Monday, February 15, 2016

A Year's Music: Barber's "Prayers of Kierkegaard"

A couple years ago, Beth and I and two local colleagues attended the St. Louis Symphony's performance of "Prayers of Kierkegaard" by Samuel Barber (1910-1981). I decided to listen to the piece again this week.

Barber began work on the piece in 1942 and, after several interruptions, completed it in 1954, when it was premiered. He chose a selection of prayers by philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard. He is, of course, the Danish philosopher and theologian whose work continues to be tremendously influential, and particularly do during that mid-twentieth century time. Barber selected prayers for his  books and journals. As quoted on this site, "One finds here three basic truths: imagination, dialectic, and religious melancholy. The truth Søren Kierkegaard sought after was a truth which was a truth for me."

The piece has four sections. This site gives a good summary of the sections and musical styles, quoting from there: 'The first prayer begins with unaccompanied male voices invoking a call to the infinite love and unchanging nature of God in a Gregorian chant style. ...The orchestra enters, followed by the full chorus, crying out an indictment: “But nothing changes Thee, O Thou unchanging.” The opening prayer segues seamlessly into the second with a solo oboe, which introduces the soprano soloist, who asks for strength and redemption through suffering from “Lord Jesus Christ, who suffered all life long.” The chorus enters with a plea to “Father in Heaven.” Intricate and complex passages of counterpoint, featuring the tenor, alto and soprano soloists, as well as the chorus and swirling clouds of sound from the strings highlight the words “but when the longing lays hold of us, oh, that we might lay hold of the longing!” The final prayer begins with an agitated cry from the chorus and orchestra featuring the brasses. “Father in Heaven, hold not our sins up against us, but hold us up against our sins.”...'

I found a video of one of the sections: My recording at home is conducted by the renowned Robert Shaw on the Telarc label, along with Bartok's Cantata profana and Vaughan Williams' Dona nobis pacem.

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