River of Blood

for orchestra

Justin Merritt describes River of Blood as being inspired by the 1980 massacre in El Salvador. But it would demand an audience’s attention even if they were unaware of that. Merritt seems to have the strongest sense of dynamics of any of the seven composers, most notably when a storm of percussion gives way to a sorrowful solo viola. For singularity of style, Merritt’s piece was the standout.

-Ron Hubbard, St. Paul Pioneer Press

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score sample

River of Blood is based on a 1980 massacre of Salvadoran peasants at the Rio Sumpul by US-supported right-wing military forces.

In February 1980, the Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, sent a letter to President Carter in which he begged him not to send military aid to the junta that ran [El Salvador]. He said such aid would be used to “sharpen injustice and repression against the people’s organizations” which were struggling "for respect for their most basic human rights”… A few weeks later, Archbishop Romero was assassinated while saying mass…

On March 7, 1980, two weeks before the assassination, a state of siege had been instituted in El Salvador, and the war against the population began in force (with continued US support and involvement). The first major attack was a big massacre at the Rio Sumpul, a coordinated military operation of the Honduran and Salvadoran armies in which at least 600 people were butchered. Infants were cut to pieces with machetes, and women were tortured and drowned. Pieces of bodies were found in the river for days afterwards.

-Noam Chomsky, from The Crucifixion of El Salvador

River of Blood is not a tone poem mimicking the actions of the day but is rather a collage of images and emotions from that tragic time. Images include violence but also the incredible bravery of Salvadoran journalists who tried to tell their country and their world what was happening, human rights campaigners risking their lives in the face of terror, and the faces of the fishermen who found the bodies of 5 children caught in their fishing traps downstream from the massacre. The work ends with a prayer of mourning and a plea for forgiveness for our complicity.