Sunday, March 4, 2012

What the Requiem Means to Me

This Saturday (March 10, 2012), I will be playing the Brahms Requiem with my friends in the Bakersfield Symphony. I have a particular fondness for the great classical requiems, so I decided to share a bit about my feelings and thoughts.

I attended my first requiem when I would have been about age 12 or so. My then violin teacher was playing in a production of Mozart’s Requiem, and our whole family attended. I have never forgotten that concert, and I would list it as one of the most important experiences of my life.

For those unfamiliar with this particular musical form, let me explain. The Catholic liturgy has services for pretty much any occasion. Included is the one thing that comes to us all: death. The Requiem service can be viewed as either a funeral or a memorial service, but either way, it commemorates the death of an individual, and offers a view of life after death.

The Mass has been a favorite inspiration of many composers, but the Requiem Mass has inspired the greatest depth of thought. Whether you prefer Mozart’s poignancy, Verdi’s unforgettable theatrics, Brahms’ mix of sadness and hope, or Faure’s quiet simplicity, there is something to speak to each one of us.

For those of us who have the hope that is in Christ, a requiem is more than an inspiring work of beauty. It represents the face of God in all his terrible justice, and in all his transcendent mercy. As we all face our own deaths, we look from the Dies Irae that we deserve, and cry, Pie Jesu, dona eis requiem.

The basic requiem form comes from the Latin Mass, and most requiems follow this form. Brahms, however, being a Protestant, makes the bold step of choosing a series of scriptures for his text. Both approaches are meaningful, and each has its own beauty and personal meaning.

First, I want to set the stage by going through the basics of the Mass format, with the musical examples that I like the best. This is by no means an exhaustive list, or course. I have played all of the musical selections quoted with one musical group or another (except the Lauridsen) - one of the greatest blessings in my life is the opportunity I have had to play the greatest music of all time with some of the best people in the world.

The word requiem itself means “rest”, and that is the true theme of the Latin Mass.

The introductory portion of the Mass begins as follows: (English translation only, but the Latin is beautiful and worth a look.)

Grant them eternal rest, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.

This also becomes the final statement of the service. Verdi in particular focuses on the phrase lux aeterna, eternal light. In a modern almost requiem, Morten Lauridsen makes Lux Aeterna the title and focus of his visionary work. 

I love how Mozart sets the stage with his setting of this introductory text. Mozart is often unfairly associated with frivolous court entertainment, but this movement has always affected me deeply. This is the music of sorrow mixed with hope and strength. If this doesn’t move you, you must have a cold heart indeed. 

Notes: This performance uses period instruments - notice the odd trombones, among others. Mozart wrote two parts for the bassett horn, an obsolete relative of the clarinet. This recording is just amazing. (The opening section runs to 5:50. The next section is the Kyrie - see below)

Lauridsen also wrote an amazing introductory section. His work isn’t really a requiem, although it uses the requiem text as well as other liturgical sources. His luminous harmonies in this opening are simply amazing. Occasionally, a composer writes something that sounds “right” and “obvious” and sticks in the memory as something that is beyond time and place. If Handel had not written “For Unto Us a Child is Born”, it would have, of necessity, written itself. It is these moments that we attribute to inspiration.  

 After making the initial prayer for rest, the requiem service proceeds with the next step of the mass, the Kyrie. 

Lord have mercy;
Christ have mercy;
Lord have mercy.

When all is said and done, when all is stripped away, we will stand on the mercy of Christ. There will be no other argument and no other plea. John Michael Talbot wrote a moving setting of the mass entitled The Lord’s Supper, and this section is one of the best. (I still remember the Creed best from that version) Although there are many great settings of these words, both in requiems and in masses composed for other occasions, I still like Mozart’s the best. 

With the prayer for mercy finished, it is time to contemplate the day of judgment. The text is ancient, and associated with a chant melody that has been of endless fascination to composers for hundreds of years.

Here is the original:

There are so many great works that quote this melody in some form or another, but I will only mention Berlioz’ Symphony Fantastique and Isle of the Dead by Rachmaninoff. In contrast to the earlier text, these words bring anything but comfort.

Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets' warning,
Heaven and earth in ashes burning!

