The Children of God, subtitled An Oratorio on the Brotherhood of Man, is a stirring piece of work composed by Normand Lockwood and compiled by Dr. Clara Chassel Cooper. The oratorio was originally intended as a tribute for the Berea College’s 100th anniversary, but due to delays in the development of the oratorio it was not performed until two years after Berea’s Centennial. The world premiere for this piece, performed by members of the Berea College Community trained by Rolf Hovey and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, was held in the Cincinnati Music Hall under the direction of Thor Johnson on the 1st and 2nd of February 1957. Later that year the complete oratorio was performed at Berea College on May 15, 1957.
The complete work consists of two parts. Part One – "Am I My Brother’s Keeper?", is based on a series of selections from the Old Testament. It portrays the development of the concept of brotherhood through stories such as the creation of man, Cain and Abel, and Ruth. It also demonstrates the meaning of brotherhood through the messages given by the prophets. Part Two – "Who is my Neighbor?", is based on a string of selections from the New Testament expounding on brotherhood from the emphasis on brotherly love as the test of discipleship and a condition of eternal life, through the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles.
The final edition of the Children of God utilized a total of 287 verses from the Bible. It is written to last approximately an hour and a half. The orchestra is meant to lead a supporting role, and was seldom heard alone without the voices of the choir. The chorus is used to answer or emphasize statements made by the five soloists. Near the end of the second act is a place for a children’s choir to sing.
The oratorio Children of God was first conceived in the mind of Dr. Clara Chassell Cooper, Chairman of the Department of Psychology. She was first inspired, December 14, 1952 while listening to a performance of Handel’s "Messiah" by the Harmonia Society of Berea College and the Eastern Kentucky State College Chorus presented in Union Church. She had recently received a Revised Standard Version of the Bible by a friend for Christmas and as she listened to Handel’s masterpiece, based on the King James Version of the Bible, it occurred to her that an oratorio based on the Revised Standard Version could give a modern voice to the tradition of presenting biblical texts through music. Later that evening it dawned on her that the Centennial Celebration for Berea College was coming up, and that an oratorio on brotherhood would be an excellent way to celebrate its journey. Berea College has placed a great deal of emphasis on brotherhood considering the College’s motto “God hath made of one blood all peoples of the earth.”
Encouraged by her husband and Professor George S. Noss from the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Berea Dr. Cooper embarked on her journey to construct the libretto for her newly inspired oratorio. George S. Noss was able to provide insight in helping her find suitable verses for her project. When she had difficulty finding verses pertaining to brotherhood he suggested that she try the word “neighbor” opening a whole new selection of scriptures to work with.
By January 1953 she had spent approximately fifty hours on piecing together a libretto. She said of her work, “It has been a most rewarding experience, thus to go to the Bible with a fresh insight, to seek and find, with full confidence that my search for the message of brotherhood inherent in the Biblical text would not fail.” By the middle of January she had typed up the general outline of the entire project along with passages for the introductory portions.
Dr. Cooper did not receive the desired enthusiasm from vice president of Berea College, Dr. Weatherford, who was placed in was of the Berea Centennial for her idea of a new. He was at that time entirely engaged with his own plans for the Berea Centennial involving an outdoor drama portraying a dramatic history of the College and people of Southern Appalachia. He had already received approval from the Board of Trustees and it was to be the major event of the Centennial Year. To pull off this project Weatherford was placed with the responsibility of raising enough funding for the project which involved the creation of an outdoor theater. It is not surprising he did not prove to be receptive to another idea for the Centennial also requiring considerable financing.
Fortunately she found more encouragement and enthusiasm from Rolf Hovey head of the Music Department and Eleanor Gruman, instructor in Organ. Both promised to help in any way they could. In the fall of 1953 she explained her plans for an oratorio to Mr. Theos Cronk, business manager for the Centennial Drama. He loved the idea and immediately began envisioning the oratorio played on the radio and even a performance broadcasted on television. He went to New York in search for financial backing for the project. On November 30, 1953 the preliminary edition of the Children of God: An Oratorio on the Brotherhood of Man was published, and on December 2, 1953 it was copyrighted. In June 1954, the National Council of Churches revealed interest in Cooper’s oratorio, and she received active support from a number of persons associated with that organization, particularly Rev. S. Franklin Mack, Executive Director of the Broadcasting and Film Commission, and Dr. Marvin P. Halverson, Executive Director of the Department of Worship and the Arts. Approximately $3000 in financial support was provided overall.
The commissioning of the work was placed in the capable hands of Dr. Thor Johnson, Director of the Cincinnati Orchestra. He described the commissioning as “The first step in a long range plan to bring church values into a formative influence on all music. By assuming the role of music patron, the churches can reach the widest possible audience in auditoriums and on the air.”
In January 1956, Norman Lockwood expressed interest in undertaking the commission for composing the music for the Children of God oratorio, including both the piano-vocal and orchestral score. He lived in Laramie, Wyoming during that time and began composing the work thousands of miles away from where the idea had originated. Despite the distance Dr. Cooper remained very much involved in the progress of the oratorio. In fact, at times she was too involved in Norman Lockwood’s opinion. In a letter to Dr. Halverson, the coordinator of the project for the National Council, Lockwood complained about the constant suggestions and pestering of Dr. Cooper and her advisors saying, “The football game does not proceed during huddles! Moreover I wonder if it occurs to these huddlers what they are doing to the composer, with all these vacillating, theorizing and semantics. It has wasted a great deal of my time in the face of other responsibilities and commitments in my overall composing program.” Normand Lockwood completed the Children of God in a matter of months.
