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R. Nathaniel Dett’s The Ordering of Moses

Remember how we talked about Messiah by Handel and The Ballad of the Brown King by Bonds? How did Handel tell a musical story about Jesus’ life and Bonds’ tell a musical story about Jesus’ birth? Now, we’ll turn to a musical story about Moses, just in time for Passover.

This musical story–The Ordering of Moses–was composed by R. Nathaniel Dett (1882–1943). He was among the most respected Black composers of the early twentieth century. He taught at major Black colleges like the Hampton Institute; performed as a pianist with big time artists like E. Azalea Hackley; composed over 100 pieces for choir, piano, and voice; and received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Oberlin, in 1926.

Dett’s The Ordering of Moses may have started as a class project, but the details are a bit fuzzy. He completed it for his master’s thesis in 1932. He would bring it back–longer and more epic–to The Cincinnati May Festival, which premiered in Music Hall in 1937. While The May Festival Choir was segregated (they desegregated in 1956), that didn’t stop them from programming Dett’s oratorio.

Music Hall in Cincinnati, OH

The Ordering of Moses is not just about the story of Moses: hidden by his mother in the bulrushes, raised in the house of Pharaoh, designated by God as the savior of the Hebrews, whom he leads out of Egypt to the Promised Land. This story and Moses himself became a symbol of freedom for many African Americans in the nineteenth century. Harriet Tubman, who helped more than 300 people escape slavery, was called “Moses.” Northern states and Canada were seen as “the Promised Land.” Even though Dett was born free to free parents in Canada, he understood how important that was.

Harriet Tubman, “The Moses of her people”

Dett did some interviews with the press before the work’s premiere. In a May 7th interview with The Cincinnati Enquirer, he talked about the connection between Moses’ story in Negro spirituals like “Go Down, Moses” with how it’s told in the Bible:

The similarity of folk text to the words of the Scripture is striking, and the fusion of the two seems natural; moreover, the light which is thrown subsequently on the true meaning of the spiritual is very revealing.

Dett even showed up to one of the performances! In The Cincinnati Post report from May 8th, 1937, journalist May Dearness wrote:

The fourth concert of the May Festival continued to hold the interest of a large audience Friday night and brought down the house when the composer, Dr. Robert Nathaniel Dett, appeared on the stage after the world premiere of his oratorio, “The Ordering of Moses.”

The May Festival recorded The Ordering of Moses with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and James Conlon in Carnegie Hall in 2014. Give R. Nathaniel Dett’s piece a listen. Think about how it not only tells Moses’ story but the many stories of enslaved folks escaping slavery to claim their freedom. 

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R. Nathaniel Dett’s The Ordering of Moses