Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Bruce Saylor

Committee Members

Jeff Nichols

David Schober

David Olan

Subject Categories

Composition | Music Theory


Hugo, Weisgall, opera, Esther, chorus


Hugo Weisgall is considered one of America’s most important opera composers. He invariably chose subject matter of high artistic or philosophical importance, composing operas that dealt with significant 20th-century moral, social, and philosophical issues. In writing his final opera, Esther, which the New York City Opera premiered in October, 1993, Weisgall was able to make a larger statement about his Jewish heritage, the history of Jewish persecution and ultimate survival. The dissertation suggests that we enter the music and meaning of the opera most deeply through a consideration and study of the Chorus. The Chorus’s roles are as essential as any single protagonist. Weisgall’s opera features the Chorus as an entity coming to terms with the more recent Jewish persecution. The Chorus also moves along the dramatic action and fills in historical and psychological background, rendering the choral music substantial to the dramatic power of the work. Dramatically, the consequences and actions of the story’s heroine are dependent on the existence of her people (Chorus). The Chorus also transmits Weisgall’s overarching message of Jewish preservation in the face of unyielding oppression.

The dissertation focuses on four aspects of Weisgall’s treatment of the Chorus: 1) the Chorus as representing the Jewish People; 2) a subset of Chorus members projecting a Group Character; 3) the Naming Role, where the Chorus names or describes singular identities, such as Esther; and 4) the Philosophical Commentator (essentially a Greek Chorus). Of the four choral functions discussed, the Jewish People Chorus emerges as providing the totality of Holocaust emotional experience, the choral pieces rendering various moods. In Act I, Scene 12, the Chorus portrays shock and fear of imminent genocide, the words “unassimilated,” “perverting society,” “exterminate,” “annihilate,” and “make our lands secure and peaceful,” speaking directly to 21st-century ears. In Act II, Scene 8, the Chorus projects the lamentation, wailing, and praying of the survival experience. Finally, in Act III, Scene 11, the statements of “forever” express eternal Jewish preservation despite constant persecution, most concretely for us, the 20th-century Holocaust. The notion of identity is a significant theme in the story of Esther and in its other two functions––oftentimes co-existing, projecting a Group Character and the Naming Role––the Chorus helped to amplify our understanding of the protagonists. The Chorus as Philosophical Commentator touches on the eternal at the opera’s conclusion.

While Weisgall’s highly chromatic music in Esther clearly resides within the world of the Second Viennese school––a constant throughout his career––the dissertation examines the importance of diatonicism to Weisgall’s musical language, which juxtaposes specific uses of chromaticism and diatonicism to illustrate dramatic moments and to contrast or support the inner development of the protagonists or the Chorus. Weisgall consistently bases musical choices on the exigencies of the drama; therefore, his use of chromaticism underlies the Holocaust experience of terror and extinction and, by contrast, his diatonicism captures survival and preservation. While Weisgall’s sound world cannot be explained by an overall centricity of pitch or a referential collection, he employs rotating diatonic collections, reoccurrences of diatonic subsets, and the reiteration of particular pitch classes.