Listen: The Lost Son

Excerpt from The Lost Son

From the archival recording of the world premiere, performed by the Indianapolis Children's Choir under the direction of Henry Leck.

An interview with Neal Harnly on the composition of The Lost Son

For information on performing this work or obtaining a perusal score, please contact SDG.



As the Lancaster Sunday News reported, Dr. Neal Harnly is a “man of music and medicine.” He graduated from The Juilliard School, where he studied composition with Vincent Persichetti, but later became intrigued by medicine after a medical missions trip to Honduras.

These days he manages to keep his feet in both camps by working part-time as a family practice physician at Norlanco Family Medicine in Elizabethtown, PA, balanced with dedicated time for composition. His instrumental and vocal works have been performed on the East and West coasts of the United States, as well as in France and Norway. In 2010, he orchestrated a new musical entitled Georgia O’Keefe: A Woman on Paper, written by Alisa Bair and Dina Soraya Gregory.

When not at the office or at home composing music, he continues to actively perform as pianist and accompanist, arranging and orchestrating, for Mount Joy Mennonite Church. He also serves on the board of the Lancaster Conservatory of Music and works with “No Longer Alone Ministries,” an organization of support and outreach to families touched by mental illness. For the last ten years, he has planned and performed an annual concert series for the organization, and performers from New York, California, and France have come to donate their musical gifts to the cause.



Alisa Bair, librettist for The Lost Son, is the author of the book A Table for Two, and the musical Georgia O’Keeffe: A Woman on Paper. A graduate of East Carolina University and NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, she is an active composer and writer. She also serves as Associate in Worship Ministries at First Presbyterian Church in Lancaster, PA.



Founded in 1986 by Artistic Director, Henry Leck, the Indianapolis Children's Choir program includes nearly 2,000 children from 19 Indiana counties. For most of its history, the ICC has been in residence on the campus of Butler University in Indianapolis where Mr. Leck is Director of Choral Activities. The eight performing choirs have children as young as fourth grade, from over 352 schools. The program also includes the Indianapolis Youth Chorale, a choir for high-school age teens, and First Steps in Music, an early childhood division for three- to five-year-olds.

The Lost Son

Neal Harnly
The Lost Son

Children’s chorus & chamber orchestra
(string quartet, flute, oboe, French horn, percussion)
DURATION: 35 minutes
TEXT: New Testament parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32);
libretto by Alisa Bair
Six-movement work that combines modern yet traditional sound
with almost jazz-like rhythmic color.


World Premiere
November 2010
Indianapolis Children’s Choir
Henry Leck, conductor
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Indianapolis, IN

Dr. Neal Harnly, who is a family physician, pianist, and composer, chose the classic Prodigal Son narrative for this commission because he felt this profound story of love and forgiveness could be expressed by children in a way that adults might not be able to convey it. His solution to the challenge of composing for children, while still writing in his “own language,” was to write relatively tonally for the choir, while using the orchestral aspect as a means of texture and bi-tonality. He further developed the orchestral concept by using unique orchestra colorization to illustrate each character in the story.

The movements closely follow the biblical parable from the Gospel of Luke, relating the story from the perspective of each family member, as noted by the composer on the score:


There was a man who had two sons . . .

I. The Rebellion

The Prodigal Son leaves home, rebels.

My brother’s eyes ablaze with greed, my father’s wet with sorrow.
II. The Elder Son

The elder son’s bemoans his brother’s heartlessness, as well as the work now left to the elder son.

May angels walk beside you on your journey…

III. The Father and the Lost Son

The father grieves and prays to see his “lost son” again, while the son begins to regret his decision and decides to return home, hoping to be treated at least as one of the servants and given something to eat.

When he came to his senses . . .
IV. The Journey Home

The Prodigal Son’s journey home through the hot desert, his dread and fear, his hope.

“My son!”
V. The Lost Son Returns

The father sees his lost son from far off and runs to embraces him, overjoyed to have him home.

“All I have is yours.”
VI. The Homecoming Celebration

While the father creates a celebration feast for the lost son, the elder brother is resentful and clings to his own sense of righteousness, rather than accepting the all-encompassing love of the father.



For librettist Alisa Bair, writing the text was a spiritual experience in identifying with the three main figures: the elder brother, the Prodigal Son, and their father.

“Each of the characters wears a different pair of shoes, and I walked around in each one of them. I had to channel the stiff and prickly pain of self-righteousness, the grinding poverty of self-indulgence, and the heartbreaking hemorrhage of grace, which wasn’t hard, considering I’ve been each one of them at different points in my own life.”

The world premiere of The Lost Son took place on the opening night of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir’s 25th anniversary season, and the beautiful St. Paul's Episcopal Church was packed with singers, parents, and an eager audience. When all was said and sung, we asked the musicians for their reflections.



What the singers had to say:

  Indianapolis Children's Choir singing the premiere of The Lost Son

"The process of learning, practicing, perfecting, and performing took each of us on a journey that taught us all that song and story create a deeper meaning for the piece. This masterpiece was an extraordinary experience for everyone in the choir. Aside from making us better musicians, it brought us closer."

"This piece never fails to wow me, with its challenging rhythms and beautiful harmonies, its strong and influential message. It has truly been an honor to sing this piece."

"There's something amazing that happens to you when you're in the midst of glorious music, but when you're helping to make it, the experience is beyond compare."


What the conductor had to say:

  Conductor Henry Leck speaks with the ICC singers in rehearsal

"It is with a great sense of gratefulness and appreciation to Soli Deo Gloria that the Indianapolis Children's Choir was given the opportunity to premiere The Lost Son. The experience was very fruitful musically, educationally and spiritually. I am thrilled with this new piece. It combines modern yet traditional sound with very interesting and almost jazz-like rhythmic color.”—Henry H. Leck, Founder & Artistic Director, Indianapolis Children's Choir


What the composer had to say:

  Neal Harnly listens carefully at a rehearsal for The Lost Son

"Henry, the children and the orchestra not only were able to take what I had written and perform it with amazing technical perfection, but all the more, were able to bring the story to life in a way I had never imagined was possible! In my mind's eye, I can still picture the faces of the children as they sang, earnestly expressing the emotion of each character in the parable. They themselves seemed to become the elder son, the father and the prodigal son that evening."
—Neal Harnly, composer