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Classical 101

An Oratorio by Robert Nathaniel Dett on Classical Showcase

Robert Nathaniel Dett

Innovative programming continues on the "Spring for Music" series from Carnegie Hall being presented on Classical Showcase Friday evening at 7 on Classical 101 with two large-scale works for orchestra and chorus: John Adams' Harmonium from 1980 and The Ordering of Moses, an oratorio which premiered in 1937, by Robert Nathaniel Dett.

Composer John Adams was still in his more "minimalist" phase when he conceived and wrote Harmonium.  The three sections use as their basis poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson. Negative Love by the English metaphysical poet John Donne traces the idea of various kinds of love, from the carnal to the divine. Because I could not stop for Death by Emily Dickinson serves as a kind of "pastoral elegy," and her poem Wild Nights moves Harmonium toward an ecstatic conclusion.


Robert Nathaniel Dett was one of the most successful African-American composers of his time and wrote The Ordering of Moses as his thesis for his masters of music degree from the Eastman School of Music in 1932.  It depicts the longing for freedom from bondage by weaving together the story of Moses leading the Jews to freedom, with African-American spirituals.  This rarely heard work was given its premier on May 7 at the 1937 May Festival in Cincinnati.  The event caused some controversy due, it is believed, to racism.

The oratorio, with full orchestra and a chorus of 350, was being broadcast internationally on radio by NBC and was abruptly cut off after about 40 minutes because, it has been speculated, some listeners complained to WJZ in New York City when it was found out to be a work by an African-American composer.  Music critics, both in Cincinnati and from New York, praised the artistic quality of the oratorio and its performance.

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is making its first appearance at Carnegie Hall since 2001 with the May Festival Chorus for this performance of The Ordering of Moses by Robert Nathaniel Dett and Harmonium by John Adams, led by the May Festival's music director James Conlon.

Classical Showcase airs Friday evening at 7 on Classical 101.