A Rare American Oratorio to be Heard, Uninterrupted

AUDIO: NBC Radio Interrupts its Dett Broadcast in 1937

Wednesday, May 07, 2014 - 11:00 AM

When WQXR and NPR Music present the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and May Festival Chorus's performance of R. Nathaniel Dett's The Ordering of Moses at Carnegie Hall Friday, there will be one significant difference from its first airing: it should be free of interruptions.

Just why the 50-minute oratorio was not heard in full on NBC radio in 1937 is a story steeped in allegations of racial censorship. Dett (1882-1943) was a black Canadian-born American composer who earned degrees at the Oberlin Conservatory and the Eastman School of Music. He later studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, the revered teacher of composers from Aaron Copland to Philip Glass. Dett called his mission "the emancipation of Negro music" and cited Dvorak's promotion of black spirituals and folk songs as a strong influence on his own works.

The Cincinnati May Festival commissioned Dett to write The Ordering of Moses. He used a text based on Exodus, fusing biblical narrative with spirituals to capture the idea of freedom from bondage.

In NBC's live broadcast, only 40 minutes of the work aired. Near the end of the original acetate disc, the announcer can be heard saying, "We are sorry indeed, ladies and gentlemen, but due to previous commitments, we are unable to remain for the closing moments of this excellent performance." Some organ music filled out the hour (listen to that moment at the top of this page).

"It's very clear from the program that was published, it was meant to be a full hour and a full piece," said James Conlon, the May Festival music director, who will conduct this performance at the Spring for Music festival. "So it's very clear that something happened." Historians suspect the broadcast was cut short after racist callers to the network objected.

The Cincinnati May Festival revived Dett's oratorio in 1956, but it has been rarely heard since. After a 1993 performance at the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in New York, Alex Ross wrote in the New York Times that the piece suffered from an unwieldy structure and some meandering moments, but added, "there are episodes of startling power."

This concert will begin with John Adams's Harmonium, a 1980 piece based on poetry by John Donne ("Negative Love") and Emily Dickinson ("Because I could not stop for Death," "Wild Nights") that is regarded as milestone of Adams's minimalist period. The texts, an essay by the composer and an excerpt may be found here.

Conlon, who has promoted composers suppressed by the Nazis, sees this Dett performance as an extension of that rescue mission. "If any of us artists hear music that has a value and for whatever reason is not played, I'd rather do that than the umpteenth performance of Beethoven or Tchaikovsky," he says, adding that there's nothing wrong with those composers. "This was an ideal opportunity to do that in the context of Spring for Music."

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