The word ‘Requiem,’ most strictly, refers to the Roman Catholic funerary rite, a celebration of the Mass incorporating prayers for the repose of the departed soul. Known formally as Missa pro defunctis [Mass for the Dead] or Missa defunctorum [Mass of the Dead], the ritual takes its popular name from the first word of the Introit, the service’s opening utterance: ‘Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine’ [Grant them eternal rest, Lord].
But ‘Requiem’ has come to mean much more than a religious service. It has become a metaphor, useful in any retrospective contemplation of a past moment. And, more importantly for our purpose, its religious symbolism has made it an iconic object through which composers can measure themselves within a strong and ongoing tradition. Just as an artist who paints a crucifixion, or even a composer who writes a symphony, creates not only a work of art but a commentary on the concept of ‘crucifixion’ or ‘symphony,’ the creation of a Requiem, or even the use of the word in the title of a work, is necessarily a considered effort to join a historical procession and begs comparison to a historical chain that dates back at least to the earliest surviving polyphonic setting of the Requiem text, by Johannes Ockeghem in the late-15th century.
Only two of the four works in our program are Requiems, either formally or by analogy. A third, Sven-David Sandström’s Es ist genug, expresses a sentiment close to that of the Requiem text itself: the readiness of the believer to abandon the difficulties of earthly life for the promised glories of Heaven. In the fourth work, Henryk Górecki’s Totus tuus, it is as if we are already there.
Sven-David Sandström, born in 1942, is among Sweden’s most frequently performed composers and a leading pedagogue who has taught for many years at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm and, more recently, at Indiana University. Though he has been prolific in many genres, including symphonic music and opera, his most characteristic works are for choir – with or without instruments – reflecting twenty years of experience as a professional-level choral singer in Stockholm. Writing for the choir in which he himself sang, he was able to hone his craft from the inside, creating pieces which, while sounding complex and difficult, possess a moment-to-moment logic and a seeming inevitability that make them eminently graspable even by amateur (albeit well-trained) singers, who are then able to convey that logic, and the deeply spiritual sensitivity behind it, to an audience.
Sandström’s oeuvre demonstrates a passion for confronting the past by employing it in new ways, a practice typical of the postmodern artistic world in many, if not all, genres. Among his works are some that – as Es ist genug does – incorporate portions or even the entirely of an earlier work as an underlying generative layer for an entirely new conception. For example, a recent multi-year project was the composition of six motets that employ the same texts used by Bach for his six; Sandström’s latest – and quite controversial – large-scale effort was a wholly original musical setting of the complete text used by Handel for Messiah.
Es ist genug was composed in 1986 for the great choral conductor Eric Ericson and the Royal College of Music Chamber Choir in Stockholm. The text is taken from a work by the German Baroque composer Dietrich Buxtehude, who was esteemed to the point of veneration by Bach. His cantata Eins bitte ich vom Herrn [One Thing I Ask of the Lord] expresses the yearning for escape from the burdens of earthly existence, through death, to heavenly life in proximity to God. Near the end the tenors sing a phrase from a popular Swedish song by Herman Palm (1863-1942), with words by the Finnish nationalist writer Zachris Topelius (1818-1898), librettist of the first Finnish opera. By borrowing this fragment from Under rönn och syrén [Beneath Mountain Ash and Lilac] and placing it in the present context, Sandström causes the line to transcend its commonplace evocation of nature, converting it to a suggestion of the peaceful eternity in Heaven sought by the anonymous author of the text of Buxtehude’s cantata.
Sandström’s textual borrowing did not stop at words, however. The music of Es ist genug grows out of the slowly-stated phrase heard at its start, a transcription (with individual lines transposed) of the opening of the Buxtehude cantata’s central choral movement. In the original, this movement possesses a dance-like grace; by slowing it drastically and placing it in each voice’s lowest range, Sandström gives it the timeless quality of a remembered dream. The fragment is repeated without change – in alternation with a nearly-identical variant – seven times, with longer and longer gaps between them. Each iteration generates a contrapuntal response, whose individual lines move mostly in close intervals that rub against the other parts, generating a sort of musical friction. The responses become increasingly impassioned, until a climax is reached, after which the music subsides. As it does, we hear an echo of the opening phrase as it appears in Buxtehude’s cantata, a bit later fragments of melody from the aria that precedes that chorus, and finally the quotation from Under rönn och syrén: wisps of the past encased in a nostalgic haze. The overall musical effect is reminiscent of Charles Ives’ epochal Unanswered Question and of Ives’ experiments in liberating music from the constraints of regular rhythmic pulsation through a kind of temporal counterpoint – different voices moving at different speeds – analogous to the more familiar polyphony constructed from the interaction of independent melodies. The spiritual effect, however, is much deeper.
Before the mid-20th century, Poland had produced only two composers of international stature: Frédéric Chopin (the familiar spelling of his given name a reminder that his adult life was spent in exile) and Karol Szymanowski. Beginning in the 1950s, however, a triumvirate of widely celebrated composers emerged, spurring a renaissance of Polish music and giving it an unprecedented international profile. Witold Lutosławski and Krzystof Penderecki led the way, but since the 1990s their fame has been eclipsed by that of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933-2010). At first identified along with Lutosławski and Penderecki as a leader in the international avant-garde, Górecki eventually abandoned modernist aesthetics to pursue a solitary path of radically simplified, luminous beauty.
