Composers Datebook®

Harbison's "Flight into Egypt"

John Harbison (b. 1938) — Flight into Egypt (Cantata Singers and Ensemble; David Hoose, cond.) New World 80395

Composer's Datebook - November 21, 2021


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November 21, 2021


On today’s date in 1986, at the New England Conservatory of Music, a new choral work by the American composer John Harbison received its premiere performance. Scored for soprano, baritone, chorus, and chamber orchestra, it was entitled “The Flight into Egypt,” and would win the Pulitzer Prize for Music the following year.

The text for Harbison’s cantata is taken from the Gospel of Matthew describing the Holy Family’s escape into Egypt after the birth of Jesus and King Herod’s subsequent slaughter of all newborn male children in an attempt to kill this prophesied threat to his throne.

“The Flight,” recalled Harbison, “began in a conversation with colleagues about Christmas texts. We talked about counseling experiences during Christmas season at Emmanuel Church, Boston, where we were all involved as musicians – a time when need, isolation, and anxiety increase. We agreed that the darker side of Christmas needs representation, especially now, as the distance widens between the privileged and the less fortunate.

“At the beginning of The Flight into Egypt,” Harbison continues, “is an oboe melody, exotic and forlorn, imitated by the other reed players … the piece constantly hides and reveals its loyalty to the first oboe melody that guides the whole journey.”

Music Played in Today's Program

John Harbison (b. 1938) — Flight into Egypt (Cantata Singers and Ensemble; David Hoose, cond.) New World 80395

On This Day


  • 1852 - Spanish guitarist and composer Francisco Tárrega, in Villarreal, Castellon;

  • 1877 - German composer and organist Sigfrid Karg-Elert, in Oberndorf-am-Neckar;

  • 1931 - Australian composer Malcolm Williamson, in Sydney;


  • 1695 - English composer Henry Purcell, age 36, in Westminster, London;

  • 1710 - Italian composer Bernardo Pasquini, age 72, in Rome;

  • 1938 - Polish-born American piano virtuoso and composer Leopold Godowsky, age 68, in New York City;

  • 1974 - Swiss composer Frank Martin, age 84, in Naarden, Holland;


  • 1723 - Bach: Sacred Cantata No. 70 ("Wachet! Betet! Betet! Wachet!") performed on the 26th Sunday after Trinity as part of Bach's first annual Sacred Cantata cycle in Leipzig (1723/24);

  • 1831 - Meyerbeer: opera, "Robert le Diable," at the Paris Opéra;

  • 1896 - Dvorák: symphonic poem "The Noonday Witch," Op. 108, in London;

  • 1901 - R. Strauss: opera "Feuersnot" (Fire Famine), in Dresden at the Hofoper, conducted by Ernst von Schuch;

  • 1935 - Stravinsky: Concerto for Two Pianos, the composer and his son as soloists;

  • 1937 - Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5, by Leningrad Philharmonic, Yevgeny Mravinsky conducting;

  • 1939 - Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6, by Leningrad Philharmonic, Yevgeny Mravinsky conducting;

  • 1941 - Hindemith: Symphony in Eb, by the Minneapolis Symphony, Dimtri Mitropoulos conducting;

  • 1945 - Britten: String Quartet No. 2 in C, Op. 36, in London, by the Zorian Quartet;

  • 1947 - Persichetti: Symphony No. 3, by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducting;

  • 1974 - Peter Mennin: Symphony No. 8, Daniel Barenboim conducting New York Philharmonic;

  • 1984 - Gunther Schuller: "Concerto Quarterino" for flute, oboe, trumpet & orchestra, Zubin Mehta conducting New York Philharmonic, which commissioned it;

  • 1986 - John Harbison: cantata "The Flight into Egypt," at the New England Conservatory of Music, with soprano Lorraine Hunt, baritone John Osborne, and the Camerata Singers, David Hoose conducting; This work won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1987;

  • 1989 - Michael Torke: “Rust” for piano and winds, at the Huddersfield (U.K.) Contemporary Music Festival, by the Orkest de Volharding;

  • 1996 - George Perle: "Transcendental Modulations," Jahja Ling conducting New York Philharmonic, a 150th anniversary commission;