In late September Dr. Hovey set up fliers calling for volunteers to try-out for a place in the choir to sing the newly written Oratorio at the World Premiere in Cincinnati. He was highly pleased to see each of the eight Appalachian states served by Berea represented including: North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and of course Kentucky. They practiced two to three times a week for fourteen weeks. None of the rehearsals lasted over an hour and twenty minutes. Dr. Thor Johnson, who was to be the conductor for the occasion made several trips to Berea for rehearsals and preparation for their performance in Cincinnati. At the final rehearsal before the performance Berea presented their conductor, Dr. Thor Johnson, with a solid cherry rocking chair made by the hands of Berea students, as a token of their appreciation for his hard work.
On February 1st and 2nd 1957 the Children of God was performed for the first time in the Cincinnati Music Hall. A diverse body of approximately one hundred voices of not only students but also members of the teaching staff, secretaries, doctors and nurses, a few farm hands, and even a labor superintendent performed on this grand occasion under the direction of Thor Johnson. The five soloists performing were: Marcelle Bolman (soprano), Shirley Delp (contralto), Franklin Bens (tenor), Edgar Keenon (baritone), and the acclaimed Donald Gramm (bass). In order to condense the hour and a half long oratorio into an hour long section in the program they only performed Part I of the oratorio.
The oratorio was broadcast on the radio for the first time February 17, 1957. That following Sunday it was broadcast across the country from New York to California. Many found the Children of God to be an inspiring piece of work. After hearing the oratorio on the radio a woman Stanford, California, wrote to Norman Lockwood saying, “Last Sunday I heard the beautiful oratorio The Children of God – Never have I heard anything more beautiful – nor has musical interpretation given me as deep a spiritual experience.”
The complete oratorio was premiered at Berea College May 15, 1957. Dr. Hovey put up fliers advertising this event saying, “Children of God is American in idealism, the music is of our century, the thought is one of the most insistent of our age. This is an unparalleled opportunity for all music lovers to hear the premiere of a musical work of this distinction is a privilege not often realized in a community outside a large city.” Added to the choir for this performance was a group of forty children trained by Miss Loraine Edwards to sing near the end of the oratorio’s Part 2.
Criticism and Praise
After the Children of God was premiered in Cincinnati it received much attention from the critics. There were some very harsh reviews from the Cincinnati critics. Eleanor Bell from the Cincinnati Post wrote, “Normand Lockwood’s oratorio Children of God of which Part I was performed, struck me as being pompous and uninspired, of no particular style or individuality, not big enough for a rousing concert hall show nor small enough for a church program.” Arthur Darack from The Cincinnati Enquirer called it, “a bit stiff in its sentiment and a trifle awkward like a person at a solemn occasion who is called upon to speak though he is not accustomed to making speeches.”
Other critics felt that the harsh criticisms made against Children of God were undeserved. Louis John Johnen from the Musical Courier in New York wrote, “’Am I My Brother’s Keeper?’ is a work of great strength, filled with melodic beauty and reverence. It is lofty in concept and deeply moving in effect. On the debit side may be cited the lack of sustained power and the fact that the oratorio is not always grateful to its soloists […] The 100 voice Berea Oratorio Choir carefully trained and attentive to every nuance and detail of diction, did its work well.”
However, no matter what the critics said, Children of God made a largely positive impact on the audience. In fact, the director of the London, England, New Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Sherman, husband of pianist Gina Bachauer, was so moved by the piece that he asked permission to perform it the following year in London. Another instance demonstrating the success of the performance occurred when Dr. Cooper received a letter from the Singing City in Philadelphia, an organization in contact with 75 choirs in that city and direct access to the director to the Philadelphia Orchestra, requesting an examination copy of the music for the Children of God so that they might perform the piece as well.
After the Children of God was performed in Berea on May 15, 1957, The Courier Journal from Louisville, Kentucky wrote, “Despite the harsh reviews of the Cincinnati music critics, Children of God has attracted the interest of other critics and musicians in and outside this country.” It also said, “The work is neither grand nor elegant, as is Handel’s style, nor gentle, as is Mendelssohn’s. It is generally homey, and admirably fitted to the resources of a college campus, and tailored, I suspect, for that very use. As such it is eminently successful.”
Overall the oratorio Children of God was a huge success. It would not have been made possible without the persistent work of Dr. Clara Chassell Cooper. She was not a musician and claimed to be unable to even carry a tune, but without her creative mind and work ethic the Children of God never would have even come into existence. When naming her sources of inspiration Dr. Cooper said, “ In compiling this libretto…my inspiration has stemmed from at least four sources: the Biblical text itself, with its message of brotherhood, regardless of version; the spiritual uplift of Handel’s The Messiah, with its effective use of Biblical passages; the faithfulness of my parents in the practice of daily scripture reading in the home, and finally, the faith and courage of the founders of Berea College, who sought to put into practice their interpretation of the Biblical teaching of the brotherhood of man, even at the risk of their lives.”
The Children of God gave Berea College, particularly the Music Department, an opportunity to shine. The organ instructor Eleanor Gruman called the oratorio “the greatest thing that has ever happened to the Music Department at Berea College.” Dr. Thor Johnson in a letter wrote, “The oratorio will always remain as a richly rewarding experience on the part of all of us who were in some way responsible for its launching.”