Gwyneth Walker

Prayers and Blessings

for Bass-Baritone, Cello, and Organ (2004)
for Bass-Baritone and Piano (2005)
for Baritone and Piano (2015)

Return to Gwyneth Walker Music Catalog
Read A Prolific Poet in Music by Ken Keuffel, The Winston-Salem Journal.

Download an MP3 file of a performance of the first movement of this work (piano version) by Ferris Allen, baritone and Linda Holzer, piano.
Download an MP3 file of a performance of the second movement of this work.
Download an MP3 file of a performance of the third movement of this work.

Download an MP3 file of a performance of the third movement of this work (piano version) by Yuan Jin Lai, baritone and Bridget Hille, piano.

Download a PDF file of the score (baritone and piano) of this composition. This file of excerpted sample pages is for perusal only and is not printable. To hear MP3 files of the complete songs, see the above links.
Download a PDF file of the score (bass-baritone and piano) of this composition. This file of excerpted sample pages is for perusal only and is not printable. To hear MP3 files of the complete songs, see the above links.
Download a PDF file of the score (bass-baritone, cello, and organ) of this composition. This file of excerpted sample pages is for perusal only and is not printable. To hear MP3 files of the complete songs, see the above links.


(Photograph of David Arnold and Gwyneth Walker.)

A photo of the David Arnold and Gwyneth Walker

Notes for the bass-baritone, cello, and organ version:

Prayers and Blessings was commissioned in 2003 by David Arnold, a North Carolina bass-baritone who is a soloist in the 80-voice Chancel Choir at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, and a member of Bel Canto Company, a professional choral ensemble based in Greensboro. Mr. Arnold premiered these songs at Centenary with organist Ray Ebert and cellist Jennifer Alexandra Johnston on February 27, 2005.

These three songs are interconnected motivically, yet distinct in meter, tonality and message. Peace and reverence flow throughout.

The lyrics for "Ubi Caritas" are based on a new translation, by Christopher Brunelle, of the traditional "Ubi Caritas Est Vera." A recurrent image in this translation is the gesture of welcoming: welcoming love, welcoming God, welcoming the "friendly unfamiliar thought," welcoming Christ with us. The musical interpretation of welcoming is stepwise motion, either up or down, around a pitch center. Perhaps this might be heard as an opening of the door, or an opening of the heart.

The three verses of the poetry are set in strophic manner (similar melodic and harmonic material in each verse). Growth is achieved through increased participation of the cello, which introduces, and then rests during, the first verse, accompanies the second verse, and is given the theme, in dialogue with the voice, for the last verse. Rhythmically, the musical flow is mostly in even eighth-notes, in plainchant style.

A cello interlude leads to the second song, "Make Me an Instrument of Thy Peace," a musical setting of the Prayer of Saint Francis. One unusual musical device used in this song is the cello providing the only accompaniment for the first verse. Perhaps the simplicity of the cello-ostinato pattern, played beneath the voice, was inspired by the title phrase, "make me an instrument of thy peace."

The organ enters sparingly above the voice, with material reminiscent of the "welcoming" pattern in the first song. Remaining in the background during the opening phrases, the organ bursts forth with the theme as the singer sings the word "joy."

This song alternates between triple meter for the thematic sections ("Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace") and duple meter for the more recitative sections ("O Divine Master..."). The music ends as it began, with an ostinato pattern in the cello.

An organ interlude provides the bridge to the third song, "Gaelic Blessing." The text for this song is a series of blessings for peace. The gentle pizzicato strumming of the cello is intended to provide a peaceful accompaniment. [Once again, the stepwise intervals and recurrent regular rhythms relate to the first song.]

In keeping with the simplicity and repetition of the text, the music is formed by a series of four-measure phrases (blessings). The blessings are similar in contour, each spanning an interval of a fourth. Growth is achieved through repetition and some dynamic contrast. However, the principal aesthetic of this song is constancy and gentle flow.

Only at the end of the song, when the voice descends into the deep range, is the melodic contour altered, and dynamic contrast introduced. As the voice ends on low tones, the cello and organ rise, perhaps to the source of peace.

Notes by the composer


Notes for the bass-baritone and piano version:

Prayers and Blessings was commissioned in 2003 by David Arnold, a North Carolina bass-baritone who is a soloist in the 80-voice Chancel Choir at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, and a member of Bel Canto Company, a professional choral ensemble based in Greensboro. Mr. Arnold premiered these songs at Centenary with organist Ray Ebert and cellist Jennifer Alexandra Johnston on February 27, 2005. A new version for voice and piano was created in 2005.

These three songs are interconnected motivically, yet distinct in meter, tonality and message. Peace and reverence flow throughout. The lyrics for "Ubi Caritas" are based on a new translation, by Christopher Brunelle, of the traditional "Ubi Caritas Est Vera." A recurrent image in this translation is the gesture of welcoming: welcoming love, welcoming God, welcoming the "friendly unfamiliar thought," welcoming Christ with us. The musical interpretation of welcoming is stepwise motion, either up or down, around a pitch center. Perhaps this might be heard as an opening of the door, or an opening of the heart.

An interlude leads to the second song, "Make Me an Instrument of Thy Peace," a musical setting of the Prayer of Saint Francis. The accompaniment is sparse, with material reminiscent of the "welcoming" pattern in the first song. This song alternates between triple meter for the thematic sections ("Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace") and duple meter for the more recitative sections ("O Divine Master..."). The music ends as it began, with simple open fifths accompaniment, this time filling in the chords to express the fullness of the lyrics "born to eternal life."

