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R. Nathaniel Dett’s The Ordering of Moses

Reflections on the May 9, 2014 performance of R. Nathaniel Dett's The Ordering of Moses by Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and May Festival Chorus in Carnegie Hall

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R. Nathaniel Dett


Jean Ballard Terepka, Music Critic

On May 9, 2014 at Carnegie Hall, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and May Festival Chorus directed by James Conlon presented African-descended Canadian-American R. Nathaniel Dett’s remarkable oratorio, The Ordering of Moses, A Biblical Folk Scene.

The performance was superb both for its innate musical excellence a first rate piece of music was given a first rate presentation and for the explanation of the work’s difficult, extended history in predominantly white concert venues.

Under the intensely astute, energetic and principled direction of James Conlon, this Ordering of Moses by R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) was clear and important: orchestra, singers and soloists were marvelous.

All four soloists Latonia Moore, Ronita Nicole Miller, Rodrick Dixon and Donnie Ray Albert, each in their own particular way were exhilerating; whether singing alone, with the chorus or with each other, these beautifully matched and powerful singers gave performances of intelligence, virtuosity and unabashedly passionate commitment to the score’s breadth, depth and stunning layers of meaning. The enthusiastic audience was appropriately appreciative and the entire evening was recorded for live transmission by WQXR.

In and of itself, the performance would have been thoroughly satisfying. But the decision by James Conlon and his colleagues to share the work’s public history with the Carnegie and WQXR audience added additional significance to the evening and, in so doing, raised and illuminated important questions about the work itself, about composer R. Nathaniel Dett’s place in American musical history and about African-American classical music in general.

Both the May Festival, founded in 1873, and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, founded twenty years later, have a long, distinguished history of championing new works; on occasion, decisions to perform particular pieces, whether as world, American or North American premieres, have been audacious and, even, courageous. Premiering and broadcasting R. Nathaniel Dett’s The Ordering of Moses in 1937 was one such decision.

By 1937, the time of the Ordering of Moses premiere, R. Nathaniel Dett was well known in many musical circles. He had been extraordinarily well educated at Oberlin Conservatory (B.A., 1908) and at Eastman School of Music (M.A., 1932). In 1919, Dett co-founded the National Association of Negro Musicians and was its president from 1924 to 1926. In 1920, he won the prestigious Bowdoin Prize at Harvard University for his four-chapter essay, Negro Music. Dett chaired the Music Department of Hampton Institute and led the Hampton Institute Choir on national and international tours from 1913 to 1931.

In an extended informal autobiographical essay written for Etude magazine in 1934, just three years before the May Festival premiere of The Ordering of Moses, Dett noted that when on tour in Europe in 1929, he was formally received by Duchess Elisabeth of Bavaria, Queen of Belgium, a famously astute patron of contemporary music, and by British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and a number of the English nobility and foreign ambassadors at No. 10 Downing Street in London.

The Ordering of Moses is important not merely for its breadth and beauty but also for the extent to which it is so entirely Dett’s: this work couldn’t be by any other composer. There are indeed passages that sound like both the classical and Romantic music in which his training had immersed him. The work also contains echoes of Dvorak, one of Dett’s early influences, and Howard Hanson, with whom he studied at Eastman. In addition, Dett was one of several major composers of African descent then exploring spirituals for both their history and their capacity to inspire. But The Ordering of
Moses established Dett as a composer distinct from all others. It cannot be mistaken as the work of anyone else.

The first performance, on May 7, 1937, conducted with Berlioz’s monumental Reqiem by the innovative May Festival director Eugene Goossens, was recorded and transmitted live by NBC radio. However, only the first three-quarters of The Ordering of Moses was actually transmitted. Immediately after the conclusion of the prophet Miriam’s gorgeous aria, Come, let us praise Jehovah, the radio announcer cut into the performance, saying that due to previous commitments, we are unable to remain for the closing moments of this excellent performance.

It must have been a stunning shock to the radio audience: musically, Miriam’s aria establishes the context for the work’s astonishing conclusion and leaves the listener quite literally aching for more.

