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Song of Sorrows

As Christopher Rouse's masterwork is heard this month at Carnegie Hall, BARBARA JEPSON examines the ways in which requiems of recent years connect with the way we live.

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Alan Gilbert applauds Rouse at Avery Fisher Hall in January 2014
© Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images 2014
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Vladimir Jurowski leads Auerbach's Dresden Requiem in the Frauenkirche, 2012
© Matthias Creutziger 2014

For American composer Christopher Rouse, whose music has frequently explored themes of death or loss, there was something inevitable about writing a requiem. Two of his friends died in childhood, one from leukemia, the other a suicide; later, a colleague was killed in an accident. "Death has never been far from my thoughts," says Rouse, whose striking Requiem (2002) will be a highlight of the Spring for Music Festival at Carnegie Hall in May, when Alan Gilbert leads the New York Philharmonic, Westminster Symphonic Choir, Brooklyn Youth Chorus and baritone Jacques Imbrailo in the work's New York premiere. "And a requiem is probably the most common musical way of dealing with that subject." 

Although The NewGrove Dictionary of Music and Musicians mentions about 140 noteworthy composers of requiems, only a dozen or so of their works are currently performed with regularity — glorious choral masterpieces by Mozart, Brahms, Verdi, Fauré, Britten and the like. Typically expensive to mount and unpalatable in subject matter to some concertgoers, they are less apt to be scheduled by secular arts presenters than orchestral or operatic works. One might conclude that the requiem is an endangered art form.

Yet a survey of four leading music publishers found that during the past fifty years, about seventy-five composers on their rosters have written requiems with vocal parts, and there are undoubtedly more. Stylistically, they run the gamut from Philip Glass and Morten Lauridsen to Wolfgang Rihm and Aribert Reimann, though the latter's rigorous musical idiom is the exception rather than the rule. Their collective efforts show how the genre has evolved in the final decades of the twentieth century and beyond. And in revealing the concerns of their creators, they hold up a mirror to our times. 

During the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, requiems often paid tribute to an aristocratic ruler or other influential figure. But the horrific world wars and atrocities of the twentieth century spawned broader subject matter, more often political or humanitarian. While requiems today may still mourn an individual, as does Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov's despairing Requiem for Larissa, written in 1997–99 after the sudden death of his wife, they more often commemorate a particular segment of humanity — victims of war, oppression or other calamities. Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki's Lacrimosa (1980)memorialized Gdansk dockworkers slain during confrontations with the authorities and became part of his staggering Polish Requiem (1993). Lera Auerbach's Russian Requiem (2007) eloquently depicts repression in her native country, hoping to prevent future occurrences. Some of these "political" requiems have a hot-off-the-press quality: Lebanese composer Rami Khalifé's Requiem, reportedly triggered by recent violence in Syria and the "Arab Spring" countries, was given its premiere last yearby the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra and the MDR Leipzig Radio Choir.

Other composers have pursued existential themes. One of the most imaginative in concept is Harrison Birtwistle's Moth Requiem (2012) for twelvefemale singers, three harps and alto flute, which was inspired by a poem describing the eerie sounds made by a moth trapped under a piano lid and explores the transience of life. Then there are the "mass-market" requiems by composers from the worlds of Broadway, film and pop, which show the breadth of the genre's appeal, if not much else. 

Studies show that while a majority of people in Western cultures believe in some form of existence after death, fewer embrace the New Testament teaching that those who lack faith will spend eternity in Hell. Despite this, the Latin Mass for the Dead, with its fiery evocations of future judgment, has shown remarkable staying power. "Latin is an international language," says Penderecki, who found the "dramatic and fantastical" Dies Irae segment of the Mass a key aesthetic attraction. American composer John Harbison, whose Requiem(given its premiere in 2003) sets the Latin Mass exclusively, liked using a text with a long history. He also relished the idea of bucking a trend. 

Following the lead of Britten's monumental War Requiem (composed in 1961), which remains a formidable influence, most living composers intersperse excerpts from the Mass for the Dead with a variety of secular or sacred texts. Penderecki interpolates the traditional Polish hymn "S´wie˛ty Boz`e" to represent the sufferings of his native country. Richard Danielpour's American Requiem (2001), a lament for fallen soldiers and their families, conveys its non-liturgical sentiments through the haunting Civil War poems of Walt Whitman, the anguished "Lady's Blues" of Michael Harper and more. In the opening to the Silvestrov, the choristers barely articulate words from the Latin text, as if grief had impeded their ability to speak.

In the broadest sense, the requiem today is a piece that grapples with death and loss, regardless of its text or lack thereof (i.e., instrumental pieces with "requiem" in their titles). That definition would also encompass On the Transmigration of Souls, by John Adams. Although the New York Philharmonic commissioned Adams to compose something commemorating the first anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Adams has said that he avoided words such as "requiem" or "memorial," because "they too easily suggest conventions that this piece doesn't share."  He sought instead to create an otherworldly "memory space" where listeners can grapple with their emotions. But the reciting of some victims' names, along with excerpts from the wrenching messages left on missing-persons signs, does foster remembrance.

