The Inner Life of Commissions


From Thought to Stage


"What do you think of Deborah?"

tapestry of Deborah

While researching his oratorio, Evan Fein saw this medieval tapestry rendering of the story of Deborah at the Chateau de Chenonceau. Deborah is seen here with Sisera, the Canaanite commander, who'll be portrayed by bass Kevin Deas (BM '78, voice) in the oratorio.


The question caught me off guard. It was a Saturday afternoon and I had only a few minutes before letting in my next Pre-College ear training class. Normally I wouldn't have taken a call at that moment, but the caller ID showed up as Kent Tritle (BM '85, MM '88, organ; MM '87, choral conducting; faculty), New York's foremost choral conductor and a good friend of mine.

"You know, the prophet from the Book of Judges?" he added. I replied that I vaguely remembered the story from a survey course I'd taken on Handel, who treated the Biblical episode involving Deborah in a lesser-known oratorio. Kent told me that a foundation had contacted him about its interest in commissioning a 45-minute work on that story for his ensemble, Musica Sacra, to perform at Alice Tully Hall 14 months hence. They'd asked him to put forth a candidate. "Would that be something you have time to do?" he asked. I've found a good rule of thumb for a young composer is to say "Yes" first, and ask questions later, so I replied in the affirmative. The whole conversation lasted less than 90 seconds, and then I let my 10-year-olds into the classroom for an interval dictation.

It took another six months to dot and cross the proverbial i's and t's, but as everyone was proceeding in good faith and time was a factor, during that period I set about compiling a libretto. Initially, I figured it would be straightforward to extract text from scripture, but it turned out that the tale of Deborah is only a few hundred words long, and it contains little dialogue and even less characterization. Furthermore, I discovered some aspects of the text that might prove controversial or even untenable to contemporary sensibilities: slightly misogynistic overtones relating to a female leader in a patriarchal society, competing ideological factions in the region now known as Israel, the glorification of treachery and murder, and even a well-meaning but largely hamstrung military leader named Barak.

Briefly, Deborah's story proceeds thus: The people of Israel, having given themselves over to worshipping false idols, have had their land occupied by the Canaanites for 20 years. Finally, their leader, the prophet Deborah, receives a message from God that their penance is finished. She directs her general, Barak, to meet the Canaanites in battle, and in spite of overwhelming odds, the Canaanite army is defeated and their general gruesomely assassinated. Great rejoicing and renewed promises of faith conclude the tale.

While I was no longer concerned that an essay into the genre of oratorio would scan as anachronistic, it did take many months to create a text that reconciled the original plot with my own beliefs, fleshed out the characters, and (I hope) addressed the larger questions: What does faith require and can a war be just? 

While I was working through these issues, Kent and I were pinning down the practical details. The orchestral forces at my disposal would be determined primarily by the oratorio's companion piece: Mozart's Solemn Vespers, K. 339, for which the composer chose an unusual scoring lacking upper winds and violas but including an organ, trumpets, and timpani. Upon deeper discussion, Kent and I determined that it would be possible to augment this to the scoring of Mozart's Requiem, thereby designing a potential companion piece for that more frequently performed work, as long as we left out the trombones and stole a few bodies from the string section.

Though this sort of horse trading might seem humorous, such considerations are a natural part of the commissioning process, and not at all burdensome. In fact, I find letting the economics of a commission determine certain creative factors frees and focuses my mind, and gives me confidence that the work will have long-term viability.

Actually composing Deborah required only about three months, but the preparation of a piano vocal score and a clean score and set of parts took just as long. Every moment of rehearsal time counts—and costs. The performance materials are usually the closest contact a member of the orchestra has with the composer, and it's important they be as accurate and ergonomic as possible. In addition to simply reflecting the right notes and rhythms, ultimately the composer is responsible for making sure that page turns are convenient, useful cues are indicated after long periods of rest, the print isn't too small, and the paper is heavy enough that it won't fly away if the hall's ventilation turns on.

As any composer would surely say, the joy of hearing one's work performed far outweighs the labor pains of bringing it into existence. Writing Deborah has been the greatest challenge of my career thus far, and I hope performers and audiences will enjoy getting to know her.

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