According to material for this May 2014 concert provided by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the May Festival, In fact, a good deal more than the ‘closing moments’ of the score were unheard. It has been suggested that these ‘previous commitments’ were in fact a concession to objections voiced by callers to the network. The May Festival’s performance of The Ordering of Moses was possibly the first network broadcast of a major work by an African-American composer. Indeed, WJZ in New York City had scheduled an hour for the broadcast, but only 40 minutes of the oratorio was heard, the rest of the allotted time was given over to organ music.

In this May 2014 performance, the Carnegie/WQXR audience got to hear the May 1937 radio announcer’s introduction of the piece right before it began. Then, later, at that precise moment when the 1937 broadcast shut down the live recording, the 2014 audience heard the announcer’s interruption. After a very small pause to acknowledge the 1937 cut-off, the 2014 live performance continued on to the end as in fact the 1937 performance also did. Olin Downes, the New York Times reporter who attended the Cincinnati concert in 1937 wrote that Dett, who was present, received a standing ovation and added, The Ordering of Moses triumphed.

On May 9, 2014, there was a standing ovation, too. The Ordering of Moses triumphed again.

The incorporation of the 1937 radio interruption into this 2014 performance was inspired. It highlighted the pervasiveness of American racism and bigotry between the wars the power of what was still in many circles called the color line and it may even have caused audience members to ask themselves about racism’s continued terrible presence in our daily lives. The reenactment of the 1937 radio interruption compels us to consider just what it was about Dett’s piece that made it so intolerable.

Apparently no documentation as to the reasons for the interruption exists, but there is an ample contemporary account that white radio listeners had expressed outrage that a black man had been permitted on the stage of Cincinnati Music Hall. There is also no way of knowing when the decision to interrupt the broadcast was made, whether sometime before it began or during it. In either case, however much the interruption consisted of cowardice, the broadcast in the first instance was courageous.

The 2014 reenactment of the 1937 interruption put an event from an era three-quarters of a century away right into our living midst. It also requires us to consider The Ordering of Moses as both an historical artifact and a living work of art. For some, the performance of a major sacred choral work by a man of African descent was and remains, in 1937 and in 2014, a political triumph; for others, it was an anthropological oddity.

James Conlon, May Festival music director since 1979, has long been committed to the project of championing works of composers whose compositions were suppressed by political circumstance; in 2007, he was awarded the Crystal Globe by the Anti-Defamation League for his efforts to identify, explore and perform works by composers silenced in Nazi Germany. Conlon’s decision to program Dett’s oratorio fits into this aspect of his professional commitments: rescue projects constitute missions that are simultaneously artistic and political.

One complex consequence of this championing of works consigned to the purgatory of unremembrance is that audiences often respond primarily to the tragedy of their oppression. Grief, outrage and guilt are difficult lenses through which to see art. Calm clarity and intellectual rigor are necessary to assess the art itself and not just the circumstances of its suppression.

In the particularly complicated case of Dett’s Ordering of Moses, the subject of the work in and of itself may have been the cause of the radio interruption as much as the race of the composer.

The gripping story of Moses leading the Israelites out of their Egyptian bondage is one of the great ancient pre-figurings of Christian redemption and salvation; for centuries and centuries, it has inspired astonishing works of art. The triumphant Exodus narrative is so rich that it can stand in for every possible journey-story of movement from dark to light, whether historical or contemporary, theological or psychological, religious or political. For thoughtful readers of this story, the terrible equation of sin and slavery is as obvious and profound as the identity of liberation with salvation.

The 1937 May Festival audience, by definition a group with a deep affection and affinity for choral music, would have instantly recognized the distinguished artistic lineage of Dett’s subject in European choral music. Though only the most intellectually urbance sacred music aficianados may have been familiar with works such as C. P. E. Bach’s Di Israeliten in der Wuste (1768-1769), Thomas Linley’s The Song of Moses (1777) and Rossini’s Moses in Egypt (1865), but everyone would have known Handel’s magisterial and always magnificently crowd-pleasing Israel in Egypt (1739). The Handel and Haydn Society, founded in Boston in 1815, had made Israel in
Egypt a staple of concert performances ever since its American premiere in 1859, and as a result the work was performed throughout the United States with almost as much regularity as the Messiah throughout much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The May Festival 1937 audience would have recognized immediately that Dett’s libretto and Handel’s are, in significant extended passages, identical: in both cases, text is lifted intact from Exodus 15. The familiar text in Dett’s hands and with Dett’s explicit allusions to some of Handel’s great praise choruses would been instantly astonishing.

