The Firstborn, a verse drama by Christopher Fry, was produced by Roger Stevens in conjunction with the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, in tribute to the State of Israel’s tenth anniversary. The first public hearing of this choral work was given at an American Jewish Congress fund-raising dinner at the Essex House in New York City on April 22, 1958. The music was on tape, which was how it was presented during its Broadway run and, later, in Israel. Sets were by Boris Aronson. (The world premiere of the play, with music by John Hotchkis, was in 1948 at the Edinburgh Festival.) Fry’s play is set in Egypt at the time of the Exodus account of the plagues visited by God upon the Egyptians, including the death of the firstborn Egyptian males, which finally induced the pharaoh to declare the release of the Israelite slaves. Among the distinguished cast were Anthony Quayle (who directed and also played the role of Moses), Katharine Cornell, Torin Thatcher (as Seti, the pharaoh), Mildred Natwick, and Michael Wager, a close friend of the composer’s who persuaded Bernstein to write the music in the first place. In addition to the choral number, there was a solo song by the pharaoh’s daughter with lute accompaniment: “Teusret’s Song,” words by Fry, sung live by Kathleen Widdoes. The Israelite Chorus, based on incidents described in Exodus 12, is marked “allegro ruvido” (rude, noisy), which describes the piece precisely, with its choral canonic imitations in an Israeli hora-like dance rhythm, shofar-like horn calls, three sets of wild hand-drum rhythms, and a screaming clarinet at the end—a whoop of joy anticipating the freedom that lies ahead for the Hebrew slaves.
Sung in Hebrew
Text by the composer
Go, children of Israel, from Egypt to life.
Go toward the north, my brothers, to life.
Performers: Samuel Adler, Conductor; Rochester Singers
Publisher: Universal Polygram International Publishing