Universal Prayer, cantata for four solo voices, chorus, three harps, and organ
Universal Prayer was written in 1968-69. Panufnik used a text by the 18th-century English poet Alexander Pope, who also lived in Twickenham. In this work, the composer wanted to convey the idea of ecumenical, universal prayer of people of all religions and races to God, the “Father of All”, for the first time subordinating the structure of a work to principles of symmetry in the smallest details:
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.
[...] 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.
[...] 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.
Symmetry applies here to all elements of the work, including dynamics and tempo; the axis of symmetry is exactly in the middle of the work, which comes in the seventh stanza of Pope’s poem (there are thirteen stanzas in total). From this point, the composition becomes a mirror image, with successive sections corresponding to those from the first part of the work. Thanks to such a precise structure, the composer achieved an extraordinary unity of artistic expression. At the same time, the considerable economy of the musical language and means used by the composer gives the work huge expressive power stemming from the ascetic, austere nature of prayer.
Universal Prayer is not linked to any commission but was written by Panufnik to express his spiritual need 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.
The cantata was premiered on 24 May 1970 at the Church of St. John the Divine in New York City, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, who had a very high opinion of the work, saying on a New York radio broadcast:
In my opinion, it is a new departure in composition, just as Le Sacre de Printemps of Stravinsky was a new departure […]. I am hoping that all faiths will realize the greatness of the poem and of the music, and that it will become often performed, like the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven […].
The critics, too, appreciated Panufnik’s cantata:
It is worth noting that Universal Prayer was also the first work by Panufnik to be performed in Poland after an absence of many years: the cantata was presented at the Warsaw Autumn Festival in September 1977.
The composer’s sense of word sound and meanings was impeccable. Beyond that he translated Pope’s fervent text into the grandest, most awesome kind of music [...].