In the 1937 atmosphere of pervasive racism and segregation, the greatest shock for the audience may have been Dett’s inclusion of the Go Down Moses spiritual in the sacred oratorio. For some, it must have been thrilling and affirming; for others, it must have seemed unnerving at best and outrageous at worst.

In fact, Dett’s successful fusion of two distinct inherited musical elements, the sacred oratorio on the one hand and the spiritual on the other, was, itself, the product of an old and important musical tradition: the conscious integration of centuries old folk material into formal music had long been both strategy and goal for many composers. Bach used old melodies, some of unknown folk origin, in his sacred chorales; Vaughan Williams mined folk music of the British Isles in creating a music that was distinctly English. Dett was especially influenced by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, who, since his arrival in the United States in 1892 had been endeavoring to create a music that captured the essence of American identity and who, to that end, had been studying the songs and melodies of African descended and indigenous Americans and incorporating them in his work.

Dett wrote about Dvorak in his 1934 Etude autobiographical essay, From Bell Stand to Throne Room. When Dett was at Oberlin, where his studies were financed in large part by patrons of the Cataract Hotel in Niagara Falls where he was employed during the summers as a bell-hop and where he played the piano in his free time, he heard Dvorak for the first time. The most vivid and far-reaching memory I have of Oberlin, Dett reported, was the result of a visit of the famous Kneisel String Quartet, who played as part of one of their programs a slow movement by Dvorak, based on traditional airs. Suddenly it seemed I heard again the frail sweet voice of my long departed grandmother, calling across the years; and, in a rush of emotion which stirred up my spirit to its very center, the meaning of the songs which had given her soul such peace was revealed to me.

For Dett, spirituals, both an excrescence and a relic of slavery, were an expression of the Holy Spirit. He explained that when singers sang spirituals, the glory of God led their devout voices, even when the songs themselves were naive’ or quaint. Dett reported, I have attended meetings of old ex-slaves in the backwoods. Ofttimes when singing, their very faces showed a self abnegation wholly different from that one sees upon the countenance of the average singer, evidencing that, borne on the wings of the song, they temporarily had entered another world. What could be more natural for a composer writing about the Israelites’ escape from Egypt to the promised land than to use music that announces entrance into another world?

W. E. B. DuBois, one of the African-American writers most widely read by white readers in the first half of the twentieth century, had eloquently commented on the meaning and significance of spirituals in his seminal TheSouls of Black Folk (1903). Dett gratefully acknowledged the work of musical friends and colleagues such as Harry T. Burleigh, Clarence Cameron White, Rosamund Johnson, Carl Diton and many others in collecting, preserving, cataloguing, annotating and analyzing spirituals. But Dett’s use of Go Down Moses in The Ordering of Moses is significant, above all else, because of its inherent musical and artistic integrity.

This was the violation of the 1937 broadcast interruption: racism declared the work of art expendable without reference to either its integrity or its beauty. Lest the innate goodness of the art somehow transcend the prejudices of its listeners, the piece had to be maimed and truncated, its worth eradicated.

Good can be seditious, and sedition is dangerous.

For racist listeners, The Ordering of Moses was unacceptable at several levels. That the melodic content of inferior and filthy people’s foolish songs could be spun into the formal and rigorous development of complex fugues and symphonic grandeur must have seemed appalling. That a safe and familiar Bible story could be contorted into an account of liberation from oppression must have seemed ugly, uppity and offensive. That a black musician could stand on stage with white musicians, claiming equality by means of his mere presence, was unbearable.

Whether or not the 1937 May Festival live audience knew the broadcast was interrupted, their enthusiasm was tremendous. But it was insufficient to ensure that the oratorio would be regularly performed in traditional, financially stable venues. The May Festival itself did perform the work again to some acclaim in 1956. Almost forty years later, in June, 1993, the Festival Ensemble Society presented the oratorio at the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in New York City. Alex Ross reviewed it in the New York Times on June 15, 1993, saying, There are episodes of startling power The final section is astonishing: massed exultation surges from a sequence of monotone chants. He added, I came away eager to hear more of Dett’s music.

