- hear from a contemporary composer about how his religious background and experience living in Latvia during the Soviet era impacted his musical expression
- discover how this famous prayer became not only a hit song but the theme music of a very popular video game
The prayer that Jesus is supposed to have taught is variously known as the “Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father,” the latter also contributing the name to a number of works of music, sometimes in the form of the Latin “Pater Noster” or Slavonic “Отче Наш.” Igor Stravinsky’s setting can be found with text in both languages.
Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks shared his thoughts on the Bible’s place in his life and work as a composer, mentioning his own setting of the Pater Noster in the process. He writes,
I was born in a Baptist pastor’s family in an atheistic state (my country Latvia was occupied several times in the twentieth century—the Soviet occupation [1940–41], the Nazi occupation [1941–44], and again the Soviet occupation [1944–91]). I won’t try to describe how much pastors and their families suffered during the decades of Communist tyranny.
I spent my childhood in a Baptist church in a small Latvian town. Three words were written in the central place of our church: “God is Love.” Sure, my first compositions were with sacral texts. My father often encouraged me to write “Our Father” that could be sung by his congregation. My father had already passed away when I was finally ready for this most important opus. First in Latvian, then I wrote a version in Latin. My “Our Father” became a prayer for my own father and our common Father.
Although my “Our Father” (Pater Noster) is pretty democratic, it can’t be sung by a congregation.
When Latvia finally regained independence, there was a new possibility to create and perform sacral music (ironically, suddenly also these composers who previously had praised the Communist Party and its leaders became very religious, true believers).
Among my sacral opuses there are vocal as well as instrumental works. Missa for mixed choir and string orchestra or organ—of course, with canonical texts. Te Deum—for organ solo—solely an instrumental opus. Dona Nobis Pacem—for choir and orchestra or organ. But Credo—again solely an instrumental opus for a big symphony orchestra. I could continue this list, but most important to my mind is that every single opus brings a passionate message about the existence of the spiritual dimension. About Faith, Hope, and Love. The most important is Love, as the Holy Scripture suggests.
The way of creating music is different to every single composer, I believe. Composing an opus is a long-lasting process for me; it could be compared to carrying a baby. I sometimes call my compositions my babies.
I believe that every opus, created in love, can give more light to the world. I believe the Creator speaks to us also through music. I have lived in this world for a long time now and have understood—the biggest power of the world is Love. As it was written in my childhood church—God is Love.
Listen to Vasks’s setting of the prayer.
Franz Liszt has also set this prayer for choir.
Liszt is most famous as a piano virtuoso, and his Hungarian Rhapsodies are probably his best known works as a composer. Toward the end of his life, he moved personally as well as compositionally in a direction connected with the church, and in that period, he wrote not only the above but settings of a number of psalms, Ave Maria, and Via Crucis (exploring the story of Jesus’s Passion).
There are versions for use in communal singing in churches and for soloists to perform. One famous example can be heard performed by Elvis or the Beach Boys. The prayer became a hit pop song in the version written by Arnold Strals and recorded in 1973 by Sister Janet Mead.
Christopher Tin’s setting of the Lord’s Prayer in Swahili, “Baba Yetu,” will be familiar to those who played the famous computer game Civilization IV.
In addition to this prayer Jesus taught to his disciples and those in the Psalms, other biblical prayers have been set to music, as well as words from the Bible that have been taken up and woven into prayer—for instance, “Ave Maria” (based on the words with which the angel Gabriel greets Mary in Luke 1:28, 42). That prayer and the setting thereof to music could be the focus of a book-length study in its own right. There are settings by some of the most famous composers of all time, yet composers who are relatively unknown have also created beautiful settings that do not deserve to be neglected among the sheer abundance. For a small sampling, listen to those by Mikołaj Zieleński, Adrian Willaert, Jacques Arcadelt, Franz Schubert (arguably the most famous), Anton Bruckner, Antonín Dvořák, Théodore Dubois (the link is to one of three settings by him), César Franck, Gabriel Fauré (op. 67), Laura Netzel (op. 41), Edward Elgar (op. 2, no. 2), Gustav Holst, Alan Hovhaness (op. 100, no. 1a), Igor Stravinsky, Mikuláš Schneider-Trnavský, Rihards Dubra, Leone Sinigaglia, Paul Creston (op. 57), Fartein Valen (op. 4), Morten Lauridsen, Knut Nystedt (op. 110), Vladimir Vavilov (attributed to Giulio Caccini), Paweł Łukaszewski, Einojuhani Rautavaara, R. Nathaniel Dett, Michael Head, Colin Mawby, Scott Solak, Hugh Benham, Karl Jenkins, Joshua Himes, David MacIntyre, Cecilia McDowall, Ferenc Farkas, Michał Lorenc, and David Conte. These are fascinating for so many reasons, including the sheer diversity of music created to explore the same words as well as the way that words from the Bible have been combined with others and become part of a prayer that has been rejected by Protestants (who do not pray to Mary), and yet very often the musical work has been appreciated nonetheless by those who would never utter the words themselves as a prayer. In one case of denominational boundary crossing, Charles Gounod took music by J. S. Bach, a Protestant, and turned it into one of the most famous settings of Ave Maria of all time!
Pesce, Dolores. “Liszt’s Sacred Choral Music.” In, edited by Kenneth Hamilton, 223–48. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
- Shared by the composer with the author, who is thankful to Gundega Vaska for translating it into English. ↵
- Performance by the Motetten-Chor Region Basel, accompanied by the string orchestra Les Tempéraments and Thomas Schmid on organ, conducted by Ambros Ott. For a different rendition, here is a performance by an unaccompanied vocal quartet. ↵
- This 2016 performance of Liszt’s Pater Noster is by the Chamber Choir Weimar, conducted by Maximilian Lörzer, who shared the video to YouTube. ↵
- Video recording from 1973 of Sister Janet Mead’s “The Lord’s Prayer.” The author has thus far been unable to trace the source of the video. ↵
- Recording shared by the composer Christopher Tin on his own YouTube channel. Performed by the Soweto Gospel Choir together with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. ↵