When Richard Killmer commissioned me to compose a piece for massed oboes, oboes dʼamore, English horns, bassoons, and contrabassoons in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Eastman School of Music, he recommended that I listen to Bachʼs BWV 69 cantata, “Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele” (“Praise the Lord, my soul”) for inspiration. The opening movement of that cantata is indeed a thrillingly exuberant exhortation of the faithful, but I found myself drawn even more to its closing chorale, a setting of the Lutheran hymn “Es woll uns Gott genädig sein” (“May God be gracious to us”). Luther paraphrased Psalm 67 for his text; its opening verses implore that “God be merciful to us, and bless us; and cause his face to shine upon us…That thy way be known upon the earth, thy saving health among all nations.” I am not a religious person, but I felt that this plea for “saving health” was particularly, touchingly apt these days.
The chorale melody was likely composed by Matthias Greiter in 1524, about two hundred years before Bach composed the first version of his cantata. It is in the pre-tonal Phrygian mode, and Bach had to contort his tonal system of major and minor keys to accommodate it. This, along with Bachʼs unusual choice to add a filigree of trumpets and drums to his chorale harmonization inspired me to compose eleven of my own settings that reference musical styles and languages both pre- and post-Bach. My settings are just that—not variations in the traditional sense, because the tune is always relatively clear and rarely varied but for a few added notes here and there. What changes in these eleven settings is the environment in which the tune appears, along with its tempo, the durations of its pitches.
I was also interested in creating a truly democratic treatment of the ensemble. Throughout, there are solo opportunities for each of the instrument types: a duet for bassoons, a quartet of oboes dʼamore and English horns, another duet for oboes, and a duet for contrabassoons. Separating these smaller ensembles are settings for tutti and near-tutti groupings exploring various textures and moods. The final setting is a chordal, ceremonial hymn.
Before writing a single note of this piece, the French expression “tout le monde” came strongly to mind as its possible title. It means “everyone,” so “tout le monde à la fois” translates as “everyone at once.” This obviously refers to the fact that all the double reeds of the Eastman School would participate in its performance, but I also intend a word-for-word translation of “tout le monde” as “all the world”: an echo of Psalm 67, advocating health “among all nations.”