Requiem Mass settings
By Lucy Allen
The clocks have gone back, the days are colder, the evenings are darker, and poppies are starting to appear on everyone’s lapels. As November approaches our thoughts turn to Armistice Day (11th November) and to commemorating the fallen. Orders for the music of Requiem settings keeps the OUP Hire Library busy at this time of year, but with so many different Requiem versions, how does one select which to perform? We asked OUP staff and their families for their favourite; read on to find out which they chose.
First performed in 1962, Britten’s War Requiem is a deeply moving and often haunting mix of the standard Latin Requiem words, set mostly for full orchestra, soprano soloist, and chorus, with some passages sung by a distant boys’ choir, and settings of WWI poems by Wilfred Owen, delivered by baritone and tenor soloists accompanied by a separate chamber orchestra. The War Requiem was dedicated to four of Britten’s friends who died in the war and the whole work deals with conflict and resolution, with some striking recurring musical motifs guaranteed to affect any listener. Hailed in the 1960s as a contemporary masterpiece, Britten’s War Requiem continues to have great impact today. It’s not an easy work to listen to and it’s not meant to be: Britten famously wrote to his sister after the premiere, saying, ‘I hope it’ll make people think a bit’, and that is exactly what it does, during and long after any performance. I’ve been to several performances of the War Requiem, most featuring the inimitable Ian Bostridge as soloist, and also taken part in one (with the women of the cathedral choir I sang in as a student pretending to be a choir of boys!), and its powerful effect on me has never diminished.
Thought by many to be the pinnacle of his output, Britten’s War Requiem is a profoundly moving, grandiose work commissioned in 1958 to mark the consecration of the new cathedral at Coventry (the original building having being badly bombed during the Second World War). As an avid reader of Wilfred Owen’s evocative war poetry since the days of English Literature classes at school, I am always captivated by the incorporation of the nine poignant Owen poems within the framework of the familiar Requiem text. I was fortunate enough to be in the orchestra for a performance of this work at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall in my final year at university, and this memorable experience has made this work my favourite Requiem setting.
My vote must go to Britten’s War Requiem, his grandest and, I would say, greatest work. It has a formidable and dazzling structure, interspersing the Latin text of the Requiem Mass with the English of Wilfred Owen’s intensely moving First World War poems. Much of it is very beautiful and there are many shattering and heart-stopping moments. I have never listened to it without feeling overwhelmed (in the best possible way) by its power.
I edited the vocal score of Chilcott’s Requiem, which is always a privilege as it means you get to see/hear the work before most other people and discuss the music with the composer. The premiere in the Sheldonian was wonderful, as the piece was performed by the Oxford Bach Choir, for whom it was written, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Having only ever heard the work in my head, I found that first moment of the performance really special. I remember hearing the first beat of the timpani and feeling almost like I wanted to hold my breath – the atmosphere Chilcott creates in that moment is so tangible. The energetic 7/8 ‘Sanctus’ is another particular highlight for me, as it feels like a real chance for the choir to let rip! There’s also a beautiful soprano solo in the ‘Pie Jesu’ and a really heartfelt setting of ‘Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of my hearts’. I also recently attended a performance in Wells Cathedral, which had a very different flavour. It was performed with the small ensemble accompaniment rather than orchestra, and the boys’ voices gave a quite different feel to the piece. Their sound was amazing, and it felt as if they each had a strong connection to the music – perhaps because they’d recently recorded it for the Chilcott Hyperion disc.
First composed in 1947 and later revised in 1961, Duruflé’s Requiem is based around Gregorian and chants is one of the calmest and most reflective settings. The ‘Kyrie’ is a real plea for mercy whilst the meditative ‘Lux Aeterna’ is quite sublime. Nonetheless, Duruflé does not shy from drama, and the baritone solo of the ‘Libera Me’ followed by the chanting of ‘dies irae’ is terrifying and a morbid reminder of our own mortality.
Whilst not being classically (or musically) educated, I grew up listening to my mother’s selection of (mainly orchestral) music; I don’t recall Fauré’s Requiem being amongst her records, yet somehow, a memory of this setting seeped into my consciousness as a thing of rare beauty. On acquiring a CD recording in the late 1980s of the classic recording by King’s College Choir, the lovely ‘Pie Jesu’ (sung on that recording by our very own, and at that time very young, Bob Chilcott) has since become one of my favourite pieces of music. Its sublime understatement proved the perfect accompaniment to the Committal at a recent family funeral with its calm, yet melancholy, reassurance.
My favourite is the Mozart Requiem because it runs through every emotion and it is quite simply beautiful. Plus, I still remember the first time I sang it (6th Form College Christmas concert 1999) and I was totally blown away. I also played the first violin part a couple of years later at university.
Mozart definitely. It scares me. The ‘Lacrimosa’ sounds as close to the dying process as I can imagine: you sing it and you feel — from the breaths, the broken words, the rise and fall of the music, the forward motion and then dropping off — that you are in the midst of the slow ebbing away of life (which as we know was where the composer was himself). You also sense the defeated sadness of it, which I guess is something people can feel at the point of death: the regrets and exhaustion from a life that perhaps could have been better lived. And then the ‘Dies Irae’ — this is just terrifying! — and I’m pretty sure that’s what I might feel myself when I go over. Mozart is always sublime, but in his Requiem I’ve always felt an expression of raw, unrefined emotion that I just don’t find in his other works. As if death pulled him away from the style, and he was left wide open.
Michael Finnissy’s completion of Mozart’s Requiem
This new completion of Mozart’s Requiem was written in 2011, and performed for the first time in November of the same year. I was lucky enough to be at the first performance. Michael Finnissy took Mozart’s unfinished manuscript and completed it in a truly creative way – he tried to imagine what might have influenced Mozart if he had been writing in the present day and composed the missing sections accordingly. Finnissy’s version of the Requiem ends with a solo bass voice fading away to nothing, which is incredibly moving and evocative. The performance I attended, on a cold winter night in a beautiful church, is one of the most memorable concerts I have been to.
The opening of the ‘Dies Irae’ from Verdi’s Requiem never fails to send a thrill right through my body: it’s so darkly powerful that whether listening to it or performing I can’t help feeling completely overwhelmed and yet strangely elated. After all this drama, I always look forward to floating away on the sinuous bassoon solo that repeats throughout the ‘Quid sum miser’.
Lucy Allen is the Print and Web Marketing Assistant in Sheet Music at Oxford University Press.