How does a church musician’s son, now a prominent American composer, weave Jewish themes into a major choral work?
That was the challenge facing Thomas Beveridge, artistic director of the New Dominion Chorale, when 20 years ago he set about composing the Yizkor Requiem, an internationally acclaimed choral work that brings Jewish and Christian traditions together in a powerful prayer of thanksgiving and hope for life eternal following the death of a loved one.
Beveridge grew up in New York City, where his father was the organist and choirmaster at Columbia University Chapel, and later a professor at Virginia Theological Seminary. Tom’s musical gifts were evident from age five, when he began sitting at the piano and composing. Soon after, his father began teaching him to read music, and he began his singing career as soprano soloist at Trinity Chapel. These two callingsundefinedcomposer and singerundefinedhave continued throughout his career, leading to his major contributions to the musical life of Washington over the past decades as composer, performer, and conductor.
His gifts were nurtured by several influential mentors. In addition to his father, who was his earliest musical influence, his mentors include his teachers at Northfield Mount Hermon School and Harvard, where he was a music major. They nurtured his compositions and helped him begin publishing them. In this period of his life, he also began singing as a professional baritone soloist in many places, discovering a way to support himself and his career as a composer.
His most important musical mentor--Nadia Boulanger, the famous French teacher of so many American musical giants--arrived at Harvard in 1958 to conduct the Harvard choir. At this event, Tom Beveridge was the soloist, and she learned of his compositions. She invited him to study composition with her at the Fontainebleau Conservatory, which he did for two summers. He says that for the first time, after studying with her, he began to employ the right amount of discipline and structure to his work, without sacrificing vitality and innovation.
At the time of his college graduation in 1959, the Korean War was over and the buildup to Vietnam had not yet begun. While the draft existed, the chances of getting called up were low but real. When a draft notice did arrive, Beveridge immediately signed up for the U.S. Army Chorus, which brought him to the Washington, D.C. area, where he has lived and worked ever since.
Membership in the Army Chorus brought stability of income, benefits, and time for composition. Some of his musical friends thought he was crazy for continuing as a military professional, but that role allowed him time for many other endeavors. After retiring from the army, he took up choral conducting, forming his own choral groups, the New Dominion Chorale and the National Men’s Chorus. He has also served as Director of Choral Activities at George Mason University, as Chorus Master of the Washington National Opera, and on the faculty of the Levine School of Music. He has been organist and choir director of Western Presbyterian Church in Foggy Bottom for the past 18 years. As a self-identified “practical artist,” he saw that these jobs could provide him with a built-in opportunity to showcase his choral compositions.
His wide-ranging performance career exposed him to a variety of religious traditions. While raised in a Christian family, he never fully embraced Christianity. Inspired by his father, who studied and was open to the messages of many faiths, Tom was very ecumenical in his beliefs and spiritual practices. In addition to his Christian heritage, he learned a great deal about Judaism as a paid singer in many different synagogues. As his father had done, he studied Hebrew and learned the close connection between the texts and messages of both faith traditions.
It is thus not surprising that, after his parents died, he chose to honor them by composing the Yizkor Requiem in their memory. The text comes from the Jewish memorial service, and those words are intertwined with the words of the Requiem mass that forms the basis of many well-known choral works such as the Verdi and Mozart requiems. Beveridge did not use all of the Catholic mass text, but chose those portions that were most compelling to him (leaving out the Dies Irae, for example, as contrary to his own beliefs). The importance of the Jewish portions to the composer cannot be over-emphasized. When asked about the single most important factor in a successful performance of the Yizkor Requiem, Beveridge replies that it is the choice of a Jewish cantor as the tenor soloist. For an optimal performance, the cantor must be free to improvise and let the voice soar to emotional heights.
We invite you to attend a performance of this important workundefinedpremiered in 1994 and performed regularly in a variety of settings since that timeundefinedon April 7 at 4 pm at the Schlesinger Center in Alexandria (tickets available at www.newdominion.org). The program also includes several psalm settings by Felix Mendelssohn, a composer who was also very comfortable with both Jewish and Christian traditions. The day of the performance has special meaning as Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom HaShoah).