R. Nathaniel Dett
The Ordering of Moses

Born: October 1882 in Drummondsville (now Niagara Falls), Ontario
Died: 2 October 1943 in Battle Creek, Michigan

{Biography} {Spirituals} {The Ordering of Moses}


R. Nathaniel Dett (the “R” stands for Robert) was born in what is now part of Niagara Falls, Ontario, but was then simply called Drummondsville.  The town was founded by formerly enslaved Americans who made it across the border into a more civilized country that neither allowed slavery anywhere nor permitted so-called “owners” to hunt down those who had escaped their lives of degradation.  Dett’s grandmother Harriet Johnson settled there in the 1850s and proceeded to raise an educated and cultured family; both of Dett’s parents played piano, and Dett’s own musical skill was recognized early on.  When Dett was 11, the family moved back across the border to the American Niagara Falls.

In 1908 Dett was the first black student to graduate from Oberlin (Phi Beta Kappa, no less) after majoring in composition and piano; Oberlin was far ahead of its time in admitting black students as early as 1835.  Immediately after graduation Dett embarked on work as a concert pianist combined with a series of teaching positions at black higher education institutions: Lane College (Tennessee), Lincoln Institute (Missouri), Hampton Institute (Virginia; now Hampton University), Sam Houston State Teacher’s College (Texas), and Bennett College (North Carolina).  His tenure at the Hampton Institute was especially illustrious.  He started a famous town/gown choir that focused on African-American music and performed across the United States and Europe (Carnegie Hall debut in January 1914); he initiated an undergraduate degree in music; and in 1926 he became the first black director of the Music Department (sad to say, the norm at black colleges before this was to have white music directors).

In addition to teaching, performing, conducting, and composing, Dett was also extremely active as a mentor and leader in multiple contexts.  While at the Hampton Institute he founded the Musical Arts Society, a presenting organization that brought in guests such as H.T. Burleigh, Marian Anderson, John Philip Sousa, Percy Grainger, and others.  He was a key figure in helping to organize the much-needed National Association of Negro Musicians (he served as President from 1924 to 1926), and he was tireless in the study and promotion of black music.  Two important musical collections he published to this end were Religious Folksongs of the Negro (1927) and the four-volume Dett Collection of Negro Spirituals (completed while he was living in Rochester and published in 1936).  His manifold contributions to contemporary musical life were recognized by honorary doctorates from Howard University in 1924 and Oberlin in 1926.

Dett is also noteworthy for being a life-long learner; he continued his musical studies for more than two decades after he graduated from Oberlin, usually during summers when his own institutions were not in session.  Places he studied included Columbia, Northwestern, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, and the American Conservatory of Music outside of Paris, where he was a pupil of the illustrious Nadia Boulanger in the summer of 1929.

At Harvard (1920–1921) he studied with composer (and organist) Arthur Foote (1853–1937), then a major figure in Boston’s musical life but now rarely heard.  Foote’s Suite for String Orchestra in E Major, Op. 63, is probably his best-known work (it actually shows up in my mother’s Concert Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to Symphonic Music from 1947), but I wonder when it was last performed?  As for Dett, he distinguished himself at Harvard as he did everywhere, winning both musical and literary honors: the Francis Boott Music Award for his choral piece Don’t Be Weary, Traveler, and the Bowdoin Literary Prize for his essay “The Emancipation of Negro Music.”

Dett’s final place of study was the then relatively new Eastman School of Music, where he earned a M.M. in composition.  He was already so famous when he arrived that his appearance in Rochester was greeted by headlines in The Democrat and Chronicle (the local rag, for those readers who don’t live in Rochester).  He stayed in Rochester after graduation, as always assuming a major role in local life.   He was Music Director at Two Saints Episcopal Church as well as at Trinity Presbyterian (now Trinity Emmanuel), he founded a choir at the Clarissa Street YWCA, he served as mentor to the teenage William Warfield, and he was president of the local NAACP chapter.  Fun Rochester fact:  Joseph Douglass (1871–1935), the “first black violinist to make transcontinental tours and...the direct inspiration for several young violinists who later become professionals” (Southern, The Music of Black Americans), was the grandson of Rochester’s own Frederick Douglass—himself a violin player!

Dett eventually left Rochester; his final position was with the USO, and he died while on tour with the Women’s Army Corps chorus.


Spirituals play a huge role in The Ordering of Moses, so it’s worth taking a brief look at this most glorious treasure of American music.  The Grove Dictionary of American Music defines spiritual as “A type of sacred song created by and for African Americans that originated in oral tradition” and describes it as “a hybrid of West African and Anglo-American music and ritual.”  Spirituals were in existence by the early nineteenth century at the latest, and an important influence, the West African ring ritual, was practiced among enslaved Americans at least a century before that date.