Rouse's ninety-minute Requiem was commissioned by sacred-music promoter Soli Deo Gloria to mark the bicentenary of Berlioz's birth. For that reason, Rouse deliberately employed the same portions of the Latin liturgy as Berlioz. The choruses sing the Latin Mass; according to the composer's program note, the role of the bass-baritone soloist is "to make the experience of death more personal" through poetic excerpts from Milton, Michelangelo, Seamus Heaney and others. "All the texts I chose are about the loss of someone dear," Rouse notes, whether brother, friend, father, son, spouse or self. "I was trying to have the piece exist on two planes," he adds — "one, the almost ritualized idea of Death with a capital D, but also the more intimate and personal approach of how we experience life through the deaths of people around us." The "Spring for Music" concert will be the second performance of Rouse's work, which was given its premiere by Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Master Chorale in 2007. 

Like Rouse, Lera Auerbach was preoccupied by death from an early age. "One of the first songs I wrote as a child, at four years old," she states, "was about death…. One reason is that I had a very special nanny, an unusual lady. She was taking me to the cemetery for the daily walks. This was very beautiful, because Russian cemeteries are like a forest, with trees and flowers. She had the grave of her deceased husband there and, next to it, a plate with her name, with the date of death missing. She was coming there daily to visit their graves. So it sounds strange and spooky, but it was actually very beautiful and rather poetic at the time. It didn't feel scary or frightening — it just felt normal."

Those who write requiems must confront weighty musical expectations imposed by illustrious predecessors. Do they embrace or reject those associations? Harbison avoided using heavy brass in the Tuba Mirum section of his Requiem, commissioned and introduced by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. "I wanted the Tuba Mirum to not be a big unanimous thing," he says, "but a bunch of frenzied, scattered brasses, kind of desperate. I didn't want it to be overwhelming, I wanted it to be more despairing and scared. So I have them all playing separately." Because Mozart's Requiem was his model, he called for a Classical-sized orchestra, avoiding large string and brass sections and eschewing the tuba, which was not developed until the early nineteenth century. 

American composer Matthew Welch is among those who confound traditional expectations altogether. His ReAnimator Requiem (2013), inspired by H. P. Lovecraft's sci-fi classic, is a ghoulish but zany chamber opera. A chorus of medical students trying to rouse a corpse intones short excerpts from the Latin liturgy; the instrumentation includes electric guitars. 

During the past fifty years, composers have incorporated non-traditional instruments and extended techniques into their requiems. Hungarian composer György Ligeti, who died in 2006, called for low, guttural rumblings and fractured vocal lines from a chorus of at least 100 in his nightmarish Requiem(1965),inspired by apocalyptic art from the Renaissance.The late German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann used tape collage and a jazz band in his Requiem for a Young Poet (1969). Silvestrov uses wind sounds on the synthesizer. French composer Thierry Lancino's oratorio-like Requiem(2009)includes a Tibetan bowl, waterphone and prepared piano. 

The sprawling lengths and larger forces required for many requiems pose challenges for concert presenters and may be a factor, along with aesthetic preferences, in the move toward "chamber-sized" requiems during recent decades. But that hasn't stopped composers from asking for the unusual or difficult. The vocal writing in Rouse's Requiem, particularly in the a cappella Requiem Aeternam, was viewed by choral directors as too arduous for amateur choirs. As a result, it was scheduled by at least three orchestra music directors but canceled at least fivetimes before making it to the concert stage with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, a highly regarded professional ensemble. Auerbach's Requiem (Dresden: An Ode to Peace), first performed by the Dresden Staatskapelle in 2012 under Vladimir Jurowski, requires choristers to sing in forty different languages. 

Conceived for all-male voices, because it is primarily men who wage war, the work (Auerbach's third requiem) is a plea for religious and ethnic tolerance. In the final "Amen" movement, based on the "Dresden Amen" used by Wagner, Bruckner and others, Auerbach sets six prayers in a large fugue. "You have main prayers from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism," she says, "all coexisting and combined in the word 'Amen.'" 

Perhaps the longevity of the requiem is rooted in its ability to offer music-lovers theatrical and thought-provoking experiences simultaneously. While requiems today may offer solace — "a place where all listeners can contemplate loss and healing," as Harbison puts it — their texts may express unmet human aspirations or pose difficult questions. One of the characters in Lancino's Requiem is the Sibyl, doomed to age but unable to die. In discussing the piece, Lancino has said, "Human finitude is a terrifying thought, but would not eternity be an infinitely more terrifying thought?" Ironically, the threat of eternal torment was what gave the traditional liturgical requiem its affective potency in more faith-filled times. We have remade the requiem in our own image, with diverse and engaging results. 

"What makes the requiem so special," muses Auerbach, "is that death brings life into focus, makes us aware of how precious it is. Death ... defines our existence. That's why I think requiems bring the best out of composers," she adds, "because all triviality, anything superficial, has to be shed until only the essential and honest remains. Because when you face the abyss, that's when your true self emerges." spacer

BARBARA JEPSON writes about classical music for The Wall Street Journal's Leisure & Arts pages and is a founding editor of Classical Voice North America, a new website for music criticism. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Arts & Leisure section, Smithsonian and other publications.

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Current Issue: October 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 4