But the idea that other than these exceptional outings, The Ordering of Moses was completely ignored or, even worse, forgotten is not accurate and does a disservice to those African American and racially mixed communities throughout the United States that have never stopped performing the works of Dett and his colleagues.

From the time of its establishment by Mary Cardwell Dawson (1894-1962) in 1941 until its close in 1962, the National Negro Opera Company made Dett’s The Ordering of Moses as much a staple of its repertoire as Aida, La Traviata and Faust, and performed it in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York City. Together with Ouanga by Clarence Cameron White (1880-1960) with a libretto by John Frederick Matheus (1887-1983), the dramatic story of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, slave-rebel and subsequent Emperor of Haiti, The Ordering of Moses was one of Dawson’s most successful fund-raising vehicles for the National Negro Opera Company among both white and African American audiences. In Washington, D.C., in 1950, The Ordering ofMoses was the centerpiece of the opera company’s annual fund-raising gala; Griffith Stadium, with a seating capacity of 30,000, was packed.

In New York City, The Ordering of Moses was performed at the Metropolitan Baptist Church at 151 West 128th Street in September, 1958; the performance was reviewed in the prominent newspaper, The Afro-American (September 6, 1958). Featuring the same stars who have appeared both here and at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, the audience had a chance to see these artists at close range under intimate circumstances which gave them full opportunity for them to perform at their best without apparent strain. The setting left nothing to be desired even in the mass scenes of the exodus of the Hebrew Children from Egypt and the use of the church aisles to depict the crossing of the Red Sea enhanced the dramatic effect.

Particularly within African American church communities of Episcopal and Anglican traditions, Dett’s music was frequently performed throughout most of the twentieth century. Dett’s Listen to the Lambs, scored for an eight-part chorus and soprano solo,
originally written for a composition contest sponsored by the Music Settlement School for Colored People in New York City in 1914 and then revised in 1936, was his most popular piece. However, The Chariot Jubilee (1919) for chorus, orchestra and tenor solo, choruses from The Ordering of Moses, The Voice of Israel’s O Lord, behold my affliction aria and Miriam’s Come, let us praise Jehovah were frequently performed in African American mission chapels and churches, especially in the Northeast.

The May 2014 Carnegie Hall performance of Dett’s The Ordering of Moses served as a first introduction for some audience members and a revisiting for others. For many, it was an opportunity to hear a work only imagined in historical accounts. Because the performance was so excellent and, happily, fully recorded and transmitted the work could be responded to and judged in a variety of ways. It could be appreciated just as a work of art, as a piece of complex and gorgeous music. It could be marveled at as the product of an African American composer who endured unspeakable daily personal and professional racist affronts. It could be interpreted as a sacred Biblical story, as an ancient political drama or as a metaphor for the American emancipation of slaves. It could be experienced as an historic event in which a 1937 sacrilege, once replicated, was then rectified by an act of homage.

Most important, both the fact of the May 2014 performance and its excellence provided the occasion to consider some of the most basic questions about art and its purposes: art teaches us about ourselves, and whether we are participants in art’s creation or witnesses to it, art gives us a place to declare truth and create community.

Dett’s The Ordering of Moses in particular expands our capacity to consider matters of individual and universal identity, faith and purpose. The breathtakingly gorgeous conclusion of the oratorio Moses’s and Miriam’s and the chorus’s entirely unfettered ecstatic hymn of praise is a timeless affirmation, above all else, that the capacity to create beauty emerges most powerfully when creation itself is released from suffering.

If last Friday’s presentation of Dett’s The Ordering of Moses by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and May Festival can initiate a wider familiarity with the work, then we all will have reason to be grateful not merely for a wonderful performance but also for the decision to present the work in both its 1937 and its 2014 incarnations.

(A note on information and sources: Contemporary scholars Lawrence Schenbeck, Jon Michael Spencer, Daniel Weaver and Christopher J. Wells have all written with clarity and care about R. Nathaniel Dett. The wide-ranging blog AfriClassical: African Heritage in Classical Music ( provides useful and timely information about historical and contemporary African-American classical music and musicians. Finally, small portions of Dett’s own extensive and insightful writing about music, including the 1934 autobiographical reminiscences From Bell Stand to Throne Room and excerpts of his lengthy 1920 analytical essay, Negro Music, are available on the internet.)

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