Richard Wernick’s Music Celebrated at Carnegie Hall

The American Symphony Orchestra, led by Leon Botstein, joined soprano Katherine Pracht in performing Richard Wernick’s “…and a time for peace” at Carnegie Hall on November 18th. The program, titled “Bernstein and the Bostonians,” drew attention to a generation of Boston-bred and/or Harvard-educated composers that Botstein believes deserve greater attention from symphony orchestras.


“…and a time for peace”
for Mezzo-soprano and Orchestra
Program Note:
I composed “…and a time for peace” in response to a commission from the Ravenna Festival. Cristina Muti expressed a desire to have me write a piece for voice and orchestra that would be both spiritual, and if possible, multilingual. When it came time to begin the work my original idea was to set the passage from Ecclesiastes that the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had read at the White House ceremony on the occasion of the remarkable meeting that, at the time, filled so many of us with hope. But this text, in and of itself, required a proper setting and context in which to be most effective, as well as satisfying Mrs. Muti’s request for a multilingual piece. The end result was a three part work for mezzo-soprano and orchestra set in Hebrew and Italian.

The text of the first movement, “k’ta’im mi k’ta’vim atikim” (“fragments of ancient writing”) is a collection of verses from various Middle Eastern historical sources that, at a later time, found their way into the apocalyptic visions of Hebrew, Christian and Muslim scriptures. This movement, sung in Hebrew, is the broadest of the three in conception. It employs a large orchestral palette as well as a quasi-operatic treatment of the voice. The images of the destruction of the universe, despite the ultimate vision of a paradise to come, are terrifying, and it was my hope that these could be expressed through the music as well as the words.

After the apocalyptic visions of part I, the second movement, “Interludio del Paradiso” is taken from the second book of Dante’s Commedia. The text, an excerpt of the first Canto, expresses the idea that all things in the universe derive from divine perfection, and that this can best be seen in the way that the universe is made to resemble God. I have attempted to mirror this concept of perfection and order through the use of rather strict compositional procedures, viz. dodecaphonic techniques, isorhythmic polyphony, and the employment of various types of canons. Recognizing that astrological symbolism is of fundamental importance in the Commedia the structure of the music reflects the position of the planets on the day that Dante entered Paradise: April 14, 1300. Since, at that time, the existence of only seven planets was known, there are only seven performers (including the voice) in this movement. This section is sung in Italian.

The third and last movement, “mi Kohelet” (“from Ecclesiastes”) is sung in the original Hebrew. In these verses are also found a particular sense of order: a season and a time for everything “under the sun.” It is one of the most beautiful texts in the Old Testament. In just sixteen lines an enormous range of human actions, reactions and emotions are expressed, culminating in “…a time for war and a time for peace.” It is an immortal text that cries out for musical setting. In addition to its powerful emotive impact, it is expressed in the simplest form of poetic strophe. But the shadings of each verse are reflected in the slight, but highly charged, differences in rhythm and meter that almost dictate, from the distant past, the necessity for a similar musical treatment.

This work is dedicated, with admiration and affection, to the Ravenna Festival and its president, Cristina Muti.

—Richard Wernick
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