Górecki’s fame arrived late, compared to that of contemporaries with whom he is frequently grouped – such as Arvo Pärt and John Tavener – as members of a European school of ‘holy minimalism’ in contradistinction to the secular minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass in North America, and Louis Andriessen and Michael Nyman in Europe. In 1992, one of the now-numerous recordings of Górecki’s Third Symphony (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) became an unexpected hit, selling more than a million copies fifteen years after the work’s completion. From then until his death last November, Górecki became one of the most frequently performed and recorded of contemporary composers. Unlike such icons of ‘process music’ as Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt, whose music tends to be generated through the use of rigid canonic procedures, Górecki worked in a more intuitive manner, though to similar ecstatic effect.
The title of Kleines Requiem für eine Polka, composed in 1993, is enigmatic: it seems whimsical (‘Little Requiem’ being a term with no intrinsic historical meaning, unlike, for example, ‘Missa brevis’), but the work itself is serious, almost violent in places, and there is little in it that suggests the once-popular dance accompanied by accordion, beer and Bratwurst. The word ‘polka,’ though, can also refer to a Polish woman, and some commentators have speculated that Górecki had in mind a particular individual or group. The composer, always reticent about his music, refused to say much about it.
That it is a Requiem (though without text or voices, as in Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem) is implied by the chimes that recur throughout the work, imitative of tolling bells. They are reminiscent also of music by Arvo Pärt, such as Cantus – as it happens, a memorial to Britten. But where Pärt emphasises the church-like sound of chimes by restricting his to a single pitch, as if interrupting the musical flow from outside, Górecki is more fanciful, preserving the chimes’ almost automatic ritual association while weaving them into the rest of the ensemble.
The work is in four linked sections, the outer ones almost motionless, pervaded by the tolling of the chimes. The second is furious, and the closest approach Górecki ever made to the repetitiveness of ‘classic’ minimalism. It subsides in an echo of the hushed opening, giving way to the third section’s perverse parody of a polka, its oom-pah bass line transformed into a frantic whirlwind (a dance of death?), to which the final section can be heard as a memorial pendant.
Totus tuus is as different from Kleines Requiem für eine Polka as a work can be while remaining by the same composer. As befits a piece composed to be performed before Pope John Paul II (on his third papal pilgrimage to his homeland, in 1987), it is an ecstatic paean to the Virgin Mary, patron saint of Poland. Unlike Kleines Requiem für eine Polka, its simplicity of form and direct utterance are reminiscent of Górecki’s most famous work, his Third Symphony.
The Masses of Haydn and Mozart were created as expressions of personal faith by pious Catholics; those of Beethoven and Berlioz are concert works written by individuals who had little use for organised religion other than as a spring from which a rich artistic tradition arose, to which they might contribute. Though for most of his life Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) served as a church choirmaster and organist, his attitude may have been closer to Beethoven’s than to Haydn’s: in one early post as an organist in the provinces he frequently got into trouble for sneaking out during the sermon for cigarette breaks, and was finally dismissed when he turned up for mass one Sunday still in his evening clothes after an all-night party.
Fauré, even more than being a great French composer of his era, was the crucial link between the romanticism of Berlioz, Gounod and Saint-Saëns (Fauré’s own teacher) and the incipient modernism of Debussy and Ravel. Ravel himself was among Fauré’s many later-prominent pupils at the Paris Conservatory; another was Nadia Boulanger, who eventually abandoned a promising career as a composer to become the pre-eminent composition teacher of the 20th century. In other words, Fauré’s lasting influence on music is far greater than his relatively few compositions may suggest.
What Fauré emphasized in his teaching, rather than adherence to any particular method, was ‘taste, harmonic sensibility, the love of pure lines, of unexpected and colourful modulations.’ Nowhere are these virtues more evident than in his Requiem, which was composed not for any particular occasion but, as Fauré said, ‘for the pleasure of it.’ The earliest portion to be completed, the Libera me, was written in 1877 as an independent piece. When, in 1888, Fauré completed a five-movement work that he privately referred to as ‘un petit Requiem,’ the Libera me was not included. In this form – with soprano solo only, and an instrumental accompaniment limited to a few strings and organ continuo – the Requiem was first performed, in its appropriate liturgical context, at the Church of the Madeleine in Paris where Fauré was choirmaster. During the next few years he expanded the torso in both scale and length by adding wind instruments to the orchestra as well as a baritone soloist, for whom he composed an Offertory and incorporated the earlier Libera me. This version was first performed in 1893. A third version emerged in 1900, with its vocal parts unchanged but the overall sound enlarged through the use of a full symphony orchestra. This became the ‘standard’ version until recently, though the reason for its existence is more likely the desire of Fauré’s publisher for a large-scale concert work rather than any artistic impulse on the composer’s part; Fauré even farmed out its orchestration to a former pupil.
Fauré’s Requiem is often viewed as a gentle, comforting work, more akin in its affect to Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem than to the Requiems of Berlioz, Verdi and even Mozart, with their graphic depictions of the terrors of Hell. This perception has led to anodyne performances that seek only to reveal this soothing element, as if to swathe the work (and its listeners) in anaesthetic gauze. It is true that Fauré himself wrote, ‘It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has even called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration toward happiness above rather than as a painful experience.’ It is similarly true that he omitted from it the most frightening text – the Dies irae sequence – which composers of a more dramatic bent have seized on to create the greatest possible contrast with the more consolatory sections. And yet, especially in the Libera me (with its liturgical reprise of part of the Dies irae text), which Fauré restored after the first performance, those horrors are readily discernable, though with a subtle, typically French restraint. Were there no such terrifying moments – which are more starkly present from the first note onwards in the clarity of Fauré’s 1893 version than in the more homogenised full orchestration of 1900 – the soft-edged, refracted light of the rest would have little meaning or significance.
- Jerome Hoberman -