Prof. Augusta Read Thomas work to commemorate first nuclear reaction

The connection between classical composition and a milestone is as old as the art itself. From coronations to religious ceremonies to royal celebrations, such commissions were once commonplace.

But commemorating the world’s first nuclear reaction? That was the unique opportunity facing Prof. Augusta Read Thomas, who sought to create a work for the 75th anniversary of Chicago Pile-1, which the University of Chicago is commemorating this fall.

Thomas sought to balance the good and ill that have arisen since mankind first tapped the power of nuclear energy on Dec. 2, 1942. The resulting six-minute piece, “Plea for Peace,” will premiere Friday, Dec. 1 at Mandel Hall as part of a two-day symposium entitled “Reactions: New Perspectives on Our Nuclear Legacy.

“I wanted to make something right for this particular event, and I hope it touches people in the right way.” Prof. Augusta Read Thomas

“I puzzled over what to do with a subject as complex as CP-1,” said Thomas, University Professor of Composition in the Department of Music. “How does one exactly capture what it has meant for mankind, past, present and future, in a musical composition?”

Focusing on her hope for world peace, Thomas composed an “elegant prayer and reflection.” There are no lyrics–rather, a vocalist will chant alongside a string quartet from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

“The voice is equally braided into the string part,” Thomas said. “Sometimes the violin is leading, and then the voice, and then the cello, and so forth. It’s a five-minute crescendo with a one-minute reflective after-thought. You almost feel like the end could start again, in a kind of cycle.”

“Plea for Peace” will be performed on Dec. 1 in Mandel Hall after a series of afternoon panel discussions and before a 5 p.m. keynote address by Ernie Moniz, former U.S. secretary of energy.

“I really tried to imagine Mandel Hall, a keynote address, a panel address and then all of a sudden there’s this beautiful musical piece that floats in,” Thomas said. “I wanted to make something right for this particular event, and I hope it touches people in the right way.”