Again, Mozart captures the spirit well, at least given the limited orchestral and harmonic color available to him at the time. 

However, while Mozart’s version is good, Verdi knows how to do drama. Verdi’s Requiem has been described as Verdi’s greatest opera; and really, this is how the Day of Wrath should sound.

Midway through the Dies Irae text, there is the trumpet. The Trumpet. The one that calls to all, dead and alive, throughout the earth. The Tuba Mirum

The trumpet, scattering a wondrous sound
through the sepulchres of the regions,
will summon all before the throne.
Death and nature will marvel,
when the creature arises,
to respond to the Judge.
The written book will be brought forth,
in which all is contained,
from which the world shall be judged.
When therefore the judge will sit,
whatever hides will appear:
nothing will remain unpunished.

Here, Mozart simply doesn’t get it done. His gentle version for solo trombone is far too nice. Verdi gets it right. Only God Himself could make this work better. In performance, it is important that the solo trumpets be placed at the back of the hall so that the sound starts at a distance, and then becomes all-encompassing. I cannot express how much this section affected me when we first performed it. It was not until the dress rehearsal that we placed all the players in their correct places, and it was spooky. Verdi takes his time building instrumentally to the vocal statement that the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised, and all will be judged. 

After an offertory prayer, which again entreats mercy on our souls, the service proceeds with one of my favorite portions of the Mass, the Sanctus. (I am a Protestant with seriously non-conformist roots dating back centuries, but allow me to admire and enjoy the rite.)

Holy, Holy, Holy,
Lord God of Hosts;
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

There are so many transcendent settings of this sublime text. I will mention Bach’s B Minor Mass, and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, but there are others. Any of the Requiems have excellent examples. Here are a few:

Mozart and Lloyd Webber set the second half of the text separately in a Benedictus. While Lloyd Webber's version is jaunty, Mozart's is just pure beauty.

Next comes the Agnus Dei, with a slight modification. Instead of asking for mercy and peace, the prayer asks for rest.

Lamb of God, who take away the sins of the world, grant them eternal rest.

Again, Mozart truly excels. The longing expressed by the dissonant chords is one of the most poignant moments in all of Mozart’s writing. 

In some of the settings, the last words of the Dies Irae are combined with the words of the Agnus Dei to make a separate movement, the Pie Jesu. Faure’s setting is so good that Saint-Saens said of it, “just as Mozart's is the only Ave verum corpus, this is the only Pie Jesu.” Truly, after hearing this, one must concede that it is the pinnacle. If I could choose one work to be performed at my own funeral, this would be it.

    Kind Lord Jesus, grant them eternal rest. 

With a final prayer for rest in the eternal light, the Latin service concludes.

Brahms takes a completely different approach, discarding the Latin text in its entirety. He writes in his native German rather than Latin, and picks scripture to suit his vision of the service.

He starts with a quotation from the beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew, and combines it with a quotation from the Psalms:

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. (Matthew 5:4)
They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.
He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him. (Psalms 126:5-6)

This opening movement is scored without the violins, but it is a violist’s dream. I love the lush sound and dark orchestration.

Brahms proceeds with a reminder of our brief existence. 

For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away. (I Peter 1:24)  

Brahms follows with words of comfort and of rest. I will not quote the entire text here, but it is a remarkable series of quotations which would be at home in any modern Protestant funeral service. 

Of particular note is the movement, How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place. 

Brahms concludes on a note of hope from the final book of the Bible. 

Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them. (Revelation 14:13)

Although Brahms varies the text from the Latin tradition, the underlying themes of sorrow and hope remain constant through both traditions.

It is my hope that this communicates at least a portion of my passion and love for the musical requiem form, and the sorrow, hope, and love that it expresses.


  1. Awesome. I look forward to listening more carefully to these clips.

    I was glad you mentioned Lloyd Webber's Hosanna, as I've told Sara that that's the version I'd like sung at my funeral. Maybe with real drums rather than electronic, though :) And his Pie Jesu is terrific too.

    1. The Lloyd Webber Requiem was fun - particularly the section in 7/8 time. And yes, we used real drums.

      I thought about adding the Dvorak Requiem, but I have never played it, and do not have a recording (yet), so it would have required some hours of listening that I did not have this month.

      Any others I missed?