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Singing the Requiem

Updated: Apr 8

The Requiem looms large in the life of choral singers. Some of the most performed and beloved pieces in the choral repertoire set the text of the Latin Missa pro Defunctis, Mass for the dead. I grew up singing these mysterious words in many guises, from the consolatory and deeply personal: Faure, Howells, to the declamatory and ostentatious: Mozart, Verdi. Quite apart from their ritualistic liturgical context, the text seems to cry in an essentially human and fragile voice: timeo – I am afraid, and libera me – free me, as well as the desire to see hope, lux aeterna, in desolation.

Our concert this weekend explores two vastly different manifestations of the form. Tomas Luis de Victoria’s Officium Defunctorum is ostensibly a formal observance of the rites of Requiem for his patron Empress Maria, the sister of Philip II, but the complex polyphony has a fiery intensity which transcends its liturgical function. The Communion passage particularly is a vivid depiction of deep suffering, shot through with shards of light, by turns agonising and uplifting to sing – Versa in luctum cithara mea, et organum meum in vocem flentium: my harp is turned to mourning and my organ into the voice of those that weep.

Gabriel Jackson hangs his Requiem (2008) on the skeleton of the Latin Mass, and the influence of Victoria is clear, but his approach to the piece is refreshingly new. He has enmeshed texts from a panoply of sources: Walt Whitman, Chief Apumut of the Mohicans; a highlight for me is the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore- “Let the flight through the sky end in the folding of wings over the nest”. Each performance of the piece has the potential to be subtly different, including passages where singers repeat fragments in their own time to create a complex and exciting texture under solo melodic phrases, or sing in their own tempo to create heterophonic word painting. The use of narration and whispering brings an immediacy, which always feels to me as if a musical “fourth wall” has been broken, with members of the choir speaking, pleading, directly to the audience. This Requiem has left the world of its vestigial Latin Mass far behind, but it still seems to arise from the same human impulse to fear, lament and console.

Mourners at the side of a lady's coffin

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