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Author: Elaine Strauss. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 15, 2000. All rights reserved.

Jonah, with a Visual Twist: Princeton Pro Musica

Composer Dominick Argento looked at a picture of the

15th-century ceiling painting of the Jonah story from the church in

Harkebarga, Sweden, not far from Stockholm, and was riveted. One panel

of the Albertus Pictor mural shows four men in a small boat throwing

the reluctant prophet overboard; another shows Jonah disgorged after

spending three days in the belly of the whale God sent to swallow

him. Excited, Argento realized that the Jonah being tossed into the

sea was long-haired, unshaven, and fully clothed, while the Jonah

spat out onto dry land was naked, beardless, and bald. It embodied

what Argento called "a blithe disregard for time and space."

"That kind of innocence and whimsy appealed to me," says Argento,

interviewed by telephone from his home in Minneapolis. "I like

that lack of chronology. Jonah’s going in fully clothed and with hair.

Coming out, three days later, everything has been digested by the

whale. He’s bald, he has no beard, and his hands are folded in prayer.

It gave me the idea of putting many things together."

The main source of Argento’s "Jonah" is an anonymous alliterative

14th century English manuscript, which Argento himself translated

into modern English. In addition, he draws on the Biblical account,

Latin liturgical texts, 18th century songs of seafarers, work songs,

and Protestant hymns. "It’s a macaronic text," he says. "There

are a lot of different styles crammed together." Argento wrote

the piece in 1973.

Princeton Pro Musica presents the hour-long oratorio Saturday, March

18, at 8 p.m. at the Princeton Alliance Church in Plainsboro. Frances

Fowler Slade, Pro Musica’s founder and music director, conducts. Tenor

Scott McCoy sings Jonah. Bass-baritone Kevin Deas is the voice of

God; Paul R. Reilly narrates, with chorus members Patricia Conrad

and Raymond Ayers also singing solos.

The new church, at the intersection of Scudders Mills and Schalks

Crossing roads, east of U.S. 1, is the design of architect George

Myers of Princeton. Inaugurated last year, it seats 1,000 and has

multimedia facilities. A visual telling of the Jonah story through

slide projections accompanies the musical version of the story. Stephen

Zorochin has designed the slide show, which is based on medieval portrayals

of the Jonah story from the internationally-known Index of Christian

Art at Princeton University.

Interviewed by telephone from her home in Skillman, Slade says, "This

is the first time we are trying to do something like this. Formerly,

it never occurred to us to do anything but listen. People now are

so visually oriented. Dare I make the allusion to MTV?" PPM’s

last performance of the work, in 1989, was music only.

A 6:45 p.m. symposium at the church precedes the performance. Participants

are the Reverend Richard A. Kunz of All Saints Church, Princeton;

Brooke Lester, a Ph. D. student at Princeton Theological Seminary;

Rabbi David Silverman of the Jewish Center of Princeton; and Lynn

Ransom (same name as the conductor of Voices, but not the same person),

of Princeton’s Index of Christian Art.

"`Jonah’ starts seriously, but within five minutes you’re hearing

sea shanties sung by sailors on the ship." Argento says. "I

don’t mind doing a religious piece, but I’m not keen on solemnity

or pomposity. You make the same point with laughter."

Conscious of the parallel between Jonah’s three days inside the whale,

and the three days between Christ’s death and reincarnation, Argento

draws on a wealth of threes. The piece is scored for three instrumental

groups, each of which has three individual members: a trio of trombones,

a trio of percussionists and a trio of instruments with pedals (organ,

piano, and harp). "In the middle of the piece, when Jonah is on

the ship, and God orders the whale to approach, there is the most

beautiful musical interlude I could have written," Argento says.

"It’s played by three trombones, accompanied by a harp. The three

trombones represent the voice of God."

"There are lots of threes," Argento continues. "At the

end the three trombones play a hymn that’s in three flats; it’s in

triple time, and there are even six-measure phrases — two times

three. There are three kinds of triads [three-note chords]. I look

for connections and links. You don’t have to know this when you listen.

This is what I do for myself. It doesn’t mean a blessed thing to the


In retrospect, I realize that I might have argued with Argento about

the effect of musical construction on the listener. From my observations,

a hidden agenda of the type he describes provides musical coherence

to a piece, even if the listener is not aware of the secret structure.

The "rightness" in the sound of certain passages in Bach and

Beethoven is often due to the fact that material heard with the melody

in its original order is reworked with the tune played backwards,

upside down or inside out. The family resemblance between the two

versions provides unity.

Argento chalks up his penchant for covertness in his

musical compositions to his having been a cryptographer in the army,

and adds, "I read English mysteries. I like to solve puzzles.

