'The Ordering of Moses': An Oratorio 'from Scripture and Folklore'

May 19, 2017

The Ordering of Moses is an oratorio by Robert Nathaniel Dett, written in 1932. The text, "from scripture and folklore," is a retelling of Moses leading his people out of captivity and into the promised land.

Certainly for Dett, an African-Canadian, the biblical parable resonated, and fed the drama and passion heard in the oratorio.

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and May Festival Chorus performed the world premiere of The Ordering of Moses at Cincinnati's Music Hall in 1937.

NBC broadcasted the live performance. This was the first such broadcast featuring a major new work by a black composer. It was almost too good to be true. The broadcast was halted midway, "due to technical difficulties." It was thought that NBC caved to calls of complaint from outraged listeners.

Nearly 80 years later, James Conlon brought The Ordering of Moses back to Music Hall. On May 9, 2014, Conlon conducted the work with the Cincinnati Symphony and May Festival Chorus in Carnegie Hall. The 2014 live broadcast proceeded uninterrupted and was published on CD.

Cincinnati was an apropos setting for The Ordering of Moses. The Underground Railroad crossed the Ohio River from Kentucky and ended in Ontario. Slavery was illegal in Canada.

The grandson of slaves, Dett was born in Ontario in 1882. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1908 and continued his studies at the Eastman School of Music. For over 20 years, Dett chaired the music department at Virginia's Hampton Institute. He died in 1943. 

Classical 101's Musica Sacra presents The Ordering of Moses with the Cincinnati Symphony and May Festival Chorus, conducted by Conlon, at 8 p.m. Sunday, May 21. Please join me.