The Commandments


Based on Exodus 20:1-22
Music by Dave Brubeck

Notes from the Composer:
During World War II, I was a soldier in the 140th Infantry Regiment of Patton’s Army in the European Theater. As a soldier, almost overnight your thinking becomes far more directed toward philosophy, religion and survival. You are no longer that lighthearted individual that didn’t seem to have a care in the world. Some estimate that the number of people killed in World War II reached sixty million. My reasoning and understanding of religion led me to question how such inhumanity could exist among people who were basically grounded in one form or another in the Commandments of the Old Testament. All supposedly prayed to the same God. The more serious the conditions of the fighting, the more seriously I examined my own conscience. Were the Commandments to be taken literally, or not?

Although I was only a PFC, the Army had assigned me as bandleader, and I was in charge of a group of musicians, many of whom had been wounded and sent back from the front. If their records showed that they had once been musicians, they were sent to my band rather than redeployed to the front lines. It was our job to entertain the troops wherever they may be.

One day in early December, the Colonel in charge of the 17th Replacement Depot issued orders that I take the band “on a Cook’s Tour.” After driving a few miles we found a clearing in the woods where there were many G.I.s lining up in a chow line, so I had the drive stop the truck and we began to set up our instruments to play for these soldiers. Suddenly, a plane flew over us . Hardly anyone paid attention because at this time the German air force had almost stopped reconnaissance. Then, on the the G.I.s shouted “Hey! That’s a Germany plane, and he’ll be coming back!” Everyone scrambled away from the clearing to find a protected position. We hastily climbed back into our truck and drove out of there. As there were no maps of this section with us, we chose the road that seemed most traveled. Unfortunately it was now growing dark. Our truck was not allowed to turn on the lights. We came to a soldier directing traffic, who, using a dim hooded light, waved us through. As we passed him, I realized that he was wearing a German helmet. I told our driver to go over the hill, and when he reached a point where we could not be seen, to turn around and pass by the soldier again at full speed.

Within a few miles we were stopped at a checkpoint. Now we faced American soldiers who did not believe my story that we were a G.I. band. While they were deciding among themselves what to do with us, the questioner held hand grenades with the pins pulled. Finally, they asked me for the password and that got us through the line. They explained that many of their fellow soldiers had been killed right at this point by Germany soldiers who spoke perfect English, were in an American truck and wearing G.I. uniforms. This was the beginning of what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. We drove back to almost empty headquarters, and by listening to a German radio broadcast realized that we were surrounded, and according to Axis Sally, we had lost the war. I vowed that if I survived, someday I would write a composition examining the Commandments. I was not able to form my thoughts into a composition at that moment in time. It took me over sixty years to finally put into a composition what I felt all those years ago when it was clear that all sides of the war were breaking one or all of the Commandments.

When I was interviewed in the former Soviet Union in 1987, I talked about how the governments that were in conflict should start examining the basic tenets of their culture and that our government should spend a lot of effort in the study and application of the Commandments. When Paul Schwendener, producer from the Milken Foundation that funded the recording of my “Gates for Justice,” heard that I was composing a piece about the Commandments, he thought that it should be performed at Lincoln Center when the Jewish Heritage Foundation produced a concert of “The Gates of Justice.” I told him that I would like to know if the Commandments were part of the Islamic tradition, as well as the Jewish and Christian. Intrigued by the question, he read several books on the Koran but found no mention of the Commandments. One day he reported that he had finally found what I was looking for. In one of the books he studied, believers were told they must follow the laws of Moses. Realizing the three great monotheistic religions of the world held these basic tenets in common motivated me to complete “The Commandments,” a composition I had wanted to write so long ago.
(c) Dave Brubeck (January 2007)

First performance: September 14, 2005 at the Rose Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City
Sample Sheet Music

Program Notes