For some years I had in mind a very deep wish to compose a prayer to the 'Father of All' religions and races - in which the spiritual content might help to unite the feelings of all people, now so tragically divided in this disturbed world.
When reading through the works of Alexander Pope, at last I felt I had found the perfect text in his Universal Prayer, which, although written over two hundred and fifty years ago, struck me with its vitality and the strength of its meaning to us now. This indeed was a prayer for all men to the 'Father of All'. Perhaps I was doubly moved to know that these words, for which I had been searching so long, were written by the poet who had lived and worked just a few hundred yards up the River Thames from my own home where I would myself be composing the music.
The construction of the work was imposed upon me by the classical structure of the poem. Alexander Pope himself declared that "Order is Heav'ns first law", and this corresponds very exactly with my own long-standing belief, so far as my own creative work is concerned. Composing my Universal Prayer I designed a symmetrical framework, building up a structure in which the first stanza corresponds with the thirteenth (last) one, the second stanza with the twelfth, the third with the eleventh, and so on - coming to the centre of the work, the axis, the seventh stanza, where in contrast to the humility and the quiet condemnation of hypocrisy throughout the rest of the poem, Pope openly uses his serrated blade of irony to strike out against fanaticism.
The stanzas of the poem, sung by the four soloists, are divided by short interludes, sometimes instrumental only, sometimes including the chorus. These interludes are also symmetrically arranged, and additionally a great number of other internal symmetric patterns are to be found within the whole symmetric framework. My Universal Prayer is composed on two Plans: Plan I - four solo voices together
with three harps, with precisely indicated rhythm; Plan II - organ and chorus, with no rhythmical indications - giving freedom of musical expression to the individual performer, whether it is the organist or just a member of the chorus. For this work I chose instruments which I felt could add a kind of mystery and colour to the poem, using harps not only for the special quality of their sound, but also because they would never overwhelm the voices of the soloists singing the all-important text. The organ, besides its colouristic attributes, primarily has significance in that it binds the architectural structure of the whole work.
The chorus is divided into just two parts: male and female voices. They sing on one note (B natural) throughout the whole work, using only the first three words of the poem, 'Father of All'. The rhythm is chosen freely by each member of the chorus in order that the individual voices should be heard: my idea is that they represent the multitudes of the world, together and yet free to express their own prayer in their own voice to their own concept of God. At the very beginning, they shout as if to catch God's attention; at the end, with full voice they express their trust in Him. Approaching the axis of the composition, the singing of the chorus changes to unpitched sound, first whispering then speaking out, as their appeal to God becomes more urgent and intense. After this central section, this intensity reduces in the reverse, mirrored procedure. With regard to the musical material, like my piano work Reflections which preceded it, the whole work is based strictly upon one triad only, used both vertically and horizontally with its perpetual reflections and transpositions. While imposing upon myself this extremely stern discipline and simplicity of sound organisation, for me the dramatic requirements of the poem were of paramount importance, and therefore I attempted to keep the technical side very much subservient to the spiritual and emotional content.
For musical example and diagram illustrating the construction of this work, see the programme note section on www.panufnik.com
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer