For choirs, November is often the season of requiems. It’s fitting — it includes the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, we mark Remembrance Day, and the weather is mostly rainy, grey and gloomy. If ever there was a season to think about death and do a lot of crying over sad music, November would be it, which makes it unsurprising how many requiems are featured in November concerts.
But this focus on death makes it interesting just how popular requiems are and have been with audiences over time. In fact, I am one of them. I quite like requiems. What is it about requiems, then, that appeals to us, that speak to us in the face of their gloomy content?
Leaving aside the outstanding quality of many requiems — from Mozart to Verdi to Brahms to Faure to the many masses that have a more sombre mood to modern requiems like Britten’s War Requiem, secular requiems and extracts from the requiem canon like Webber’s famous Pie Jesu and — . . . OK, fine, there’s lots to say about the quality of requiems, and that surely contributes to their popularity. But I think it’s more than that.
Originally, requiems were intended for actual use in a mass setting at the funeral mass of the notable who commissioned the work, these roots showing in the common mass-based structure of the older requiems, which generally include the usual “parts of the mass” of a funeral. Given the inherent drama of death and the mysterious nature of the hereafter, which understandably attracted composers, and the general appeal of requiems to audiences, starting in the 18th century requiems came to be stand-alone concert works and a stand-alone genre.
I think it is part of the human condition that we are eternally aware of our own mortality, but also often afraid of or in denial about the inevitable nature of our own demise. Those who are critically self-aware are usually all too painfully aware of the many instances where we have “failed” to be our best selves over the course of decades of life. Old models of church and parenting, teaching and supervisory styles have taught us that there are “negative consequences,” often including punishment, for failure — and we carry that into our relationship with God, and thus, inevitably to our views of death, which, as the last moment of temporal life, is the end of our chances to “fix it” or do better. Small wonder we may look for comfort in the face of the inevitability of death.
Requiems are vehicles that confront and support us in growing in our understanding and acceptance of that reality. At their best, requiems are not just about death and dying; they are about resurrection and reunion with God in heaven. Or, at least, about hope and faith that after suffering a lifetime of slings and arrows, in death we will indeed “rest in peace, a true “repose of the soul.”
The prayers that are the source for the requiem texts have existed for centuries and exist in both Catholic and non-Catholic traditions — likely because they consistently offer comfort, because they “work,” recognizing, articulating and responding to our most basic, innermost fears. One of my favourite lines is lifted directly from Scripture (1 Corinthians), expressed in German by the great Johannes Brahms in Ein deutsches Requiem: “Tod, wo ist dein stachel; Hölle, wo ist dein seig” — “O Death, where is thy sting; O Grave, where is thy victory?” The words help me to remember that while temporal death may be inevitable, it is not a defeat and it is not “the end,” pointless or without hope. Such messages become ever more relevant and important to accept as we age, moving closer to the window for a “natural” death. While we may have faith as we contemplate the next stage of our lives, none of us has an absolute answer, just faith. Thus it makes sense that we look for reassurance wherever we can find it, including in requiems.
Death is the only universal human experience. We may have happy or unhappy childhoods, adulthood, careers or relationships, we may die young or old, from natural causes or due to the intervention of circumstances, but in the end, we all die. Music may not have the same universality, but it shares some of the same qualities as a potential shared experience. A given work may not evoke the same reactions in everyone, but broadly taken, music touches all of us in deeply visceral ways, often at the same deep level as “big” emotions. Music has the power to make us feel happy; it is no surprise it would also be able to comfort us in the face of the great unknown, and reassure us that death, like November, is not eternal, but the opening act to Christmas, new birth and, ultimately, the resurrection.
A Saskatchewan soprano, Burton has sung praises to the Lord in Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and now at St. Joe’s in Ottawa, where she is a chorister and cantor at two masses.