Music: Getting The Requiem Right

There are all sorts of ways to get the Requiem wrong, as illustrated by a number of new releases of musical settings of this venerable text, and ways to get it right also, as some other superb new CDs show. The same is true of the Stabat Mater. The works I deal with here were mostly composed as non- liturgical, concert versions of these texts. I have no objections to this use;this is how a living culture works— moving from the church to the public square, or from the cult to the culture. Problems arise when the lineage back to the cult—in this case, Christian­ity—becomes tenuous or is cut.

A new recording of Alessandro Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater on the ATMA Classique label from Canada illus­trates the complete incomprehension that occurs when the connection be­tween cult and culture is severed. I have not heard this performance, but the CD jacket cover caught my at­tention. It is decorated with a photo­graph of a woman in a full burqa, as worn by Muslim women in, say, Af­ghanistan. Since the woman, with her head inclined, is standing in front of a wall pockmarked with bullet holes, the photo strongly implies that she is a grieving mother. This, no doubt, is intended to “universalize” the message of the Stabat Mater.

But there is a profound problem with universalizing something like Christianity, which already claims to be universal. To do so, you have to deny the terms on which it makes its claim. That means denying Christ, suggesting there is a truth higher than He. The meaning of the passion and death of Christ is already relevant to everyone, even to those who deny its truth. To imply that additional ef­forts are needed to make it relevant can only be done by ignoring its claim and misunderstanding its essence.

In this case, the CD cover art vi­sually denies the central premise of the Stabat Mater, and therefore of Scarlatti’s work: that Christ was cruci­fied and died on the cross. The Koran states, “They killed him not nor cru­cified him” (4.157). Without Christ as the victim, for whom is the Stabat Mater mourning, and what is the sal­vific import of that suffering? There is none. The attempt to universalize the meaning comes at the cost of loss of meaning. It is stunning to contem­plate how much one would have to not know about both Christianity and Islam to do something like this.

On the Naïve label, French com­poser Bruno Coulais makes a similar mistake in his new Stabat Mater, but it affects more than the jacket art. His CD cover is inspired by the photo of a distressed mother, taken by a photo­grapher after a massacre of the civilian population by Islamic radicals in Alge­ria in 1997. As in Afghanistan, here is another case of Muslims killing Mus­lims. Coulais writes: “I have chosen to emphasize a mother’s grief at the death of her child, rather than the account of the Virgin lamenting the death of Christ.” Again, the Stabat Mater is made relevant to this event only by ignoring its meaning. Also, he states, “The meeting of very different musical worlds can lead to ‘the universal.”

Unfortunately, the only thing uni­versal about this is its confusion. In the parts of the text that Coulais sets in a traditional way, he shows that he is a composer of real talent. His combina­tion of these exquisite sections with a solo female voice singing in Arabic in a melismatic Middle Eastern way also is quite moving. However, he com­pletely subverts his work with electric guitar riffs and descents into New Age nonsense and rock screeching. Con­ceptual incoherence leads to musical incoherence, even with a composer this gifted.

Michael Hoppe’s new Requiem displays a different kind of problem. The Requiem is supposed to channel grief, to ritualize it by making it part of something larger than itself. It is meant exactly to dispose one to the right sentiment and away from senti­mentality. It is not supposed to wal­low or croon. As well-intentioned as this American film composer’s work is, is drenched in a kind of New Age sentimentality that, despite the love­liness of some of its melodies, fatally weakens it.

