BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Composer Steven Sametz has written dozens of pieces in his long and prolific career, perhaps none so personal as the one he's about to begin: a requiem for the victims of the schoolhouse massacre in Newtown, Conn.
The Lehigh University music professor grew up about 20 miles from Newtown, where a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.
"I know well what it was like to grow up in a small Connecticut town, and in what should have been, for all, a really beautiful time of life," Sametz said in an interview at Lehigh, a private school north of Philadelphia. "And it struck me that these children were cut from that, tragically."
Sametz recently won a $25,000 music prize from the University of Connecticut to compose a piece for chorus and orchestra, based on the idea that music can aid the healing process — and he's seeking ideas and input from children around the U.S. His working title: "A Child's Requiem."
"This is just my way of putting something into the world that might be positive or helpful in the face of something that was horrifying," he said.
Musicians often respond to tragedy by working out their emotions in song and helping provide catharsis to others. Music played a huge part in the one-year observance of the Sept. 11 attacks, for example, with choral groups around the world performing Mozart's "Requiem" on the anniversary of the moment when the first plane hit in New York.
"That's what musicians do in times of crisis," said Jeffrey Renshaw, director of the Sackler Composition Prize program at UConn. "It helps the healing process, both for the performers and the audience. Everyone has things that they can do, and that's the thing that we can do."
Renshaw said he expects "a very powerful work" from Sametz, 59, best known as a choral composer who has created pieces for the Grammy-winning choral group Chanticleer and many other ensembles.
Sametz is seeking inspiration from elementary school kids around the country for his "Requiem," asking them to submit pictures and words that express their ideas about tragedy and loss.
He'll use the children's thoughts to weave the libretto, or text, of the piece, "because I think that is the voice I am trying to capture, the peer group of those most affected at Sandy Hook."
So far, schools in Connecticut, New York City, Philadelphia and elsewhere have agreed to participate. He said he's heard from inner-city schools in Philadelphia that enroll students who have seen family members shot.
One of his first submissions came from 7-year-old Jessica Stone, who lives in the Allentown area and put crayon to paper after a discussion with her mother about what happens to people when they die.
"That was kind of very sweet, coming out of the mouths of babes, talking about heaven and all the toys are there and there's no more pain," said her mother, Mary.
Jessica's crayon drawing shows two friends holding hands — newly minted angels on a cloud to heaven — along with a sun and rainbow.
"You go to a very happy place," Jessica said.
It's that kind of imagery that Sametz hopes will spark his creative process. His composition will have its debut at UConn in 2015 and will be reprised at Lehigh, with an exhibition of the children's art to accompany the performances. UConn plans to invite the families of the Sandy Hook victims to attend.
Sametz intends "A Child's Requiem" as a musical commemoration of Newtown's dead — and as a balm to ease the pain of the people who loved them.
"We do these things for the living," he said. "We do it for the comfort of those left behind."