The Kennedy Center

Prayer in Time of War, 1943

About the Work

William Schuman Composer: William Schuman
© Richard Freed

Untitled Document

The Spoils of War
By Leonard Slatkin
Every country knows its share of tragedy. The devastation of internal and global conflict would seem an unlikely field to produce great works of art. But that is exactly what seemed to happen during and immediately following World War II.

Music has always had a healing effect on public sentiment. Some composers used their talents to uplift the spirits of citizens. Copland, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Walton, among others, wrote powerful works that were directly meant to elevate the thoughts and feelings of the people of their respective homelands. In our time, John Adams, in his heartfelt and moving orchestral piece On the Transmigration of Souls, seems to have captured the feelings a nation has found too profoundly distressful to put into words. However, the abstract nature of music sometimes makes it difficult to truly understand how a composition can affect the listener.

The first half of this week's program offers two works of distinct contrast. William Schuman enthusiastically declared himself a specifically American composer, but the specifically American music he composed has meaning for us because understood that his very individual personal style would not have to strive for national identity. is hardly thought of as a nationalist when it comes to his major symphonic pieces. In his 1943 Prayer in Time of War he managed to keep true to his individual compositional style, while at the same time writing a poignant, elegiac piece of non-programmatic music which represents a general emotional frame rather than any attempt at descriptive imagery. Bill was a good friend, enjoying the company of anyone he met. He was equally comfortable in speaking of baseball and in developing a significant agenda for arts education. This regrettably neglected work, which is a model of compactness and hope, could only have come from an American composer of limitless interests, enthusiasms and understanding.
Vaughan Williams denied that his Sixth Symphony had anything to do with the war that had ended shortly before he composed the work. But every creative artist is influenced by the times in which he lives. The sheer and intense bleakness of this extraordinary piece must have been, even if unwittingly, a deepfelt response to the physical devastation of London, Coventry and other parts of this great composer's country. During the work's more than 30 minutes' duration, there is only one brief moment of respite and consonance—at the end of the first movement, when the main tune is transformed into something we can associate with the pastoral English countryside. Vaughan Williams's use of the saxophone surely conveys a bitter tone to the work. And the amazing final movement, played pianissimo throughout, reminds me of "Neptune," the concluding section of The Planets, by his good friend Gustav Holst. It cannot be mere coincidence that the Holst suite emanates from the First World War and also has an inconclusive coda. It is as if both composers were thinking aloud, "We've come this far; what next?"
2007 Leonard Slatkin, Musical Director of the NSO

Program Note on Prayer in Time of War
By Richard Freed
Schuman composed this piece in 1942 and it was given its first performance, under the title Prayer—1943, on February 26, 1943, by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner. The National Symphony Orchestra's only performance of this work prior to the present concerts was conducted by Leon Barzin in a Watergate concert on July 4, 1943, a little more than four months after the Pittsburgh premiere and again under the original title..
The score, published under the composer's revised title, calls for piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, gong, and strings. Duration, 15 minutes.

Once the United States entered World War II, at the end of 1941, the musical community rallied to the cause, not only with special concerts for the troops and in support of various relief efforts, but with new compositions motivated by the feeling of unity over the prosecution of "the last just war." Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at the time, commissioned a series of patriotic fanfares which brought into being, along with seventeen less well remembered pieces, Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. Another conductor, André Kostelanetz, commissioned a series of musical portraits of famous Americans: Copland's Lincoln Portrait, Virgil Thomson's Mayor La Guardia Waltzes, and one of Jerome Kern's very few concert works, the ingratiatingly tuneful Mark Twain. The Army Air Corps (the forerunner of the U.S. Air Force) commissioned Samuel Barber's Commando March and his Second Symphony, which included imitations of military signals. There were also, of course, spontaneous gestures from several composers. Roy Harris composed an orchestral March in Time of War and several choral works. Harl McDonald wrote the symphonic suite My Country at War. William Schuman, who regarded all of his works as being specifically American in character, simply because that was the way he defined himself, composed the present work, representing no specific image, but rather the general mood and sentiments of an American in wartime.
Schuman was just turning 32 when he composed this piece, but already had an impressive catalogue of works to his credit: the four symphonies (No. 3 still regarded as a landmark among American symphonies), three string quartets, a number of choral works. The piece is more meditative than dramatic: Schuman found no element of glory in war, but much cause for sorrow, for lamentation, and for resolve. He indicated that one passage, in which muted cellos take up a solemn theme following a pronounced pause, was to be "smooth, even, like plainchant." When Fritz Reiner introduced the piece in Pittsburgh, under the title Prayer—1943, Schuman provided the following statement as the only guide he felt the listener would need.

There is nothing to say about the music, for the composition, of course, must speak for itself. However, in the interest of forestalling any possible misunderstanding, I would like to say a word about the title. This work is not program music in the usual sense of that overworked term. There is no story, nor is any realistic event being depicted. The title is merely some indication of the kind of feeling that went into the composition.

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