Transmission of spirituals was exclusively oral until 1867, when William Francis Allen, Lucy McKim Garrison, and Charles P. Ware, who had worked with the Gullah population in South Carolina, published Slave Songs of the United States.  Published arrangements appeared not long thereafter thanks to the extremely important Jubilee Singers from Fisk University.  Fisk, based in Nashville, had been founded in 1866 as a college for the newly emancipated.  By 1871 the college was in dire need of funds, and a chamber choir was sent off on tour to raise money for the school.  Their initial repertoire of hymns, pop tunes, and patriotic melodies was a dud, so they switched to spirituals and adopted the official name of “Jubilee Singers” in reference to the year of jubilee—freedom from slavery—in Leviticus XXV.  This new repertoire was immediately successful with both black and white audiences, and the singers kept touring, eventually making it to Europe, and raised plenty of money.  If you have ever been on a college choir tour, you have the Fisk Jubilee Singers to thank.

As early as 1872 the Fisk arrangements were published and for sale at concerts, and the many groups that were formed to imitate the Jubilee Singers soon generated their own arrangements and publications.  Spirituals were immensely, and deservedly, popular.  They were hailed as a true national music for the United States, and Dvořák, who knew a thing or two about nationalism in music, wrote that “in the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.”  Deep into the twentieth century, American choirs and American soloists would end concerts and recitals otherwise devoted to European music with arrangements of spirituals.

Broadly speaking, spiritual arrangements come in two flavors.  The earliest arrangements, those of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, structured the pieces to conform to the expectations of European choral music: homophonic SATB textures with standard English texts, and a performance style that emphasized an erect and unmoving posture, cultivated voices, and italianate expressive devices such as dynamic and rhythmic indications.  In some ways, the first arrangers arguably had little choice; imitation of European practices was the fastest way to acceptance and respect. Later arrangers, however, tried to capture aspects of the original performing traditions of spirituals through the use of dialect, more natural voices, claps and shouts, and bodily motion.  The two styles continue to the present, as composers and arrangers are inspired by these beautiful, historic, and deeply emotional melodies.  Over the decades important arrangements (for instruments as well as solo and choral voices) have come from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Henry T. Burleigh, William Levi Dawson, John Wesley Work III, Hall Johnson, Lena McLin, Moses Hogan, and of course Dett, who favored a European style of arrangement.  I have an especial fondness for H.T. Burleigh’s classic version of Deep River, which I first sang freshman year in college and every year thereafter during my undergraduate career.  It accompanied our college choir on our trip to Europe right after graduation, where (yes) it would close our programs.  Interestingly, though, the first concert I sang that included Deep River ended not with that but with Ives’s spectacular Psalm 90—admittedly a hard piece to follow.

The Ordering of Moses

Dett wrote lots of music: for keyboard, for chorus, for vocal soloist, for orchestra.  Leaving aside The Ordering of Moses for the moment, his best-known works are probably the choral works Listen to the Lambs, I’ll Never Turn Back No More, Ave Maria (described as one writer as “exquisite), The Chariot Jubilee (a spectacular arrangement of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot), and the “Dance Juba” movement from his early piano suite Magnolia.  Sadly, all of his orchestral writing outside of The Ordering of Moses is lost; we know he wrote at least two works for the CBS Radio Orchestra as well as incidental music for the 1934 Centennial Pageant in Rochester.

The Ordering of Moses is surely his masterpiece; Strimple characterizes it as the “first widely recognized large choral work by an African-American composer.”  Depending on how one categorizes Dett’s music, this was either his second or third oratorio, after Music in the Mine (1916) and the extended version of The Chariot Jubilee (1921), which Shrock considers a cantata.  The work began as Dett’s master’s thesis for Eastman and received its first performance there in June 1932.  Dett continued to revise it after graduation, and the final version debuted on 7 May 1937 at the Cincinnati Festival.  Eugene Goossens was the conductor, the chorus numbered 350, and the concert was broadcast live on NBC radio (but cut off unexpectedly before the work had ended).  Performances followed rapidly in New York City; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; White Plains, New York; and Stockton, California.  Performances were isolated after Dett’s death, but the work is making a comeback, and the new edition prepared by Dr. Jeannie Guerrero, which the Rochester Oratorio Society is using for our performance, should facilitate the revival.

