The Gates of Justice

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biblical, choral, jazz, 1969
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Dave Brubeck has always maintained that he wrote his second large-scale sacred composition The Gates of Justice (1969) to bring together—and back together—the Jewish people and American blacks. The natural bond forged between them during the civil rights movement in the early 1960s had weakened and was starting to break down by 1969, especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. As leadership became increasingly fragmented following that tragic loss, there were emerging anti-Semitic suggestions among spokesmen for some marginal black groups; mainstream Jewish commitment to the civil rights cause appeared to be cooling, especially as the focus of the struggle spread from the South to encompass northern cities; and the pursuit of common goals and mutual support were no longer so automatic. The continuing war in Vietnam was fueling political and generational divisions unparalleled in recent memory, and the growing and sometimes militant disruptions on university campuses appeared to symbolize a collective angst. It was a time of much anger, disaffection, fear, and distrust. Against the backdrop of that turbulent atmosphere, one of the largest and most influential American Jewish organizations invited Dave Brubeck to create a work underscoring and resurrecting the spiritual parallels between Jews and blacks and their common causes.

The Gates of Justice is a cantata based on biblical and Hebrew liturgical texts—together with quotations from Martin Luther King’s speeches, as well as from Negro spirituals and from the Jewish sage Hillel, and with lyrics by Brubeck’s wife, Iola, with whom he collaborated on this and other works. It was a joint commission by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC)—the lay umbrella association of Reform synagogues in the United States—and the College Conservatory of Music of the University of Cincinnati. During the exploratory discussions with the UAHC, Brubeck pointed to the explicit connection between the historical experience of the Jewish people and that of American blacks, and he expressed his conviction that both peoples possess traditional spiritual values with important meaning for contemporary society. The world premiere of The Gates of Justice was given at the fiftieth General Assembly of the UAHC on October 17, 1969, in Miami, Florida, preceded by a preview performance at the dedication of a new building at Rockdale Temple in Cincinnati. Nearly thirty years later, Brubeck still described its message as humanistic and universal, an echo of the prophetic calls in the Bible for social justice. And his belief in the common ground between American Jews and blacks was undiminished: “They were both enslaved, uprooted from their homelands and wandered in the diaspora,” he said in connection with a 1997 performance. “When I began exploring the music, I was thrilled to hear the similarities among Hebraic chant and spirituals and blues.” He has therefore suggested that wherever possible, the tenor role should be sung by a bona fide cantor and the baritone role by a black singer familiar with the sonorities and style of spirituals and blues.

—Neil W. Levin

Original program note, 1969

The essential message of The Gates of Justice is the brotherhood of man. Concentrating on the historic and spiritual parallels of Jews and American blacks, I hoped through the juxtaposition and amalgamation of a variety of musical styles to construct a bridge upon which the universal theme of brotherhood could be communicated. The soloists are composite characters. The cantor tenor, whose melodies are rooted in the Hebraic modes, represents the prophetic voice of Hebrew tradition. The black baritone, whose melodies stem from the blues and spirituals, is the symbol of contemporary man, and a reminder to men of all faiths that divine mandates are still waiting to be fulfilled.

The structure of the piece somewhat resembles a bridge; the interlacing of the improvisations, solos and choral responses are like the interweaving cables that span from anchoring piers. The piers are in the form of three related choral pieces (Parts II, VII, XII) based primarily upon texts from the Union Prayer Book and the Psalms. The first of these choruses, O Come Let Us Sing (II), written in rather traditional style with hints of the present in its harmonies and rhythms, is a call to worship. A complex of musical styles (jazz, rock, spirituals, traditional), just as a congregation is a mixture of individuals, Shout unto the Lord (VII) is a celebration. It expresses the ecstasy and release of communal joy. However, at its core is the sobering message from Martin Luther King, Jr., our contemporary prophet: “If we don’t live together as brothers, we will die together as fools.” In Part XII, Oh, Come Let Us Sing a New Song, the enumeration of the attributes of God in whose image we are created, is a reminder of man’s potential.

Quoting from King Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of his Temple, the cantor opens the cantata by presenting the work as an offering to God, and invokes His attention to the prayers of all people.

Because of their long history of suffering, Jews and American blacks know better than any other people the consequences of hate and alienation. It is impossible to concern oneself with the history and tradition of either without feeling overwhelmed by the inequities and injustices that have pervaded all strata of society. The spiritual and emotional ties, born of suffering, which bind these people together, have much to teach all of us on this shrinking planet. It is the strength of such moral fiber that will be our ultimate salvation.

The black baritone sings: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Psalm 118). The cornerstone for our survival in America as an ethical society is the acceptance of all minorities as equal, sharing members, integral to our entire social structure. Just as Isaiah drew a blueprint of how to build a society that would allow man to fulfill his dream, so Martin Luther King dramatized to the white conscience that it must erase injustice to redeem its own soul: Let the oppressed go free. Feed the hungry. Open doors to the poor and the cast-out. Shelter the homeless. Clothe the naked. And when men have fulfilled their obligation to each other, they will no longer need to ask: “Where is justice? Where is God?” It will be self-evident: “HERE I AM!”

Using the chorus as the voice of the people who have been pawns of history, I’ve tried dramatically to depict the awesome force of the unheard millions battering at the man-made barriers which have separated men from each other, and consequently from knowing the nature of God. The heart of the cantata is in the plea, demand, and exhortation…“Open the gates of justice!”

Many of our beleaguered cities were riot-torn when I began to set the text “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it; except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.” I wished there were some way to engrave this warning into the mind of every policy-maker, on every level from national defense systems to police enforcement.

The deeper my involvement in the composition, the more apparent it became that I was no longer thinking in terms of social justice, as evidenced in the histories of Jews and American blacks. Rather, through their unquenchable will to survive and to be free, I had been led inevitably to the more basic problem of man (universal and individual), his relationship to other men, and ultimately to God.

A paradoxical truth became shockingly clear. We call upon God in our distress. Yet the divine instrument capable of transforming society is man himself. One of the basic tenets of Judaism is that man can become God-like by the pursuit of holiness; and the answer to alienation is to realize that man is not separate from—but part of—God’s total creation. If only our minds could grasp this fact as well as do our cells that turn to dust!

The symbol of the newly awakened conscience of modern man, the baritone, asks the same question as the ancient psalmist: What is man? Both his glory and his curse are his unique position in the order of creation; but little lower than the angels, the blind forces of nature and the all-seeing eye of the divine are wrapped in mortal skin, within which is continually fought the relentless battle of good versus evil. Man is good. Slowly he is learning that the witless destruction of any part of creation is evil. Man is good. Although he has continually throughout history martyred his spiritual leaders, he still remembers and honors them, not their assassins. Man is good. From the beginning of time we have all shared in “a dream”—a vision of peaceful men and free men living as brothers. Have we not all one Father? If God created man in His image and likeness, surely He accepts all men in their diversity. Throughout the Old Testament there is reference to all generations. Overlaying texts from Isaiah, Martin Luther King, Hillel, the Psalms, and music from The Beatles, Chopin, Israeli, Mexican and Russian folksongs, Simon & Garfunkel, improvised jazz and rock, I wrote a collage of sound for the climactic section, The Lord Is Good.

When I completed writing The Gates of Justice, I found in Micah 6:8 a summation of my thinking: “It hath been told thee, O man, what is good and what the Lord doth require of thee: Only to do justice, and to love mercy and walk humbly with thy God.” Only?!!

—Dave Brubeck