Norman Dello Joio
A Jubilant Song

Born: 24 January 1913 in New York City
Died: 24 July 2008 in East Hampton, Long Island

{Biography} {A Jubilant Song}

Preparing for a choral concert of many short works is like opening a box of chocolates.  You know you will like them all, but which ones, hidden under their robes of dark, milk, or white chocolate, will you find most appealing?  In the Rochester Oratorio Society concert of March 2024 it was Norman Dello Joio’s A Jubilant Song that immediately became my favorite (competition included works by Copland, Dett, Ford, Paulus, Poulenc, Thomas, and U2).  I was always sad when rehearsal did not include this work.


Dello Joio is not exactly a household name, even in the music world.  I suspect most choral singers are unfamiliar with his work, and the only reason I know any of it is because my parents had a record of his symphonic suite Air Power, derived from the background music he wrote for the television series of the same name in the 1950s.  My father had served in the Air Force, which is probably why that piece ended up in the extremely weird assortment of recordings I grew up with, e.g. LPs of Mantovani, Rita Ford’s Music Boxes, The Art of Firmin Swinnen at Longwood Gardens, Strauss waltzes, etc.

Although not well known today, Dello Joio had a very successful career as a composer for many decades.  He came from a musical family and had substantial professional training as a pianist, organist, and composer.  His studies include a period at Juilliard as well as with Paul Hindemith at Tanglewood and Yale.  He ended up teaching at Sarah Lawrence College, Mannes College, and Boston University, serving as Dean of the School of Fine and Applied Arts there.  He won lots of awards (e.g., Pulitzer Prize, Emmy) and wrote many, many compositions in pretty much all the main genres: opera, ballet (pieces for Martha Graham!), chamber music, song, works for solo keyboard, orchestra, band, and chorus.

As it turned out, Hindemith was an excellent influence on Dello Joio because he wisely encouraged the young composer to write to his strengths, which meant following his own relatively conservative inclinations rather than using the avant-garde atonality that many “serious” composers were espousing at the time.  These conservative tendencies generated his successful career; they have since made his music largely fall out of the repertoire; and they may also be responsible for its return, as there seems to be increased interest nowadays in mid-century American composers who avoided serialism and its related toys.

A Jubilant Song

A Jubilant Song was the result of a commission in 1946 by G. Schirmer for the High School of Music and Art in New York City.  The setting is for SATB chorus (with a brief part for solo soprano) and piano.  The very positive text is a clear expression of joy for the end of World War II, as well as a paean to music.  Its origin is in Whitman’s extended poem “A Song of Joys,” but Dello Joio used Whitman simply as a source from which to filch a line here and there and alter as he pleased.  Whitman was the poet Dello Joio set most often, and he frequently played around with the text.

Given below is the text of Dello Joio’s piece (more or less—there is lots of repetition and some reordering of words).  Indented and in italics below most lines is the comparable line in Whitman’s poem, when I could find it, as well as an indication of where the line falls in the poem, e.g., “O the joy of my spirit” comes from Line 7 of Whitman’s poem.  It’s immediately apparent that Dello Joio treated his textual source very flexibly, and added text of his own (unless the unidentified lines come from other Whitman poems).  I don’t care at all about fidelity to Whitman (wonderful though Whitman is)—Dello Joio has distilled Whitman’s 161-line poem into a much more condensed and musically focused statement that omits, among other things, the joy of the strong-brawn’d fighter, the whaleman’s joys, the ripen’d joy of womanhood, the joy of a manly self-hood, etc. etc.  They are not missed here.

