From the Archives

Jonah and the Whale

The commission: It wasn’t always about Jonah

Dominick Argento’s Jonah and the Whale was commissioned for the professional choral organization now known as VocalEssence by Plymouth Congregational Church and the Cathedral Church of St. Mark in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Philip Brunelle founded VocalEssence in 1969 as the Plymouth Music Series. He spoke recently about the commission — his first — and the birth of the work we are performing this weekend.

Philip Brunelle Jonah and the Whale was the first piece you commissioned with VocalEssence. How did you come to choose Dominick Argento?

Well, first a quick review. Originally, Dominick Argento was my teacher at the University of Minnesota, so I knew him first in that context. Then at Minnesota Opera, I was conducting his operas and we were recording them, so that part of the relationship had started. In 1973, when we decided to start commissioning, we felt that Dominick was the one we wanted to have first.

Did you propose the Jonah idea to him?

No, I said, “Dominick, I have no history of commissioning, but I think first of all, we have to figure out what the text is going to be.” One of the great things about Dominick is that he is amazing in the amount of text reading and study that he does. A decision on a text is not whimsical with him. He thinks long and hard about these things.

I had asked him for a piece that was going to be 30 minutes for chorus and some instruments. That was as much as I said. He then presented me with a text of [Federico García] Lorca. I remember reading it over and saying, “Oh. I like it, but it really isn’t what I was thinking for our first commission.”

Was it a bit too dark?

Yes. He kind of said, “OK, let me go back and think about it some more.” He came back a few weeks later and said, “What about this?” It was the Jonah text, but not quite the one you have. When he went to get permission to publish that text, whoever had prepared it from the medieval text either would not give permission or wanted to charge far too much. So he said, “I’ll just do it myself,” and he made his own version of the original medieval text.

It’s a beautiful text. Is all the alliteration original to the medieval verse or is that partly the way he translated it?

That was original to the medieval lyrics. As a composer, he could see that that kind of alliteration would be wonderful to set. He went for it in a big way. I said, “Great, this will be a wonderful piece. Let’s go forward.”

And that’s how we got Jonah and the Whale?

Well, he finished it, and I remember that when he showed me how it ended, I said that it seemed too abrupt. The original ending did not include that final section where the whale theme comes back and the choir sings “Praise to the Lord.” But in the Bible, the Book of Jonah doesn’t have much of an ending either. It ends with the phrase, “and cattle also,” which is not one of those terrific endings for an oratorio. He looked at it and this brilliant ending came to him, which is just wonderful. It ended up being more than 45 minutes.

I remember saying to him, “I don’t know that I have the money to pay for a larger piece,” and he said, “Oh no, that’s my problem. I just got inspired to keep going. There’s no additional fee. This is me.”

Was there additional back-and-forth refinement as you began working on it and the libretto settled in?

Nope. From the beginning, Dominick was going to write the piece, and he did. It’s his own translation of this alliterative poem. The manuscript’s original title was “Patience, or Jonah and the Whale.” It was believed to have been written by the same poet who did “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”

It’s the first piece Dominick chose to include a part for narrator. That allowed him to do different things with the chorus, since the point of view always comes from the narrator. In addition to the Book of Jonah, there’s Psalm 130 (De profundis clamavi). There’s the Kyrie. There are the work songs — the sea shanties — and then “Praise to the Lord the Almighty.” You get all of those.

He was inspired or charmed by that painting on a chapel ceiling in Sweden. What he liked about the painting was the nonchalant mixture of realism, naïveté and symbolism, and he wanted those to be part of his piece. Dominick loves to make imagery and references — in this case to the Trinity. So there are three keyboard instruments (counting the harp), three trombones, three soloists, three percussion. He had nine instruments for the piece. There are also three kinds of triads. The music of the whale is in 9/8 — three plus three plus three. The end of the piece is in three flats. “Praise to the Lord” is in 3/4 and it’s a phrase that is in two-plus-two-plus-two, which equals six. It’s all very deliberate. It’s all part of him.

What were some of the reactions to the piece when singers worked through it for the first time?

My attitude toward new music is, “Isn’t it great that we have a chance to do something written just for us?” I don’t believe in using the word “difficult.” I’ll say, “This is a little tricky,” and people will say OK. They worked diligently. I’m sure they thought it was difficult, but I never let on. That whole Aubade — “and while he slept” — is just plain hard. It was our fifth season. We’d done Copland and some Handel oratorios and other things. But the singers could not go out and listen to a recording to see how Jonah was supposed to go. It was a big stretch for us.

What performance history has it had?

We did it again, and we have done excerpts of it in anniversary years. The last time we did the complete work was five years ago. It’s been done some. I think the big problem is that when a piece is not available for sale — only available by rental — people want to keep their copies and mark them. Conductors want to keep it and do it again in five years or so. We sang from manuscript copies, of course. It went on sale for a time, but then the publisher put it back on rental.

In the score, Argento specifically says the narrator’s voice must be amplified. Was that a departure back then?

He had never used a narrator before. He knew that if he had those instruments going, there was no way the audience would hear the narrator. I vaguely remember that in the very beginning, it wasn’t marked for amplification. But it became obvious in rehearsal.

Do you recall Argento’s own reaction to hearing his music realized?

Dominick is not a composer who hears his music and says, “Oh. Is that what it sounds like?” He knows what he’s going to hear. He didn’t register surprise. It was more like, “Yep. That’s exactly what I expected it to be.” He’s very careful about rhythmic variances, and he knows exactly what he wants. If he doesn’t hear a particular marking, he’ll tell you, “I didn’t write ritard there. I wrote trattenuto.” All those little things. He was very fond of the folks who were the original soloists. He wrote for that tenor and that bass — he knew Vern [Sutton] and he knew Leroy [Lehr].

Was it Argento who observed that the whale ends up being the hero of the piece?

Yes. I asked him about that — that nice, big barcarole theme that comes rolling out. “Why did you give the most beautiful theme to the whale?” He said, “Because he was the only one that obeyed God, so he should get the best tune.”

— September 3, 2008