems almost to revel in this link to supposed occultist practice, and it was, after all, almost Halloween. Primarily, though, I wanted to see a piece of my family’s history: two of the stones were engraved with the names of my (nine-times-great) aunts. During the trials, three sisters were accused, and two found guilty. One, Rebecca Towne Nurse, was hanged on July 19th, 1692; her sister, Mary Towne Eastey, was led to Gallows Hill on September 22nd of that same year. 

Such acts of cruelty are never easy to process, be they past or present. Malleus served as a musical means to come to terms with what I felt as I learned more about the trials. The title takes its name from the Malleus Maleficarum, literally the “Hammer of the Evil Ones,” a text written in 15th-century Germany by the Catholic Inquisitor Heinrich Kramer, instructing witch-hunters in the identification and prosecution of “witches.” Hammer-blows figure prominently in the orchestral texture, striking amidst the multiplicity of instrumental lines. The increasing activity—perhaps an attempt to flee, perhaps the piling of accusations—culminates in a high scream, thinning out to reveal a few melodic threads stated by the clarinets. Their reminiscence seems to parallel the words of John Greenlief Whittier, inscribed on Rebecca Nurse’s memorial:

 O Christian Martyr who for Truth could die
When all about thee Owned the hideous lie!
The world, redeemed from superstition’s sway,
Is breathing freer for thy sake today.

Malleus was premiered on October 22, 2011, by the Peabody Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hajime Teri Murai, in Baltimore Maryland.

— Douglas Buchanan




"The orchestra’s annual Young Composer’s Competition winner was Douglas Buchanan’s Malleus, an orchestral work inspired by the Salem Witch Hunts. Now a student of Michael Hersch, Buchanan shares his teacher’s sense of creative imperative: Malleus clearly needed to be written with all manner of orchestral upheaval. Pedal-to-the-metal percussion eventually made way for a humble, hymnlike tune played by the winds, reminding you of the pious bedrock on which this sorry piece of American history was born."

— David Patrick Stearns, The Philadelphia Inquirer


Performed by the Peabody Symphony Orchestra Conducted by Karin Hendrickson