Prayers of Kierkegaard, Op. 30 (1954)
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

Commissioned in 1942 by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, Prayers of Kierkegaard was not completed until 1954 because Barber served with the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. After returning from the War, Barber began exploring sacred texts and spiritual poetry as important sources for some of his most personal and expressive works. Prayers of Kierkegaard is one such work, based on the writings by the Danish poet, theologian, and existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). The texts were drawn from Kierkegaard’s journals, his book Christina Discourses (1848), and his last sermon, “The Unchangeableness of God” (1855), all which were translated into English after World War II and widely read among American intellectuals and artists. In a program note to the work’s premiere, Barber articulated his intellectual and spiritual affinity to Kierkegaard’s works: “The entire literary production of Kierkegaard is motivated by the intent of bringing men into a religious relationship with God, and throughout his writings one finds his three basic traits: imagination, dialectic, and religious melancholy. The truth he sought after was a “truth which is true for me,” one which demanded sacrifice and personal response.”  Undoubtedly, Prayers of Kierkegaard is a powerful statement of Barber’s own Christian faith and a highly personal work, a point confirmed by its performance at his memorial service.

Cantata with four distinct yet musically continuous sections, Prayers of Kierkegaard is score for chorus, orchestra, solo soprano, and incidental tenor and alto solos. Barber’s musical language is akin to the nineteenth-century Romanticism with strong lyrical and emotional elements. Even after World War II, Barber remained unaffected by the experimental spirits that dominated the American musical world. Occasionally, though, he engaged with modern musical languages including extreme chromaticism, ambiguous tonalities, and even limited serialism. Prayers uses these twentieth-century elements, along with features from the Baroque and medieval periods, in an imaginative musical interpretation of Kierkegaard’s portrayal of the unchanging, thus timeless, God. 

The first prayer is presented by an a cappella male chorus as hushed Gregorian-style chant (marked “grave and remote”). A formidable orchestral interlude heralds the struggle and anxiety that will transpire in the rest of the piece. Canonic unfolding of the main theme is bracketed by clamorous polychordal outbursts by the orchestra and choir, which proclaim in awe, “But nothing changes Thee, O Thou art unchanging!” God’s changelessness is musically echoed by the choir’s fixation on D major in a jarring clash with the D minor chord of the orchestra. The intimate music of the second section, “Lord Jesus Christ, Who suffered all life long,” is likely inspired by the religious melancholy that Barber had read in Kierkegaard’s writings. The solitary nature of the confession, “I, who so often go astray,” is captured in the bare texture of the oboe solo and the soprano solo against muted accompaniments. A hymn-like chorale of the third section transforms into oddly otherworldly music of limited serialism, realized by the unusual duo of a tenor and a dreamy xylophone. The chorus that takes over gains in thickness, and the near-chaotic orchestral tumult leads to a terrifying exclamation, marked “frenzied” by the composer, “Father in Heaven!” When the desperate outcry subsides, wearily, the voices implore, “Hold not our sins up against us; But hold us up against out sins.” Hope is not lost, and redemption comes in the end.

- Jung-Min Mina Lee, Duke University, Music Department