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Death and the maiden

Sophie Jordan discusses Requiems, religion and if music is ever for mourning

A naïve ear listening to Verdi’s Requiem might wonder which part of the score was really designed to accompany the deceased into their final rest, or any kind of rest for that matter. From the hushed opening notes in which the violins’ languishing tirade softly underlines the soprano’s opening phrases; the basses, alone for a handful of measures, lead on to the crescendo until the ensemble reaches an already booming mezzo forte. By the fifth minute, the strings, the orchestra and all of the doubled chorus have struck the audience’s ears with their passion and power, leaving only the four soloists to be introduced successively within the next section.

Blame it on the Romantic epoch, on Italy ’s much parodied love for fiery, from-the-heart music or even on the composer himself: Requiems as a sub-category methodically play with extremes, regardless of the period or place they were written in. Mozart’s own beast of a piece follows a similar pattern, drawing the audience into the work’s dizzying dynamics after a few counterpoint measures, with the chorus’ layered murmurs rapidly gaining momentum. By definition, the Requiem mass evokes the vertiginous prospect of eternity and the finality of death in turns, displaying the widest range of spiritual attitudes to the end of life on Earth whilst showcasing the composer’s own capacity to transcribe these superlatives into music. Although its early transposition from the initial context of the funeral mass to the concert-hall demonstrates the Requiem’s particular propension for Romantic expression beyond strictly religious settings, the short time-span which saw the first performances of Brahms, Verdi, Dvořák and Fauré‘s pieces in the last decades of the 19th century only stresses the text’s flexible offering. Here, turn to Fauré for all the blown-up beauty of troubled lentos and near-mystic adoration, with a little boost from the organ.

Perhaps more than most genres, the Requiem appeals to individual conceptions of the human being’s short existence. Ironically, setting Biblical verse to music and presenting it in a concert turns the pious dialogue of the original Catholic mass for the Dead into a very public event. Beyond the tragic accents in the exclamations sung by Verdi’s soprano, the liturgical structure framing the work in lieu of a narrative renders the Requiem into a paroxysmal expression of emotion. Yet precisely this stripped form may seem an obstacle against catharsis: a Latin text, the meaning of which we might have gathered through its thematic repetition, remains a Latin text, and its subdivision into the various postures of the mourning soul heightens the abstraction.

Brahms’ answer to this tradition was to compose a Requiem in his mother-tongue. Using lines from Luther’s Bible translation, the German composer premiered his Deutsches Requiem just over 150 years ago, on 18th February 1869. Without necessarily delving into the historical matter of nationalist sentiment on the eve of Wilhelmine Germany, this re-appropriation evidently intensifies the sense that public discourse and the inherently private are interwoven in the genre. In choosing the most comforting lines from Luther’s text, Brahms positioned his Requiem at the more soothing end of the scale, addressing the mourner’s perspective first. From Mozart’s galvanised memento mori and Verdi’s triumphant ode, to Britten’s fragmented work on atmospheric effects, the Requiem mass has been set to a wide range of styles and plied to many different emotions. These swansongs cry to spiritual glory, simultaneously being implicitly deemed the most authentic examples of their composer’s voice. To any enraptured audience, the energy in Mozart’s work overwrites the unfinished state of the original score, to class it somewhere very near the top of the list of his greatest works.

More paradoxically still, this same audience will likely hear the Austrian master’s mass more than once. Who wouldn’t, when a piece which condenses so much into a comfortable short hour’s worth of music, is programmed at least every other year in all ambitious concert-halls? This swansong, like the other composers’ Requiems, is played year after year as part of the standard repertoire, and it isn’t far from there to saying the Requiem immortalises its author’s voice as a meta-consequence of the content’s universal dimensions. Words hardly get any bigger than ‘immortality and ‘the universe’, and this is exactly what Britten’s timpani cries out for in its rather overstated pairing with a less than timid glockenspiel: the king is dead, long live the king!

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