Composers Row: (from left to right) Gerald Shapiro,
Robert Carl, Neely Bruce and Ken Steen at the Mitchell College
performance of Bruce's "The Bill of Rights: Ten Amendments in Eight
Motets." Shapiro is a professor of music at Brown University, where he
is chair of the music department. Carl is chair of the composition
department at The Hartt School, University of Hartford. Bruce is a
professor music at Wesleyan University. Steen is an associate professor
of composition and music theory at The Hartt School.
Connecticut, U.S.A. – It
is unusual, to say the least, to set a
government document to music.
But composer Neely
Bruce pulled it off, when
a packed audience at the historic Pequot Chapel at Mitchell College gave him a
standing ovation after a spirited
performance of “The Bill of Rights:
Ten Amendments in Eight Motets.”
Bruce used a
variety of compositional techniques to make the piece work, including mirroring
the style of music with the specific text that is sung at the same
In the part that
covers the amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment, there are “cruel
and unusual dissonances that will punish your ears,” Bruce quipped,
in his introductory remarks to the audience.
Bruce said a
conversation with the late
composer Henry Brant prompted him to write this unusual piece.
The two composers
liked to walk and talk together, Bruce said. On one walk in 2005, Brant, who was
then 90 years old, stopped him and
asked, “Neely, what can we, as
composers, do about the current political situation?”
In response, Bruce
decided to put the Bill of Rights to music.
He said he
was distressed by a survey on
the future of the First Amendment. The study, done by the University of
Connecticut and commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation,
showed that about a third of American youth believe that the First Amendment
goes too far and that the press has too much freedom.
Bruce said that he
sat down to write at Brant’s home in Santa
Barbara, California, and “in a day
and a half,” he had finished the First Amendment.
Despite what some might
think, Bruce said putting the Bill of
Rights to music was not difficult.
“It was very easy
to write,” Bruce said.
Bruce wants high
school students to sing the full
“Once you sing
something,” he said, “you remember it forever.”
20 performance of “The Bill of Rights” at Mitchell College was only the fourth
time the work was presented as a whole. The Mitchell College Singers made up
about half of the choir. Bruce and
his wife, Phyllis Bruce, also sang in the choir, which included soprano, alto,
tenor and bass parts, accompanied by organ and flute.
The large chorus
of more than 40 voices that night had an impact that a smaller group could not.
They sounded like the people of America, singing for their rights.
encourages performance of the
First Amendment portion of the piece by
making it available for free on his
He said there have been more than 60
performances of the First Amendment.