The Passion Of Octavius Catto
Los Angeles Review by Mavis Manus

Octavius Catto was the subject of "Tasting Freedom," a 2010 biography by Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin. Now the composer Uri Caine has turned that story into a choral work, THE PASSION OF OCTAVIUS CATTO, which has just been released as a CD.

Catto was born to free African-American parents in 1839. A brilliant student (and athlete), he became a teacher, civil-rights activist and politician in Philadelphia. In 1863 he led the fight to allow African-Americans to join the Union Army and take part in the war against slavery. Three years later he became Secretary of the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League.

The Martin Luther King of his time, Catto was an inspirational leader of his people--and paid the price for his courage and militancy. He was murdered by a white thug during the 1871 Philadelphia Election Day riots.

Caine's oratorio is divided into ten parts, all of which deal with Catto's struggle against racism in Philadelphia, a city which has a shameful history of violence against African-Americans. One part, for example, deals with the attack by a white mob on Pennsylvania Hall, where three thousand citizens had gathered to plan Abolitionist strategy. The mob, outraged by "race mixing," stormed the building and burned it down. The firefighters did nothing to save the building; later a commission of inquiry decided that the crime had been committed by the Abolitionists.

Other parts, such as "No East No West" and "Change," are based on speeches Catto gave at various civic and community gatherings. Yet another, "The Amendments," was inspired by Catto's campaign to pressure Congress into passing three amendments (13th, 14th, 15th) to the Constitution that would end slavery in the USA and give civil and voting rights to all citizens.

With Barbara Walker as the soloist backed up by The Catto Freedom Orchestra, The Nedra Neal Singers and the Philadelphia Choral Ensemble, THE PASSION OF OCTAVIUS CATTO makes a powerful musical statement. Led by conductor Andre Raphael, the ensemble pays tribute to Catto, singing his praises with beauty and passion, then lamenting his death with sadness and sorrow.

This pertinent choral work reminds us that the fight for equal rights continues to this day.