Prayer for Burma

Five Tableaux for the Voiceless

What is it?

Ten years after I composed Prayer for Burma, the country continues to be in the news for all the wrong reasons, with an effective military coup having taken place in January 2021. Prayer for Burma is precisely that: a prayer for Burma, in the form of an orchestral tone poem of thirteen minutes' duration. Although scored as a continuous piece of music, it consists of five distinct tableaux:

1 Oppression
2 Fear and Tranquility
3 Genocide
4 Prayer and Light
5 Dedication

Orchestration

Prayer for Burma is scored for a small orchestra in which the harp and pitched percussion instruments play a significant role in establishing the characteristic sound texture.

2 Flutes in C, one doubling Alto Flute in G
2 Oboes
Timpani (4, pedal chromatic)
Tamtam

Glockenspiel
Vibraphone
Marimba (5-octave)
2 Harps (double action)

Violins 1 and 2 (both divisi a 2)
Violas (divisi a 2)
Violoncellos (divisi a 2)
Double Basses (divisi a 2)

Performance notes

It was never my intention to mimic the music of Burma but rather to create an impressionistic sound picture. The glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba and tamtam parts are a significant factor in this and should be played rather in the manner of a Burmese Hsaing waing (gamelan) ensemble.

I accept that not all orchestras will have access to an alto flute in G, which in any case is required only for the final five bars of the music, to which its uniquely languid tone is ideally suited. I am happy for those bars to be played one octave higher on a standard flute in C. The insistent, repeated A-naturals (which become B-flats in the Tableau 5) in the various string parts are intended to create a feeling of underlying unease. They need to be played just loud enough for listeners to be aware of them in a slightly uncomfortable way, but not so loudly as to dominate the sound texture. The long sustained notes in the cellos and double basses need to convey the feeling of an ever-present oppressive threat that is part of the fabric of life. These notes also should not dominate the sound texture, but listeners need to feel them in the pit of their stomachs. Tableau 3 is a lament and should be interpreted as such. However the melody in the cellos and basses needs to be played with a sense of oppressive disregard for the lament going on above it.

The marimba part requires a 5-octave instrument. None of the notes should be artificially prolonged by striking a bar more than once. Four-mallet technique is required in places. In Tableaux 2 and 5 it is not absolutely essential that the two harp players keep strictly in time with each other. Paradoxically the music will sound more authentic if they do not!

Listen

For the purposes of this video I have used the original sequence as I constructed it in 2011, without modification, on the grounds that this was how it sounded to people at its first two public performances. The video sequences are a mix of stock footage and newsreel.

Learn

In the late summer of 2010 a friend who was a representative of Christian Solidarity Worldwide asked me if I would consider composing an orchestral work to help raise awareness of persecution of certain ethnic groups in Burma (Myanmar). At the time we were thinking specifically of the Karen people although more recently the persecution also of other groups, such as the Rohingya, has come to international attention. I agreed to do so and in fact the composition of Prayer for Burma was more or less completed in two weeks although the scoring of it took somewhat longer. In writing it I had to familiarise myself with the playing techniques of the double action harp, the vibraphone and the marimba. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Lucy Bunce for doing a playability check on the harp parts for me, because this was the first time I had written an extended work featuring the instrument.

Moebu

The young lady who spoke so eloquently on the occasion of the work's first public performance, in Holy Trinity Church, Claygate, South London
Photo credit: Maw Moebu

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90% of all profits generated by this work will be donated to Christian Solidarity Worldwide