Could Joseph have a stutter?

April 10, 2006

page from

Page 8 from the sketches for “Hebzibah” by Roger Bourland

People often ask composers: “What comes first? The melody or the words?” For me, the words always come first. Many lyricists enjoy writing to an existing tune, many hate it. For this teeny “opera” or maybe I’ll call it a chamber opera (3 voices, violin, cello, and piano) I am continuing Nadia Boulanger’s mandate for the grand line, of which page 8 appears above. Yes, I compose with pencil, but then after I have the foreground/melody it goes right into Sibelius (music notation program). Having the melody stretched out creates a kind of scaffolding in time across the work. There are often little blank measures with squiggles, meaning “put something in here…”

In this story, Mary is carrying the infant Jesus on the donkey, Hepzibah, and Joseph is walking by their side. Here is my question: Joseph hardly has much material. I mean, I can add stuff like “she’s right” and so on. But it occurred to me that it might be amusing to have Joseph have a stutter. He has a bit more character, is more human, and is different from the other two characters. Now, according to Christian faith, Joseph is NOT the biological father of Jesus, so this shouldn’t be disrespectful. Or is it?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

twarner April 10, 2006 at 6:17 pm

Because I obviously don’t know the themes you are going for in this opus, it’s hard to say whether it’s disrespectful. Joseph is a minor character in every Christmas narration I’ve ever read (or heard), including the several in the Bible itself. I’m not sure, therefore, why you’d want to shine a light on him by setting him up with such an interesting (musically speaking) characteristic as a stutter. If you want to do this in order to make him seem less than a man or somehow more minor, then I don’t think it’s disrespectful but I do think that it wouldn’t be the most effective way to go about it.

Let us know what you end up doing!

citrus April 10, 2006 at 7:13 pm

To much of Christianity, Joseph is the biological father of Jesus. The conservatives would have a fit.

I think you should let him fit quietly and unobtrusively into the background, as the New Testament stories do.

It would also be a delicate balance to keep from being offensive to stutterers and people who love them.

It’s just a tad cutesy for my taste. I think I would be irritated rather than amused.


pucks_soul April 11, 2006 at 4:58 pm

In reading your first post regarding this “chamber opera” the Donkey is the central character correct? I think it is interesting that in your treatment even the donkey gets a more respectable place in the history of the Flight into Egypt than the man credited with raising the christ child. That is just an observation Roger not a criticism, I think it is a very unique way in which to tell the story, and I could see this as being a breakout peice that has “legs” so to speak. The stutter could be seen as offensive by some, but stuttering is just one of the miriad of human conditions, so why not or he could just be hard of hearing since he was considered to be an old man and sing loudly to the other character’s annoyance. I can’t wait to hear this completed I am sure it will knock our socks off.

Roger Bourland April 14, 2006 at 9:43 am

pucks-soul: Thanks for your kind remarks. FYI, the whole story is by Thornton Wilder, so I have done nothing but add a word here and there and, with his nephew’s blessings, change a few words.

Citrus: this piece will, if I’m lucky, find its way into college opera workshops and should be perfect for young opera diva/os wannabes. In that Hepzibah has a HUGE role, he’s fine. Mary has a respectable amount of material to sing, but Joseph is really a very, very minor figure, so I’m looking for some legitimate way of augmenting what he has already. The stutter musically may really be no different than Handel’s [obnoxious to me] manner of setting text by repeating words and phrases over and over.

TW: point taken. Maybe as Citrus said, keep Joseph in a small role, which has traditionally been his role: a benevolent figure in the background. Thanks!

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