A modern composer who gets much closer to success with this form is Norwegian Stile Kleiberg. His Re­quiem for the Victims of Nazi Persecution was commissioned by the Cathedral of Trondheim. (This hard-to-find su­per audio CD [WNC 0401] can be purchased through the Washington National Cathedral Web site: www. cathedraLorg/cathedral/.) Kleiberg a­voids the trap of trying to make the music as horrible as the events it por­trays, like some of Krzysztof Pend­erecki’s harrowing, earlier works do. In the Dies Irae, Kleiberg harkens back to Carl Orff, but his musical and formal model is clearly Benjamin Brit- ten’s brilliant Requiem. Like Britten, Kleiberg interpolates poetic texts into the Latin liturgy. Like Britten, his mu­sic is basically tonal and lyrical, with harmonic asperities used expressively. There are some very lovely things in this Requiem; the problem comes with the interpolations. The quality of Edwin Morgan’s poems does not come close to matching that of Wil­fred Owen’s, used in Britten’s work. I think this would make a much stron­ger work without them.

(Side note: Curiously, Kleiberg and Moran include homosexuals as one of the three representative groups singled out for commemoration in a way that suggests their equivalence with the other two: Jews and Gypsies. The latter are obvious choices, as Na­zism was based upon race hatred. Ho­mosexuals, however, are not a race, and the some 5,000 to 15,000 im­prisoned were not, despite Morgan’s poetic assertion to the contrary, in­cluded in an extermination plan. We should mourn and deplore the suf­ fering of everyone who was in the camps, but that makes no less disin­genuous this attempted appropria­tion of the Holocaust and its more than 11 million victims to help sani­tize this cause.)

After his wife died in 1996, Ukrai­nian composer Valentin Silvestrov wrote a very personal Requiem for Lar­issa released by ECM Records (ECM 1778), in a performance by the Na­tional Choir of Ukraine and the Na­tional Symphony of Ukraine, under conductor Volodymyr Sirenko. Sil­vestrov has a unique style of glacially slow-moving music that invokes the musical past in shards, as if floating in a dream or some sonic ether. The re­sults are mysterious and, in some ways, mystifying. This work is a Requiem in a state of shock and disorientation over Larissa’s death. It is more the expres­sion of the experience of loss than any consolation for it, though the lament in the Largo is sweetly lyrical. Silves­trov employs a tentative, faltering use of words, sometimes only syllables of words, from the Requiem—stopping, restarting, repeating—to give the im­pression of being stunned, of trying to pray but being unable to. Quite strikingly, he enfolds music from the past as far back as Mozart, and from his own past compositions. This work may require some patience on first acquaintance, but it is both touching and haunting in its sometimes surreal, nostalgic beauty.

A friend of Silvestrov’s, Lithuanian composer Osvaldas Balakauskas, has also written a strikingly original Requi­em, released by Naxos (8.557604) and performed by the Vilnius Municipal Choir and the Christopher Chamber Orchestra of Vilnius, under Donatas Katkus. Balakauskas writes music that is thoroughly traditional and thor­oughly new. It is an admixture of the

Medieval, French neo-Classicism, and jazz. These ingredients may sound immiscible, but they are blended in a brilliant way that makes something new out of the old in a natural way. Balakauskas often creates what sounds like an instrumental or choral drone, over which he weaves soaring, ecstat­ic vocal arabesques from the mezzo- soprano. The Requiem seems to have the steady measure of chant, yet the improvisatory air of a kind of religious scat singing. There is no fissure be­tween cult and culture for Balakauskas, who said: “I do not believe that death is a problem, for we do not solve it; it is unyielding and always resolved for us.” That, in short, is the whole point of the Requiem, made so beautifully in this work.

It is a point well made by two other composers who also got the Re­quiem right, one from the late 19th century and the other from early 20th. Both the Dane Asger Hamerik (1843-1923) and the German Richard Wetz (1875-1935) wrote Requiems that are symphonic in conception and spectacular in effect. The confidence level of both works is staggeringly high; the contrapuntal writing close to unbelievably brilliant (especially in the Hamerik); and the grandeur and majesty overwhelming. Hamerik (DACPO 8.226033) favors Berlioz, with whom he studied, and Beethoven;while Wetz (CPO 777 152-2) shows the influences of Bruckner, Wagner, and Brahms. Both works are master­pieces that will leave you aghast that music of this quality could have been overlooked for so long. Are more peo­ple getting the Requiem right, and we simply don’t know?


Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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