The Father Prayer
On writing a musical setting for the Lord’s Prayer
In the latter part of the 1960s I was stationed at Saint Columbkille Parish in Dubuque. I also had been writing songs. I decided to put together an LP with liturgical songs on one side and personal songs on the other. The songs were published in a book called Openings, after the opening song, which had that title. The scene on the cover was the view from my window. There was a circle cut in the cover, which was the sun in the picture, but represented an opening in the cover. The Lord’s Prayer was part of that project, as it was sung at Mass. My contribution was called “The Father Prayer.” The proposed album was never recorded.
The Lord’s Prayer is not an obvious text to put to music. It doesn’t have a metrical pattern like most songs. So in engaging with it, I studied the phrases and decided that they move in two swells, two arches, with the second one greater than the first. So that dictated how the music would work. The longer arch required a chord sequence that would reach across several sentences of the prayer, and for this I borrowed a sequence from “The Windmills of Your Mind,” by Michel Legrand, which was the theme song of the film, The Thomas Crown Affair, starring Steve McQueen. That dates the writing of “The Father Prayer” to 1969-1970. I left the parish in 1971.
The shape of the prayer was not the only obstacle to overcome. The text itself was in question, as this was the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, and the liturgical reform was in full swing. It seemed likely that the words of the prayer would be simplified, and so I had to take that into account. I guessed that the passage “forgive us out trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” would be changed to something more direct, so I decided to replace “trespasses” with “debts.” Whatever the final outcome of the Council changes, it would be easier to adapt a phrasing with “debts” than one with “trespasses.” As it turned out, they decided to keep the familiar phrasing, and so my version was not liturgically correct. This has caused some difficulties, with some dioceses requiring alteration. The Newman Center in Joliet is an example.
My plan was to let it loose and let people do with it what they wanted. I decided to keep the copyright myself, so as to keep it available. Some creative changes were made. One person rewrote the ending to fit the new, longer exchange at the end of the prayer in the liturgy. This longer ending has now become part of the “canonized” version. In another case, a jazz version was created by Sten Lundgard, a Swedish sax player, which was later planned for a theme in a movie. Like the planned LP, the movie was never produced, at least to my knowledge.
The Father Prayer: The Shalom Singers
The Father Prayer: IC Newman Center