Religious music has existed almost as long as the history of mankind. In every era, from every corner of the world, pieces celebrating and honoring Gods and Goddesses have been found. They are countless.
It’s a much smaller pool of pieces when we narrow the search to “Prayers” that weren’t based on a previously existing spoken prayer, or a psalm or other words from a sacred text. With an eye toward the Thanksgiving holiday, here are a few of my favorite musical prayers created by composers.
In my mother’s line-up of nightly lullabies was Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Evening Prayer” (Abendsegen) from his 1892 children’s opera Hansel and Gretel, based on the Grimm’s fairy tale. She sang in English, instead of the original German, so we could understand there were 14 angels who would watch over and protect me and my siblings, as we slept.
When at night I go to sleep,
Fourteen angels watch do keep,
Two my head are guarding,
Two my feet are guiding;
Two upon my right hand,
Two upon my left hand.
Two who warmly cover,
Two who o’er me hover,
Two to whom ’tis given
To guide my steps to heaven.
Here's a beautiful version from the Metropolitan Opera, featuring soprano Aleksandra Kurzak as Gretel and mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey as Hansel, the siblings lost in the woods.
Gounod’s opera Faust features a prayer sung by the soldier Valentin as he prepares to go off to war. Valentin asks God to protect his beloved sister Marguerite. The late, magnificent baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky here makes his prayer-plea from the stage of the Royal Opera in London.
There are actually other prayer moments in Faust, but the prayer of the rough soldier got to my heart the very first time I saw the opera.
Another of my favorite musical prayers is from my favorite of Beethoven’s symphonies, his Sixth, the "Pastoral." Known as a great lover of the outdoors, but not a fan of nicknames and subtitles for his music, it was significant that he gave the five movements subtitles that honored nature, including the final movement, “Shepherd’s Song: Cheerful and Thankful Feelings After the Storm.” He wants you to imagine the shepherd, grateful that his flock was unharmed by the storm that passed in the previous movement. Here’s Paavo Järvi conducting the German Chamber Philharmonic, Bremen.
Beethoven wrote a Latin phrase over the notes for this final movement: Gratias agimus tibi – We give Thee thanks.
Another piece by Beethoven comes to mind when I think of prayer. In 1835 Beethoven began writing his String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Op. 132. It was shortly after that he suffered from a stomach ailment from which he thought he was going to die. When he recovered, he finished writing the piece with an additional movement. Again, it’s significant that he gave a title to the third movement, “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der Lydischen Tonart,” or “Song of Thanksgiving to the Deity from a convalescent, in the Lydian mode.” It was important to him to express a prayer of thanks to God for giving him another chance at life. Here is the Praetorious Quartett.
To me, the third movement is both a voice of gratefulness and grace. Beethoven has allowed us to peer into his heart and overhear his prayer of thanks.
CODA: One of the poems that I had to memorize (and then recite in a high school English class), was e.e. cummings’s “i thank You God for most this amazing.” I have always tried to live a life of gratitude, and this poem has come up in my mind more times than I could count. I found a recording of the poet himself reading his poem, and then Eric Whitacre’s hymn using that poem of thanksgiving for the lyrics.
Eric Whitacre and the Eric Whitacre singers: