Music as a Moral Compass


I spend about 46 weeks of the year preparing for six weeks of music around the world. Berkshire Choral International choristers have been performing the standard repertoire for 35 seasons now. Most of the concerts I’ve heard in eight seasons have been wonderful, but only a few stand out as illustrations of how music and lyrics can reset our moral compasses and make a lasting impression on singers, conductor, and audience alike.

stephen paulus

Stephen Paulus

Such was the oratorio To Be Certain of the Dawn by the late Stephen Paulus (composer) and Michael Dennis Browne (librettist), performed August 6 under the baton of Minneapolis-based Kathy Saltzman Romey. She has been a passionate advocate for the work, and I believe that everyone who sang it with her will testify that her passion is not misplaced.

Michael Dennis Browne

Michael Dennis Browne

To Be Certain of the Dawn, which premiered in Minneapolis in 2005, started with the Reverend Michael O’Connell of the Basilica of Saint Mary in that city. The Basilica commissioned the piece as a memorial gift to Temple Israel synagogue on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps and the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate. The Second Vatican Council released that landmark declaration to call for Christian repentance of anti-Semitism and to foster dialog between Jews and Christians.

vishniacWritten in three parts, To Be Certain of the Dawn opens with the blowing of the shofar and the traditional prayer, Sh’ma Israel, followed by the chorus singing in effect the intent of the Nostra Aetate. The second part of the composition, called “Remembrance,” is a collection of songs and blessings whose lyrics were inspired by photographs taken by Roman Vishniac of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust while storm clouds were looming. This section ends with the haunting “Hymn to the Eternal Flame,” recalling both the children’s memorial at the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem and the ages-old image of “God with us” as a flame.

In the final part, “Visions,” Mr. Browne wrote in 2008, “. . . we hear several themes in layers: Jews and Christians desiring to walk together ‘in the country of justice’ (wherever that may be found); B’Tselem Elohim, the Image of God, which suggests that the human face reflects the invisible face of God in the human world; the voices of the children. . . the voices of survivors; the return of the theme ‘You should love your neighbour as yourself’, and the sounding of the shofar, with which we began.”

During the performance, slides of some of Mr. Vishniac’s photographs of children were screened. For me, the moment of tears came as soloist Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek sang “I don’t want to live in a world without children” as a picture of several smiling children appeared. One had to wonder how many of them survived the Holocaust.

Unbeknownst to staff at the time, a child survivor of the Holocaust was in the audience. A friend of the survivor wrote me that the gentleman, now 82, was a hidden child in Belgium. He and his brother were taken in by a Christian family with 12 children of their own. He and his brother said good-bye to their parents not knowing they would never see them again.

“(He) does not make a display of his story,” the friend wrote. “He said that he seldom attends events like last night. We were not aware ahead of time of what the evening held in store, except for the Bernstein.


“He was one of those little boys.

“(He) arrived in the USA with 2 garments that had stars attached, both now donated to museums.

“You never know the power and impact of music, or the effects of weeks of hard work and preparation.

“Last night you made an impact on one old man who had lost everything and almost everyone who was dear to him in the Holocaust.”

“We honored them tonight.”

I was not the only person there seeing the relevance of the piece to the political climate in this country and the violent rhetoric of the Republican candidate.

I was not the only one re-dedicating myself to the command to love my neighbor as myself regardless of religion, ethnicity, race, gender identity and sexual preference.

And I am sure I was not the only one re-orienting myself to the struggle for peace and justice for all.

Read more about Roman Vishniac and view the US Holocaust Museum’s collection at