The Illustrated London News, 1876

On Tuesday 14 August 2018, VOX Cape Town contributed to the 90th birthday celebration of the life and music of local composer Thomas Rajna by performing his choral work “The Creation” at in the Baxter Concert Hall. The programme also included his “Three Hebrew Choruses”, sung by the Cape Town Youth Choir, and piano music played by Francois Botha and the composer himself.


The Hungarian-English pianist and composer, Thomas Rajna (b. 1928), studied composition and piano at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest (1944-1947), where his teachers were Kodaly, Veress, and Weiner. In 1947 he went to London on a scholarship to study with Howells and others at the Royal College of Music, graduating in 1952.

Thomas Rajna taught at the Guildhall School of Music from 1963 to 1967, and the University of Surrey from 1967 to 1970. He then emigrated to South Africa and settled in Cape Town with his family, and in 1970 was appointed a lecturer in piano at the University of Cape Town. He has two sons, David and Daniel and two daughters, Jessica and Trilby. He retired as an Associate Professor from the UCT College of Music in 1993.

As a pianist, Thomas Rajna excels in performances of 20th-century music. His own works assume a classical mould, with distinctly modern contents in harmony and counterpoint. Read more on Wikipedia.


This musical setting of James Weldon Johnson’s (1871-1938) poem, a naïve, captivatingly beautiful and vivid retelling by a preacher of the story of Genesis, incorporates the words and melodies of two Negro spirituals. These were chosen by the composer for their appropriate associations with the subject matter and were not part of Johnson’s original poem. The first, Wade in de waters, near the beginning, is heard after the words And the waters above the Earth / the cooling waters came down. The second, We all got a right to de tree of life, towards the end, is placed after the words Then into it He blew the breath of life.

The melodies of two more spirituals are woven into the music. The words applied to them are taken from Johnson’s poem. At the passage starting Then God walked around the melody of Never said a mumbalin’ word is used. At the section starting Up from the bed of of the river the tune of Ev’ry time I feel de spirit is heard.

Michael Tippett in his 1941 oratorio, A Child Of Our Time, also intersperses his work with spirituals. There they are used as universal equivalents in contemporary terms of Bach’s Passion chorales. In this Creation they are not a stylistic device, but part and parcel of the conception, just as they form an essential part of worship in a Negro congregation. Johnson’s God is not the stern and implacable Lord of the Old Testament, but a kindly and humble human-like being who is capable of getting lonely, claps his hands in joy, kneels in the dust to fashion the first human being and is thrilled by the fruits of his creative splurge.

The poem abounds in pictorial images and so has enabled the composer to create musical tone paintings to evoke the primeval Void,  and lines like “Darkness covered everything” (a mysterious fugue), “Then God smiled”, “He spat out the seven seas”, “Birds … split the air with their wings”, “Into it He blew the breath of life” and many others. For good measure the choir is asked to supply sound effects for  “He batted His eyes, and the lightnings flashed; / He clapped His hands, and the thunder rolled.” The work is in one continuous movement and the various sections follow each other in a symphonic flow.

Thomas Rajna, October 2006