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Exploring the Da Vinci Requiem

Wimbledon Choral Society and conductor, Neil Ferris, commissioned me to write the Da Vinci Requiem to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death. Leonardo died on 2 May 1519 at the Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France; Wimbledon Choral Society will premiere the work in the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 7 May 2019.

Before starting work on the Requiem I remembered that my parents had The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci somewhere in their house. In 1946, soon after these translated editions were published, my mother gave them to my father as a wedding present. She knew my father had an enduring fascination with Leonardo and his scientific view of the world. (My father had a place to read natural sciences at university but changed his mind to become a professional flautist.) As a child I loved poring over these large dusty tomes of Leonardo’s, filled with the most extraordinary sketches.

So looking for connections between Leonardo’s philosophical writings and the Missa pro Defunctis (or translated into English, Mass for the dead) became a curiously enriching line of enquiry. Leonardo’s position on religion and faith has always been ambiguous. Many have tried to impose their views on his personal beliefs but who can say what currency these have? Giorgio Vasari, the sixteenth-century art historian (among other things), wrote about Leonardo’s approach to religion: he “formed in his mind a conception so heretical as not to approach any religion whatsoever . . . perhaps he esteemed being a philosopher much more than being a Christian.” However, Vasari omitted this rather provocative statement in a second edition of his Lives of the Painters. Ultimately, it’s the essence of what Leonardo says, how his ideas on life and death marry so well with the Requiem Mass, which intrigues.

Image credit: The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. Used with permission of Cecilia McDowall.

Da Vinci Requiem brings together my chosen Latin texts (IntroitKyrieLacrimosaSanctusBenedictusAgnes Dei and Lux aeterna) from the Missa pro Defunctis with extracts from The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, and is structured in seven movements in the shape of an arch. The Introit and Kyrie for chorus open the work, and this movement is scored for the darker-hued instruments of the orchestra; it is at times dissonant, unsettled, always searching. The soprano and baritone soloists (superb Kate Royal and Roderick Williams) overlay the chorus’s restless motion with a question and answer dialogue, words of Leonardo. There is linguistic contrast, in this movement and later in the Requiem, bringing the Latin and English together.

The second movement for soprano soloist introduces a sharper edge to the work and is more lightly scored with its downward sliding strings. I found an unusual but apt text by Dante Gabriel Rossetti for this entitled, For “Our Lady of the Rocks,” by Leonardo da Vinci. Rossetti wrote the poem seated in front of the painting in the National Gallery and focused on the darker implications in Leonardo’s painting; “Mother, is this the darkness of the end, the Shadow of Death? And is that outer sea Infinite, imminent Eternity?” Rossetti wrote the poem in 1848, a year of revolutions and turbulence in Europe.

Leonardo was commissioned to paint the Virgin of the Rocks, which so inspired Rossetti, in 1485 by a church in Milan. Milan, at that time, was in the grip of the bubonic plague. (On 16 March, in the same year, there was a total eclipse of the sun which was ominously interpreted from pulpits everywhere in Milan . . . one can imagine the rhetoric!). The painting may have been an invocation against the ravages of the plague at that time. The texture of this movement, I hope, gives an acerbic darkness to the drama of the poem.

Image credit: Cecilia McDowall by Karina Lyburn. Used with permission.

The third movement for chorus alone, the Lacrimosa, “I obey thee, O Lord? is less dark and unashamedly melodic giving prominence to the oboe. Reflective in nature, it is another bringing together of the Leonardo text with the Latin mass.

The central part of the Da Vinci Requiem is held by the Sanctus and Benedictus which I hope conveys a sense of joy in amongst the more contemplative passages of the work. Trumpets and drums bring an energy and rhythmic vigour here and are set in contrast with descending choral lines accompanied by the bell-like glockenspiel.

The Agnus Dei for chorus and soprano solo is supported by sombre lower wind, brass and strings. In the sixth movement, for baritone solo, the text is entirely Leonardo’s in which he draws parallels between sleep and death.

The chorus and soloists all come together in the final movement of the work, the “Lux Aeterna.” Light, bright, luminous, the Leonardo text focuses on flight: “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward.” In the closing bars all voices drift upwards, folding into silence, an allusion to Leonardo’s concept of The Perspective of Disappearance (La Prospettiva de’ perdimenti). It has been a fascinating exploration, aligning Leonardo’s extraordinary insights, both artistic and philosophical, with such a profound and ancient text.

Featured image credit : Old Man with Water Studies, a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci. Public domain via Wikipedia Commons.

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