An Exhibit of the Diehn Composers Room, Old Dominion University Libraries

From the New World to a New Nation

Plots from the 16 - 18th Centuries

Interest among composers in colonial American history has generated few plots for the musical stage.  America, understood here as “the Americas”, was the setting for only 4 staged works between 1945 and 1990:  Sessions’ Montezuma (1963); Ward’s The Crucible (1961); Bernstein’s Candide (1956); and Hoiby’s The Tempest (1986).  A fifth work, by Old Dominion University music student June Nan Miller entitled Matoaka and based on the life of the Indian woman commonly known as Pocahontas, was composed in 1986 for her Master of Arts in Humanities degree, but was never staged. 

Old Dominion University's Adolphus Hailstork may have renewed the dramatic energy expended on Colonial subjects in 2004 with his cantata "Crispus Attucks". Since then, the Jamestown 2007 organization commissioned works inspired by the Virginia colony from Hailstork ("Settlement"), John Corigliano ("Jamestown Hymn"), John Duffy ("Indian Spirits"), and Jennifer Higdon ("Spirit"), which the Virginia Symphony, under the baton of JoAnn Falletta, will premier on May 11, 2007, in Jamestown.

Plots from Spanish Colonial History

Spain’s  colonies serve as backdrop for the both Montezuma and Candide.

Roger SessionsMontezuma chronicles the conquest of the Aztec empire of Central Mexico by the troops of Hernán Cortez in 1520.  The title of the work aside, Borgese’s libretto focuses on the story of La Malinche, the Aztec woman who acted as interpreter between Cortez and Moctezuma.  An outcast in her own society, la Malinche became pregnant by Cortez, earning her the coarse epithet in Spanish 'la Chingada'.  Mexicans to this day call themselves ‘hijos de la Chingada’, a reflection of both their mixed racial makeup and their rough treatment at the hands of the colonizers (See Octavio Paz's interpretation of La Malinche as mother of Mexican culture in The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950)). 

Score of Sessions' Montezuma
Score of Session's Montezuma
Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein, composer of Candide


Leonard Bernstein’s musical Candide, based on Voltaire’s ironic epic of the same name, puts the young anti-hero at one point in the land of El Dorado, a legendary place of fabulous wealth based on a real ritual witnessed among Muisca Indians in which the leader covered himself with gold dust.

Production of Candide
A production of Bernstein's Candide

Plots from English Colonial History

Both Lee Hoiby and Stambler use episodes from the English colonial period.  Hoiby’s The Tempest (libretto by Mark Shulgasser) sets to music the plot of the Shakespeare play, which was inspired by wreck of the ship Sea Venture in the Bermudas in 1609. 

Robert Ward’s The Crucible (libretto by Bernard Stambler) is also based on an earlier play by the same name, by noted American playwright Arthur Miller.  The setting here is Salem, Massachusetts, during the 1692 witch trials.

Scenes from Robert Ward's The Crucible
Scenes from Ward's The Crucible
Lee Hoiby
Lee Hoiby
Scene from The Tempest
Scene from Hoiby's The Tempest

Adolphus Hailstork's cantata "Crispus" sets a poetic text by Herbert Martin.

The text recounts the story of the Crispus Attucks, a black man who was first casualty of the Boston Massacre and consequently of the American Revolution. Attucks, whose father was black and whose mother was Nantucket Indian, has been credited with leading the attack on the Customs House and is widely hailed as both a patriot and martyr of the Revolution.

Early MS draft of Hailstork's Crispus

Early Draft of 'Crispus'. Adolphus Hailstork Collection, Old Dominion University, Diehn Composers Room, Norfolk, VA
Adolphus Hailstork
Adolphus Hailstork

The Jamestown Settlement

The Jamestown colony and mid-Atlantic American Indian culture have inspired the non-dramatic works featured this year by the Virginia Festival of the Arts. According to David Nicholson, John Duffy's "Indian Spirits" draws from the John White drawings created during the English experiment at Roanoke Island in 1587-88. These drawings were engraved by Theodor De Bry in 1590 and form an integral part of his Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, now available in a new facsimile edition from the Mariners' Museum / University of Virginia Press (see the entire article here). Nicholson also says that Adolphus Hailstork found inspiration in the physical location of Jamestown Island and Jamestown Settlement's museum galleries.

Jamestown composers and scores

Copyright © 2007 Old Dominion University Libraries
Diehn Composers Room

Page modified: