Yehudi Wyner's Choral Masterpiece

Yehudi Wyner's Choral Masterpiece
© Michael Lovett
Fellow composers are already describing Yehudi Wyner's new piece for chorus and chamber orchestra Give Thanks for All Things as his masterpiece. This is a strong statement about a piece by a composer with many accolades to his credit, including the Pulitzer Prize in music. But the work, commissioned and premiered recently by the Cantata Singers, lives up to its reputation having received rave reviews in both the Boston Globe and Phoenix.

Mr. Wyner writes, "When David Hoose invited me to write a piece for the Cantata Singers I proposed a Comic Cantata. I thought I’d had enough of the high rhetoric of elevated sentiments, or moralistic parables, of passionate religious narratives, of confrontations with death and the hereafter. I searched in vain for a text, a scenario. I sought guidance from the fellowship of eminent living poets but nothing lit the fire of fun I was seeking. Finally I abandoned my original idea and turned to a slender sheaf of poems I’d been assembling over several years. Most were old: biblical psalms, Cato fragments, Shakespeare, Medieval Irish, but also Whitman and a recent psalm by Richard Wilbur. With the exception of the biblical psalms the texts were about death and grieving…the ultimate comedy?"

Clearly he was inspired by these texts. Mr. Wyner used as a refrain one prayer in particular that was set in an increasingly beautiful and emotionally gripping manner: "Dear Lord, be good to me. The sea is so wide, and my boat is so small." Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe describes the setting of the refrain well: "The first time the prayer appears the choral writing is fractured, a kind of fragile quivering music that is almost dispersed by a burst of pulsating brass. The setting captures the primal sense of awe, fear, and wonder one may feel before the vastness of the sea. But it is the prayer’s third and final return that is the most arresting, as Wyner clears out the chorus and the orchestra and assigns the text to a soprano soloist supported only by violins. The blend of treble sonorities lends a sense of weightlessness while the stripped-down elegance of the writing captures the core humility of the prayer. The lines float and weave around each other with a dark beauty, as if lit from within."

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