An Interview with Yehudi Wyner

You once made the statement, “I hear my music as singing.” What do you mean by this?

YW: “My music essentially comes from a vocal impulse. Music, for me, has a strong rhythmic component, but above all, it is singing lines. That doesn’t mean that they are little ‘sing-song’ lines, like jingles and simple folk songs. But the essential impulse is not instrumental; it is from the human voice and the energy that’s required to produce a sound . . . and the effort, also, to somehow lock into a kind of instinct that many of us have for tonality, which makes things memorable and which enables us to sing things.

“My father was a great composer of Jewish art songs, the ‘Franz Schubert’ of composers writing art songs to Yiddish poetry. That was the music I was surrounded with growing up (along with all the classical and the American vernacular elements, of course).

“My father drew on elements of melody and cantillation that went back to the Hassidim in eighteenth-century Poland and Russia, to cantorial elements that went back to the 1700s and, much more remote, to traditional cantillation, which goes back many, many centuries, possibly a millennium or so. The continuity I retain from this is very important to me.

“The contact with my father’s music also puts me in contact with a language that is native to me. I grew up with parallel English and Yiddish. My native Yiddish puts me in touch with a culture that is kind of a lifeblood. (Actually, it’s a culture that is greatly in decline, largely because of the Holocaust.) The contact with my father permits me to maintain a kind of unbroken connection with my roots.”



You were quoted in The Boston Globe as saying, “Any time I come to some kind of impasse, I would return to this of idea of what I love about music. That sustained me.” What is it that you love about music?

YW: “[I love] music that somehow, for whatever reason, penetrates to an area of your being, that shocks you, that moves you, that touches you, that brings tears or laughter or understanding AND that you can retain, that you can remember.

“I can be interested in lots of complicated music. I adore Boulez; I sometimes am very interested in Stockhausen, and sometimes the music of Ligeti really shocks and moves me. But those are not the kinds of music that normally reach my core.

“With my father, sometimes I would go to music concerts, and a moment would come in the piece, maybe by Verdi or by Brahms, and my father would turn to me and say, ‘How simple.’ He meant that there was something essential, memorable, penetrating and deep, and, almost always, spiritual about it.”



What do you hope listeners hearing The Lord is close to the heartbroken will take away with them?

YW: “I think there is an overall spiritual essence to life itself. One of the great Jewish philosophers said that life itself is, by definition, holy. Life is holy. I believe that. My life is devoted to trying to add something to the world, trying to help people, trying—although it can be difficult sometimes—to love. To love 'the things of this world,' to love my colleagues, the work I do, my family, my children, my grandchildren, and of course, my wife. And, if there were a cat in the house, the cat.

“When people hear this Psalm, I want them to get a sense of celebration, of thoughtfulness, a sense of the all-encompassing feeling of a holy, spiritual, aspiring hopefulness.”



"[Wyner] is a composer with a fiercely independent spirit, a modernist who believes that serious music can and should still bring sensual pleasure. His works are vital and capacious, often finding fresh ways of wedding extremely visceral expression with a refined sense of craft ... He is one of the most actively engaged composers you will meet."
- Jeremy Eichler, The Boston Globe"


Wyner Choral Work Is Next Premiere in SDG’s Psalms Project

West Window,
American Cathedral in Paris

Soli Deo Gloria is pleased to announce the world premiere of the next SDG commission in the Psalms Project, The Lord is close to the heartbroken, by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Yehudi Wyner.

Written for mixed chorus, the work is based on Psalms 34 and 68, using what the composer calls “a slight mélange” of several scripture translations. He has carefully selected his text with a keen ear for language that is singable and with a desire to call attention to what he describes as “the remarkable purity and hopefulness of the text itself.”