Oratorios normally tell a religious story, often taken from the Old Testament.  The Ordering of Moses fits readily into this description, as it tells the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of their Egyptian bondage into freedom.  The attraction of this story to enslaved Americans is obvious.  In his score Dett indicates that the text, which he presumably compiled himself, is “based on scripture and folk lore.”  Biblical sources are the books of Exodus and Lamentations.  The key musical sources are the spirituals He is King of Kings, And when Moses smote the water, and especially the beloved Go down, Moses.  Dett’s grandmother sang spirituals, so he was familiar with this musical heritage from an early age.

The Ordering of Moses is composed for SATB chorus that at times splits into eight parts, four soloists, and full orchestra, including organ.  The solo roles are soprano Miriam (prophetess and the older sister of Moses and Aaron), alto Voice of Israel, tenor Moses, and baritone “The Word” and “Voice of God.”  Dett writes that “The Moses here depicted is not the Moses familiarized to us by the other arts, especially by the work of Michaelangelo, whose statue of the patriarch has become symbolic.  At the time of this ‘ordering’ Moses was a shepherd, on a hillside—undoubtedly a young man—which explains the part being assigned to a Tenor voice.”  The charismatic Aaron does not appear in the oratorio; Dett wisely keeps attention focused on Moses.  For a musical treatment of the brothers’ complex relationship, see Schönberg’s (unfinished) opera Moses und Aron.

In contrast to many oratorios (think of Elijah, or anything by Handel), which are normally divided into stand-alone components (e.g. recitative, aria, chorus), The Ordering of Moses is a continuous musical drama.  It nonetheless falls into various components emphasizing different portions of the narrative and performing forces.  These are the initial section portraying the Israelites in captivity, God’s command to Moses (the “Ordering of Moses,” itself multi-sectional), the parting of the Red Sea by Moses and the Israelites’ crossing, the pursuit by the Egyptians, and the rejoicing of the Israelites on reaching the promised land.

The Israelites in Captivity

The oratorio opens with a brooding orchestral introduction in F minor.  The baritone, in his role as The Word, opens with the melody and text of Go Down, Moses: “All Israel’s children sorely sighed.”  This begins a call and response section with the chorus, where the baritone continues with the spiritual while the chorus sings contrasting material for “by reason on their bondage.”  The solo role is then taken over by the alto, the Voice of Israel, and we continue our call and response with her.

God’s Command to Moses

A brief orchestral interlude then takes us to the next section; its latter portion moves us to Ab major (the relative major of F minor) to signal that things are looking up. With the opening text of this new section (m. 192), “God looked on Israel and heard her children groaning” (sung by soprano, alto, and baritone soloists, to a humming choral accompaniment), we learn that God has seen the misery of the Israelites and will take care of them.  Eventually we, the chorus, get to sing the text as well.  The soloists fade away and we are left we cries of “mercy, Lord!”  Then orchestra and chorus fall silent, as we are about to enter a key section of the story.

Dett begins this next section (m. 236) by bringing back the opening brooding music and a return to F minor, now spiced with more dissonance for the miraculous appearance of God in a burning bush to speak to Moses: “and from a burning bush, God spake unto Moses, saying.”  The chorus fades away on a dissonant sonority (Ab in tenor, Bb in alto, C in soprano and second bass, and Eb in first bass); the orchestra winds away to the funky French augmented sixth chord C E Gb Bb.  There’s a fermata so that we can gather our strength for the coolest part of this piece.

This next section, which begins at m. 259, is not a strict fugue, and it isn’t even a full fugal exposition (the sopranos never get the theme) in this part.  It is, however, a kind of interrupted fugue (as we will see), it’s a brilliant display of contrapuntal ingenuity, and it is a BLAST to sing.  It’s also nice that, even though these are God’s words, they’re given entirely to the chorus.

The subject of this fugal fantasy is one of the all-time-great spirituals: Go down, Moses (there’s a nice life lesson here, where God instructs the young shepherd to take on a leadership role—i.e., the unassuming have more value than they may think).  Basses get the theme; when it is the turn of the tenors (where it appears beginning on the requisite C), the basses have a delicious contrapuntal line against them (thou shalt lead thy people).  The chromatic descent on “go down, take thy rod” is especially delicious.

With the alto entrance (back on F, just where it should be), the tenors take over the contrapuntal line that the basses just finished, while the basses move on to a fresh and equally interesting moving line (for I have looked on Israel).  The sopranos (alas for them!) never get the theme, but instead start a snappy exchange with the altos on “do down, Moses, go down.”  And then all four voice parts trade material back and forth—at m. 293 for example, sopranos have the “thou shalt lead thy people” theme against the “I’ve looked on Israel” music in the altos over a fresh countermelody in the tenors over the initial “Go down Moses” theme back in the bass.  And so on.  This section is immensely gratifying to sing, it’s been running through my head for months now, and it’s what made me fall in love with this piece.

