Pater noster, by Anton Heiller (1923-1979)

I've read that Arnold Schoenberg--he who developed the serial system of composition--was sure that someday people would casually whistle twelve-tone melodies as they walked along the street. We certainly haven't arrived at that advanced state yet, but I suppose it could still happen, as our collective ears are constantly advancing--accepting sound combinations that were once too complex for us to appreciate.

Heiller's serial style Pater Noster  (Lord's Prayer) is a reflection of that ongoing process. It's a fascinating musical hybrid, that combines a twelve-tone melody with conventional modern harmony and yields a result that is not at all what one might expect.

This is a gentle, subdued, profoundly reverent song. The opening melody is haunting and memorable; when it returns in the closing measures, it leads to as satisfying and complete a close as any Baroque da capo aria. It's a wonderfully singable song, with none of the vocal problems sometimes associated with twelve-tone material. The voice line is surprisingly conjunct (the largest melodic leap is an octave), and the overall gamut is modest: from B below middle C, up to top space E in the treble clef. There are a few syncopated rhythms and triplets patterns for the singer, but nothing more unnerving than that (well, I admit there is a measure in 5/4).

Still not convinced? What if I told you this is one of the most dynamically restrained songs I know and that the accompaniment is generally helpful rather than competitive? Of course, one needs a secure knowledge of intervallic relationships in order to perform it, but that's really a sine qua non  for any good singer these days.

The text is the standard Latin version of the Lord's Prayer:

Pater noster, qui es in coelis:
Sanctificetur nomen tuum:
Adveniat regnum tuum:
Fiat voluntas tua,
sicut in coelo, et in terra.

Panem nostrum quotidianum
da nobis hodie:
Et dimitte nobis debita nostra,
sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris,
Et ne nos inducas in tentationem.

Sed libera nos a malo.
Amen. Amen.

Our Father, who art in heaven:
Hallowed be Thy name:
Thy kingdom come:
Thy will be done,
In heaven, and on earth.

Give our bread
To us this day:
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors,
And lead us not into temptation.

Free us from evil.
Amen. Amen.

The composer has ordered the twelve notes of the chromatic scale into the series shown in a little box printed above the music. The inversion, retrograde [reverse order] and retrograde inversion arrangements of the series are also shown. Strung together, one after the other, these create the strangely graceful, chant-like melodic line. The vocal style is almost exclusively syllabic, and the piano is generally confined to playing a supportive chord structure, though occasionally singing out some melodic measures to bridge the vocal phrases. There is a well-built climax at ...ne nos inducas in tentationem  and then a marvelous release of tension for the line that follows. A melismatic Amen  leads to a tranquil close.

In my view, the tempo of this song is critical. It is marked Ruhige Viertel, sehr still  (tranquil quarter-notes, very quiet) and must be performed at a pace that presents the music very gently, lest it become in any way pushed or hardened. But there must also be considerable flexibility and fluidity here (think plain-chant) or the duration of some of the vocal phrases can become very challenging. Rigidity of tempo will surely kill this song and perhaps the singer as well.

Anton Heiller was a noted Viennese organ virtuoso, teacher and composer. He wrote Pater noster  in 1961 and specified it for alto and piano. I see no reason why any singer with the requisite musicianship and range could not sing it effectively. Certainly, it is the most approachable example of serial material I know, and it can be outright horizon expanding for a young singer with no previous experience with this style.

Pater Noster  is published by a Viennese firm, Verlag Doblinger, where Heiller was an editor. For publication, Pater Noster  has been coupled with a second song, an Ave Maria  (also by Heiller), which is similar in style but has a few more musical complexities.


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Copyright 1999, John Koopman. All rights reserved. No part of these websites, designated A BRIEF HISTORY OF SINGING and UNSUNG SONGS, or their contents may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means--electronic, photocopying or otherwise--without the written permission of the copyright holder. For information about the use of this material please contact the author through the Conservatory of Music, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI , (U.S.A) 54912-0599. Fax 920 832 6633