In 1908, Robert Nathaniel Dett became the first African American to gain a bachelor of music degree at Oberlin College in Ohio. The Canadian-born Dett later studied at Harvard and in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, and he went on to become one of America’s most respected teachers, composers and conductors. In 1930, his choir performed for President Herbert Hoover on the White House lawn, and made a tour of Europe that included several concerts in London. In 1937, the premiere in Cincinnati of his “sacred cantata” The Ordering of Moses was broadcast nationwide by NBC, though the transmission was halted halfway through, supposedly because of “technical difficulties”; the real reasons have never satisfactorily been established.
Subsequent performances of the work have been few, and it has taken almost nine decades for The Ordering of Moses to reach the UK. The British premiere was given by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Joshua Weilerstein, with Nadine Benjamin, Chrystal E Williams, Rodrick Dixon and Eric Greene making up the quartet of soloists.
Dett compiled the text of his cantata from the Old Testament, telling of the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt, and how Moses was instructed by God to lead his people to freedom. It’s a vivid piece of musical storytelling, a sequence of impassioned solo arias and dramatic choral numbers, always underpinned by pungent orchestral colours that progress steadily from the dark despair of the opening, strikingly coloured by cello and bassoon, to the brassy exuberance of the final moments, when Moses and his sister Miriam lead the Israelites in a celebration of their freedom.
The melodic shapes and cadences of spirituals permeate the music, and on Go Down Moses in particular, act almost like a leitmotif throughout. The choral models range from Elgar and Coleridge-Taylor, perhaps even to Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (first performed just three years before The Ordering), and one wonders whether Tippett knew of Dett’s work, though in A Child of Our Time he uses spirituals as “found objects” rather than as part of the musical fabric.
The performance under Weilerstein, who had begun the concert with suitably rowdy performances of Charles Ives’s Variations on America, in William Schuman’s orchestration, and the Symphonic Dances from Bernstein’s West Side Story, was persuasive and the singing thrillingly committed, even if some of the words from the soloists were not as clear as they could have been. Surely it won’t be another 85 years before The Ordering of Moses is heard again on this side of the Atlantic.
• To be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at a future date.