A second interlude provides the bridge to the third song, "Gaelic Blessing." The text for this song is a series of blessings for peace. The gentle chordal arpeggiations in the piano are intended to provide a peaceful accompaniment. [Once again, the stepwise intervals and recurrent regular rhythms relate to the first song.]

In keeping with the simplicity and repetition of the text, the music is formed by a series of four-measure phrases (blessings). The blessings are similar in contour, each spanning an interval of a fourth. Growth is achieved through repetition and some dynamic contrast. However, the principal aesthetic of this song is constancy and gentle flow. Only at the end of the song, when the voice descends into the deep range, is the melodic contour altered, and dynamic contrast introduced. As the voice ends on low tones, the piano line rises, perhaps to the source of peace.


Notes about this work by David Arnold:

Prayers and Blessings: The Journey

Why commission new music? The answer lies in any number of reasons. The most common is to honor someone or to mark a special occasion. Alternatively, one may simply feel a connection to a particular composer’s music. In my case, necessity was truly the mother of invention.

After becoming a church soloist some 12 years ago, I quickly learned that good sacred music for bass voice is difficult to find. Sure, there are spirituals and a host of warhorses (whose language often bears little resemblance to today’s vernacular), but beyond that it’s slim pickings. Higher voices have far less difficulty finding quality sacred music, as there is a wealth of it written for them. So what is a bass soloist to do? One option, although probably not the most commonly exercised, is to have new music written.

I first became familiar with Gwyneth Walker’s music when I sang three of her American Ballads with Bel Canto Company. I was instantly hooked. Eight years later, the Chancel Choir of Winston-Salem’s Centenary United Methodist Church, where I sing, was looking to commission a choral anthem in honor of David Pegg’s tenth anniversary as Director of Music. After consulting a number of composers, it became clear Gwyneth Walker was the right match for us. The resulting anthem, A Song of Praise, was premiered shortly after David’s anniversary in the fall of 2003.

Around that same time, Dr. Walker was in Greensboro to hear Bel Canto Company sing her Harlem Songs. Some colleagues and I met with her over dinner, where she and I immediately hit it off. The following week we corresponded by e-mail and began a collaboration that continues to this day.

I asked Gwyneth if she would write a setting of the St. Francis Prayer for bass voice, cello and organ, which I wanted to give my partner as a gift. Even though she had a full slate of commissions, she realized this was a special project and agreed. She suggested I come up with one or two more texts as companion pieces to the Prayer. It didn’t take long to settle on two additional texts that were close to my heart.

I had long loved Maurice Duruflé’s choral setting of Ubi caritas and knew it was a favorite of my best friend. I tracked down Christopher Brunelle, a former Bel Canto colleague who teaches classics at St. Olaf College, and asked him to write a new translation; the following spring he provided me with the beautiful translation heard here. “Ubi Caritas (Welcome Love)” is dedicated to my friend, Jeffrey.

The Gaelic Blessing was a favorite text of my dear friend, Charlie Britton. A Lutheran minister of Scottish heritage, Charlie loved all things Celtic. He was a world traveler who sought adventure in many forms. It seemed fitting to honor him by using one of his favorite texts.

After struggling with which version of the blessing to use, and wanting to avoid copyright issues, Gwyneth and I decided it best if she created her own adaptation.

The beautiful imagery in Gwyneth’s adaptation brought to mind Gail Dunning, with whom I sang in Chancel Choir for seven years. Gail loved nature and gardening, and through her work as an interior designer, made a life of creating beauty for others. In fact, Gail was beauty, in every sense of the word. When she entered a room, it was as though the sun had come out after a long rain.

In 1998 and 2001, respectively, I lost Charlie and Gail to melanoma; they were both in their forties. “Gaelic Blessing” is dedicated to their memory.

Gwyneth finished Prayers and Blessings on September 1, 2004, and presented it to me a few weeks later. After playing through the songs at my piano, I was moved to tears. In fact, I walked away from the piano and had a good cry. Gwyneth had gotten it. She captured the very essence of these incredible texts and brought them to life in a new, exciting and beautiful way. I felt as though she had given me a wonderful gift.

Prayers and Blessings became more than a set of songs, it became a journey. Over the next five months, voice lessons, coachings and rehearsals ensued. I worked at staying well in a sea of sick friends, singers and co-workers. I journeyed from a low in November of wondering whether I would ever sing again to the high I felt the day of the world premiere.

Organist Ray Ebert, cellist Jennifer Alexandra Johnston and I premiered Prayers and Blessings on February 27, 2005, at Centenary. It was my 35th birthday. Among the 700 congregants was Gwyneth Walker, as well as friends from California, Florida and North Carolina. An estimated 90,000 folks listened by radio. Charlie Britton’s three sisters and Gail Dunning’s husband, Bob, were present. It was indeed a special day. Two days earlier, in Centenary’s sanctuary, we recorded the songs as heard here.

Prayers and Blessings is a very special set of songs. They were Gwyneth’s gift to me and my gift to my church and those I love. It is my hope that these songs will be sung by others, heard by many, and bless all who experience them for a long, long time to come.

David Arnold
March 2005