I liked creating puzzles in my compositions." His voice has an

uncanny resemblance to Will Shortz, New York Times crossword puzzle

editor and the puzzlemaster on National Public Radio’s Weekend Sunday


Argento was born in York, Pennsylvania, in 1927, the oldest of three

children in a family that he says was not musical. His sister teaches

English literature. His brother is a computer programmer.

Drafted in 1945, Argento was found to have an aptitude for cryptography,

and was sent to Africa. There he took music lessons and heard his

first opera, "Rigoletto," which was put on with ragtag forces

by Italian refugees who had fled to Eritrea, formerly an Italian colony.

After his army service Argento entered Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory

as a piano major. At the end of his first year, his harmony teacher,

Nicolas Nabokov, steered him in the direction of composition. Following

his graduation in 1951 Argento studied composition with Luigi Dallapiccola

while in Florence on a Fulbright grant. His other mentors include

Hugo Weisgall and Henry Cowell at Peabody. The appeal of Florence

has made it the destination for Argento’s six sabbaticals and for

40 summer stays.

Argento learned Italian on a sink-or-swim basis during a one-month

course at the University of Perugia on his first visit to Italy. "I

had a wonderful professor," he says. "He was a 90-year-old

man with white hair and two mistresses. He never spoke a word of English.

We finally figured out that he was telling us there are five basic

questions: What is it called? What shape does it have? What color

is it? What purpose does it serve? And what does it cost? If you can

ask these and understand the answers, you’ve got a good hold on the


Returning to the United States, Argento studied for a master’s degree

at Peabody, where he met his future wife, soprano Carolyn Bailey.

To her he attributes his interest in the human voice. "She’s such

a wonderful singer. I wrote a concerto for soprano as my Ph.D. thesis

[at Rochester’s Eastman School of Music]. She convinced me what the

voice could do. The voice is a representation of humanity. All the

instruments do essentially the same thing. They sing. But the voice

can do words at the same time."

Argento taught theory and composition at Eastman, and in 1958 he joined

the faculty of the department of music at the University of Minnesota,

where he taught until 1997.

The bulk of Argento’s output reflects his interest in the voice and

in texts. His more than a dozen operas have been performed in the

United States and in Europe. His opera "Postcard from Morocco,"

directed by Albert Takazauckas, (U.S. 1, July 7, 1999) transported

Opera Festival of New Jersey audiences last summer to a surreal, tropical

environment where questions of personal identity, presented in dramatic

vocal form, gripped an enthusiastic audience.

His song cycles are almost as numerous as his operas. He received

a Pulitzer prize in 1975 for his song cycle "From the Diary of

Virginia Woolf." Argento is also sought out as an instrumental

composer. He is now composer laureate to the Minnesota Orchestra,

a lifetime appointment.

Argento’s most recent work is a song cycle for Miss Manners, the syndicated

newspaper columnist. "She and her husband live in Washington,

D.C., and are great opera lovers," Argento explains. "She

told her husband that I was her favorite living composer, and he asked

me to write a song cycle secretly for her 60th birthday. At first

I declined; it seemed like a flaky idea. But he was persistent. He

sent me columns, and a book. I found words like `opera,’ and `ballet’

in the index; she wrote about how to behave at musical events."

Argento ended up writing a seven-song cycle, which Phyllis Pancella,

Miss Manners’ favorite singer, performed at the Cosmos Club for the

birthday celebration. Not yet published, the piece is nevertheless

in demand, as Pancella continues to perform it, and word gets around.

Argento is currently working on a piece commissioned for the dedicatory

service of a new basilica in Orleans, on Cape Cod, in June. He has

had to cancel some commissions because of time he lost in a chain

of heart operations in the fall, which he readily talks about. Healthy

now, Argento says, "I probably talk about them more than people

want to hear. It’s the idea that you survived and beat the system.

I was in Florida last week; that was the final punctuation point."

Argento’s plate of obligations is relatively lean just now. "I

have the luxury of looking around at the moment," he says. "I’m

still recovering; you could say I was lying fallow."

Curiously, this man of words and music happens to choose a visual

term — looking around — to describe his state. But maybe it’s

not so strange. It was something visual that led him to write "Jonah."

And, without discussing it with Argento, conductor Slade has put the

visual back into Argento’s "Jonah" for her current multimedia

production of the work.

— Elaine Strauss

Jonah and the Whale, Princeton Pro Musica, Princeton

Alliance Church, Scudders Mill and Schalks Crossing Roads, 609-683-5122.

A multi-media performance with pre-concert panel presentation at 6:45

p.m. Single admissions $30; group rate $10. Saturday, March 18,

8 p.m.

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