When we conclude on with a fermata, our chord is not even slightly restful: Dett has juxtaposed a Db major triad (Db, F, Ab) against the unorthodox triad Eb G B (two major thirds) so that this sonority is full of jarring dissonance.  Every note brushes up against another one.  And there’s a reason for that.  Nothing’s been settled.  Moses is, to put it mildly, reluctant to take up the task.

Moses, making his first appearance in the oratorio (tenor = hero!) has a subdued and sometimes silent accompaniment so that we can hear his protests clearly.  In addition to pointing out his lack of information (“what signs or wonders show?”), he also relates his general inarticulateness (“I am not eloquent, have not gift of speech, am slow of tongue”).  Just to make sure we get the point, the last text becomes “am slow of tongue, slow, slow of tongue, am slow, slow of tongue.”

As chorus, we pop in with the homorhythmic narrative “and God spake unto Moses, saying,” ending back on the same augmented sixth chord we sang before.  The Voice of God returns and chastises Moses:  I, God, made you the way you are.  This starts out with the tempo indication “adagio solemnis” for “Who hath made a man dumb? Or who hath made his mouth speak?” but Dett gives us a dramatic switch for the move to “Is it not I, Jehovah?” when the chorus returns.  The tempo snaps back to allegro marziale (martial allegro!) and we’ve switched to C minor, the dominant minor of our home key F minor.  The key command “Now therefore go, and I will be your mouth and will instruct you” is divided between the Voice of God and the chorus, with the Voice of God restricted to “Now therefore go.”

A very short orchestral passage now leads us to the chorus part that will conclude the first half of the oratorio.  At m. 408 we pick up the fugue that was interrupted many measures ago: sopranos (finally!) have the Go down, Moses theme (on C, where we expect if), altos get the “thou shalt lead my people” melody, tenors get the “I’ve looked on Israel” theme, and basses provide a slower moving harmonic foundation.  More orchestra, then we are on homorhythmic B-flat octaves for “Let my people go!” followed by still more orchestra, and then octaves once more, now moving up to C and a huge crescendo for our final “Let my people go!”  Again, though, we end on dissonance—an inverted seventh chord (G B Db F) that does not resolve, for we are not yet free.

The Parting of the Red Sea

What I consider the second half of the oratorio (in terms of timing, but also in terms of psychology) begins with an extended orchestral interlude, towards the end of which appear multiple references to Go down, Moses.  The baritone reappears as “The Word” and narrates the next events: when Moses smote the water, the sea gave way and the children all passed over.  The section is based on the spiritual “When Moses smote the water.”  The chorus takes over the text almost immediately from the soloist, and we move from a placid description to increasingly agitated exclamations that “the sea gave way,” ending, as usual, on a fortissimo chromatic sonority (this time a Db F A triad placed against Eb G B—almost identical to what we heard at the end of the first Go down, Moses section).

We then proceed to The March of the Israelites through the Red Sea, a substantial section where the only “text” for the chorus is a reiterated “ah.”  Our march is followed by a purely orchestral Pursuit of the Egyptians (6/8 meter, allegro di molto tempo, and initially in F# minor), we reach the promised land and can finally rejoice.  This final rejoicing section, based in part on the spiritual He is King of Kings, takes up a good quarter of the entire oratorio.  We start with Hallelujahs to the same music we sang when enslaved in Egypt (“by reason on their bondage”) but then move to more cheerful exclamations, with solos from Moses, The Word, and Miriam joining in (the last being particularly exultant, with a glorious high C incorporated).  Moses exhorts us to “sing ye to Jehovah, for he has triumphed gloriously,” which leads gradually to the jubilant version of He is King of Kings in a clear and triumphant F major (goodbye, sad and gloomy F minor!).  And what a sing this is!  Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord!  I will admit to coveting the sopranos’ and tenors’ “Great I am, that I am, that I am,” with its dramatic initial leap of a tenth.  The oratorio concludes with chorus holding fermata chords for each syllable of “Hallelujah praise the great I am” while Moses and Miriam declaim biblical text, ending with “Jehovah shall reign forever and ever.”  The orchestra rushes to the conclusion, and this terrific work is done.

When we began working on this piece I knew who Dett was but didn’t know any of his music and didn’t know what to expect.  But the fugal section on Go down Moses captivated me instantly, and as the months rolled by (since our performance kept getting postponed) the other sections grew on me as well and the story exerted its symbolic power.  The world has not completed the work that Moses began, but this oratorio, which is being heard more and more, serves as a powerful reminder of what needs to be done.

October 2022