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In 1982 the Contemporary Chamber Players (CCP) of the University of Chicago, conducted by its founder and director, Ralph Shapey, presented a special concert in honor of the seventy-fifth birthday of Chicago businessman, philanthropist, and backer of contemporary music endeavors Paul Fromm. A Jewish émigré from Germany in the 1930s and the brother of Herbert Fromm, one of the leading American synagogue composers of the mid-20th century, Paul Fromm was a principal patron and supporter of Shapey and the CCP. To acknowledge his long-standing generosity to the CCP and to contemporary composers, a “bouquet of compositions”—in Shulamit Ran’s description—was composed expressly for the occasion and performed on that program. Among them was Ran’s A Prayer, for horn, three woodwinds (clarinet, bass clarinet, and bassoon), and timpani.
“I asked myself,” the composer wrote at the time, “how shall I celebrate this special day? The answer: Compose a prayer! A wordless one … the horn is my voice.” The bass clarinet, bassoon, and timpani form, as she has explained, a low-register choir that supports, comments, and punctuates.
The horn’s declamatory voice, opening with a solo statement, is introduced by a gentle, hushed timpani passage. Succeeding horn statements alternate with the ensemble in textures that suggest choral function—in the way a choir might accompany a cantor in traditional prayer intonations. Individual instrumental lines are suffused with dotted rhythms and pungent, expressionistic dissonances. Eventually, out of the combined sonorities, the clarinet departs in ecstatic flight while the motoric crescendo builds to the conclusion. Ran conceived the clarinet part as an allusion to a story by the famous Yiddish writer Yitzhak Leib Peretz, in which a young boy, ignorant of traditional or established prayer, nonetheless opens the “gates of heaven” with a heartfelt, piercing whistle.