The Lord is close to the heartbroken
by Yehudi Wyner

Hallelu, Halleluya
Come, my children, listen to me:
Who among you delights in life,
And longs for time to enjoy all good things?
Then turn from evil and do good;
Seek and pursue peace.
The Lord is close to the heartbroken,
The Lord is close, helping those whose spirit is crushed.
God watches over their bones;
Not a one shall be broken.
O God, Thy procession comes into view
First the singers, next come minstrels,
Among them, girls playing on tambourines.
All you kingdoms of the world, sing praises,
Sing praises to the Lord, to Him who rides the heavens, the ancient heavens.
Halleluya, halleluya.
—based on Psalm 34 and Psalm 68

Yehudi Wyner
Photo: Michael Lovett

Awarded the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for his Piano Concerto, Chiavi in Mano, Yehudi Wyner (b.1929) is one of America's most distinguished musicians. His compositions include over 80 works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, solo voice and solo instruments, piano, chorus, and music for the theater, as well as liturgical services for worship. He has received commissions from Carnegie Hall, The Boston Symphony, The BBC Philharmonic, The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, The Library of Congress, The Ford Foundation, The Koussevitzky Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts, The Fromm Foundation, and Worldwide Concurrent Premieres among others. His recording The Mirror on Naxos won a 2005 Grammy Award, Chiavi in Mano on Bridge Records was nominated for a 2009 Grammy, and his Horntrio (1997) was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Other honors received include two Guggenheim Fellowships, The Institute of Arts and Letters Award, the Rome Prize, and The Brandeis Creative Arts Award. In 1998 Mr. Wyner was awarded the Elise Stoeger Prize given by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for “lifetime contribution to chamber music.” He is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and The American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

CD of Wyner's orchestral works,
including his Pulitzer Prize-winning
Piano Concerto, Chiavi in Mano

Yehudi Wyner has also had an active career as a solo pianist, chamber musician collaborating with notable vocal and instrumental colleagues, teacher, director of two opera companies, and conductor of numerous chamber and vocal ensembles in a wide range of repertory. Keyboard artist of the Bach Aria Group, he has played and conducted many of the Bach cantatas, concertos and motets. He served on the chamber music faculty of the Boston Symphony’s Tanglewood Music Center from 1975-97, and he has also been composer-in-residence at Civitella Ranieri, the Eastman School of Music, Vassar College, the Atlantic Center for the Arts, the Rockefeller Center at Bellagio, Italy, the American Academy in Rome, and at the Sante Fe Chamber Music Festival.

Mr. Wyner was a Professor at Yale, where he served as Chairman of the Composition faculty, before becoming Dean of the Music Division at State University of New York, Purchase College, where he was a Professor for twelve years. He has been a Guest Professor at Cornell University and a frequent Visiting Professor at Harvard University. He has also held the Walter W. Naumburg Chair of Composition at Brandeis University, where he is now Professor Emeritus. He is married to conductor and former soprano Susan Davenny Wyner.

Recent compositions include Give thanks for all things for Orchestra and Chorus, commissioned by The Cantata Singers; Fragments from Antiquity for Soprano and Orchestra; Fantasy on B.A.C.H. for Piano, commissioned by Wigmore Hall and Angela Hewitt; TRIO 2009, for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, commissioned by Chamber Music San Francisco for Lynn Harrell, Robert Levin and Richard Stoltzman. Recordings of his music can be found on Naxos, Bridge, New World, Albany, Pro Arte, CRI, 4Tay, and Columbia Records.

Yehudi Wyner: Sacred Music CD
(cover photo:
ancient synagogue in Morocco)

For people especially interested in Wyner’s sacred music, the CD appropriately titled Yehudi Wyner: Sacred Music includes his liturgical piece Friday Evening Service, for cantor and chorus. Click to hear excerpts from this CD. For a complete list of Mr. Wyner’s works, visit his publisher G. Schirmer’s website.

American Cathedral in Paris

The premiere of Wyner’s newest work, The Lord is close to the heartbroken, takes place on Sunday, January 22, 2012, at the American Cathedral in Paris, as part of the church’s 11:00 a.m. Sunday morning Eucharist. The church choir, accompanied by harp and percussion (2 tom toms, 1 bass drum, 1 suspended cymbal, 1 claves, 1 crotale), will be conducted by Zachary Ullery, Director of Music at the Cathedral.

Preceding the service, Yehudi Wyner, along with SDG’s Artistic Director, John Nelson, and SDG’s Psalms Project Director, Peter Bannister, will lead an informal dialogue at the 9:45 a.m. Sunday Adult Forum. All are welcome.

The 52 flags hanging in the nave
of the Cathedral include
the flag of the United States,
flags from each of the fifty states,
and the flag of France.



American Cathedral in Paris
23, Avenue George V
(in the 8th Arrondissement of Paris,
midway between the Seine and the Champs Élysées)

For more information,
call the Cathedral at 01 53 23 84 08
or email parish.coordinator (at)