O listen to a jubilant song
O to make the most jubilant song (1)

The joy of our spirit is uncaged; it darts like lightning
O the joy of my spirit—it is uncaged—it darts like lightning! (7)

For we sing to the joys of youth
Know’st thou the excellent joys of youth? (121)

and the joy of a glad light-beaming day
Joy of the glad light-beaming day  (123)

For we sing to the joy of life

O our spirit sings a jubilant song

that is to life full of music
Joy of sweet music  (124)

A life full of concord, of music, a life full of harmony
the joy of concord and harmony (27)

We sing prophetic joys of lofty ideals
Prophetic joys of better, loftier love’s ideals (132)

A universal love awaking in the hearts of men

O to have life, a poem of new joys
O to have life henceforth, a poem of new joys!  (157)

To shout, dance, exult, and leap
To dance, clap hands, exult, shout, skip, leap (158)

O to realize space
O to realize space!  (112)

and flying clouds, the sun and moon
of the sun and moon and flying clouds (114)

O to be rulers of life
O while I live to be the ruler of life  (134)

O to be rulers of destiny

I consider myself a better-than-average sight reader, but A Jubilant Song threw me for a loop on the first read-through.  The meters are shifting (5/8, 5/4, 4/4, 3/2, etc.) and there are lots of fast rhythmic values set syllabically, but the key to difficulties (pun intended) is that the harmonic center keeps shifting (e.g., E major, F major, D major, etc.), and not in nice smooth modulations, but suddenly.  To make things tougher for the sight-reader, Dello Goio eschews key signatures entirely, so you have to rely more heavily than usual on ear alone as a new combination of accidentals sails into view.  And if everyone else is butchering their line, well, it’s a bit of a train wreck.  Fortunately a few choristers had sung the piece before, so they helped provide some anchor to an otherwise foundering ship (“oh, is that what’s going on?” I would think in passing).

O jubilant song is actually like a lot of mid-century choral music that is not crazy challenging (this is not Canti di prigionia) but is also not immediately accessible either; it keeps one on one’s toes and is ultimately very satisfying to sing.  As Nick Stimple describes Dello Joio’s choral music, it is “fusing romantic melodies with tonal, though often dissonant, harmonies and energetic, extroverted rhythms.”

What are the things that are so appealing about this piece?  There’s a lot of internal unity—the opening piano bit outlines the E-C#-F# motive that will inform a good deal of the work.  There is a decent amount of homorhythmic, sometimes homophonic singing.  The diminuendo/crescendo from m. 29 to m. 36 is very effective.  The piano accompaniment drops out at 38 so that we can “Listen to a jubilant song,” the first text after our opening “O” exclamations.  “It darts like lighting” is scattered imitatively among the voices, truly darting here and there, with another effective diminuendo/crescendo in 47–48.  The piano accompaniment returns in 48 with deranged octaves before settling into a snappy vamp.  The slow central section is a restful contrast to the opening, and then we’re back at full speed with crisp rhythms and zippy seventh chords.  Our whole “la la la la” section is loads of fun to sing, as we take turns bouncing variants against other parts (tenors and basses against soprano and alto “la las” at 135ff; soprano long notes against lower voices from 145).  Then those enormously enjoyable “listen listen listen listen” repeats on juicily dissonant chords, where our accents are underscored by short piano bursts.  The keyboard, which provides an irresistible accompaniment throughout, drops out briefly for our final “we dance, exult, we shout and leap” before returning to its busy underscoring of our “O! O! O! Listen to our song!”  And the final piano phrases begin on the offbeat—perfect!

Dello Joio wrote a lot of choral music, but if YouTube is any guide, A Jubilant Song is one of his most frequently performed works.  You can find performances by high school choirs, college choirs, adult chamber choirs, an arrangement for female voices (Dello Joio’s own), for male voices (someone else’s), with band accompaniment (this sounds odd to me, since this piano accompaniment is so good by itself; there’s also an orchestra version available), and with some of the words changed to make the text religious.  As always, I love to think of so many other people having the opportunity to learn this music and sing it, and for audiences to get to hear it.  This is quite simply a superbly crafted composition, with a wonderful, positive, music-centered Credo:  a life full of music, a life full of concord, of music, a life full of harmony! 

Yes, yes, yes!

March 2024