It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience
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A Requiem is a mass given by the Roman Catholic Church in memory of the dead. It gets its name from the opening sentence, Requiem aeternam Donna eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis, Which translates as, Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. In medieval times it was sung as Gregorian chant in church at special masses or to accompany a funeral. Listen to the beautiful Missa pro defunctis by Tomas Luis de Victoria, a composer of the Spanish Renaissance whose work contains passages of Gregorian chant. Going into the 18th,19th and 20th centuries, the requiem grows to become more dramatic in style and Romantic in instrumentation.
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A requiem is a mass given by the Roman Catholic Church in memory of the dead. It gets its name from the opening sentence, Requiem aeternam Donna eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis, Which translates as, Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. In medieval times it was sung as Gregorian chant in church at special masses or to accompany a funeral. Listen to the beautiful Missa pro defunctis by Tomas Luis de Victoria, a composer of the Spanish Renaissance whose work contains passages of Gregorian chant. Going into the 18th,19th and 20th centuries, the requiem grows to become more dramatic in style and Romantic in instrumentation.
Original manuscript of Mozart’s requiem
The mysterious context surrounding the creation of Mozart’s Requiem has contributed to its legendary status. It resembles that of a hollywood blockbuster. The vain Count von Walsegg commissions Mozart to write a requiem commemorating the death of his wife, and in some accounts he wanted to pass it off as his own. Then the great composers dies at the age of 35, essentially he dies writing his own requiem! Mozart had completed less than two thirds of the work and the mystery continues as to what Mozart actually wrote. Some believe he died after writing the first 8 bars of the famous Lacrimosa that can be heard in our playlist. If that is the case, the music is so full of sadness, it is almost as if Mozart knew that he was writing his final few notes.
The Romantic period revolutionised the Requiem. Hector Berlioz took the Requiem out of the church and into the concert hall, recruiting 600 musicians to perform the work at its premiere at the famous Parisian monument, Invalides in 1837. Verdi continued in this vein and composed what was described by Hans von Bülow as an “opera in ecclesiastical dress”. In the thunderous “Dies Irae”, 8 trumpets surround the stage and the famous bass drum hits sound like punishing thunderclaps from the sky. Composers became slightly more liberal in their formation and arrangement of the original Roman Catholic text. Brahms used the German translation for his epic ‘Ein Deutsches Requiem’.
As a non-religious man, Fauré wrote his 1887 Requiem “for pleasure”. A humanist work, it was criticised for not conveying the fear of death. In response Fauré said ‘I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience.’ The result is beautiful soothing melodies like the one found in the Pie Jesu. This quality is also found in the twentieth century Requiem by Maurice Duruflé, which borrows themes from the ancient Gregorian chant of the Dies Irae.
Finally, we end with Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. The work synthesises the enormity of the previous century and the intimacy of more recent works. Britten was a conscientious objector during the second world war and, while paying tribute to the victims of war, he also highlights the devastating loss of life by interspersing poems by Wilfred Owen, an English poet who died just days before the end of the First World War, into the Latin text. Listen here to an historical recording, directed by the composer himself.
Giuseppe Verdi, Requiem, « Dies Irae »
Verdi dedicated this Requiem to the memory of poet and writer Alessandro Manzoni, a man he greatly admired. It is a large-scale work written for two choirs and full orchestra. The Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) is the best known movement from the Requiem. It is a chaotic movement, almost theatrical in nature. Behind Mozart’s requiem, it has been said that Verdi’s requiem is the second most performed choral piece of recent times.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Requiem
Mozart’s last work, unfinished at the time of his death, has been subject to much speculation. After being very handsomely paid to write the piece, Mozart began the task with relish before falling severely ill. He came to regard this piece as the Requiem of his own death, finishing the first part himself and leaving drafts and instructions for completion of the rest of the music.
Benjamin Britten, War Requiem, 1962
This work was commissioned in 1962 for the inauguration of the new cathedral of Coventry which had been bombed by the German forces in 1940. As a committed pacifist, he was the ideal composer. Britten chose to mix the Latin text of the Mass with the verses of the war poet Wilfred Owen, who was killed in the First World War. The premiere included performances by Peter Pears the British tenor and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau a German baritone. These soloists were chosen by Britten to represent solidarity between the once opposing side of the war. They are joined by a soprano who sings of hope.
Hector Berlioz, Grande messe des morts
Berlioz originally composed this piece for Bastille Day, which commemorates the storming of the Bastille palace during the French revolution. It was however performed for the first time at the funeral of General Damrémont in 1837. The large-scale work was performed by a large choir and orchestra comprising of more than four hundred musicians. The composer said of his Requiem ‘If I was threatened to burn all but one score from my life’s work, it is the Mass of the Dead that I would ask for’.
Gabriel Fauré, Requiem
Fauré composed his setting of the Requiem whilst he was director of music at the Madeleine Church in Paris. Drawing influence from plainsong, it evokes a more serene approach to the text of the Requiem then many that have come before. This is supported by his quote: ‘It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience.’ The setting has become his most popular large scale work.
Maurice Duruflé, Requiem
The Requiem of Duruflé, like that of Fauré, has an atmosphere of serenity and deliverance. It was commissioned by the Vichy regime in France during the war in 1941, however it was not until 1948, when the war had ended that Durflé completed the work. It uses numerous musical themes from the Gregorian Chant for the ‘Mass of the Dead’. Duruflé dedicated the Requiem to the memory of his father.
André Campra, Requiem
French composer André Campra wrote his Requiem at the beginning of the 18th Century, however little is known of the exact date and the circumstances surrounding this composition. It appears odd that there was so little documented about the work owing to the prominence of Campra at the time, he was considered one of France’s leading composers during the years between Lully and and Rameau.
Tomas Luis de Victoria, Requiem
Catholic priest and accomplished organist Tomas Luis de Victoria is now one of the most recognised composers of the Spanish Renaissance. He composed his Missa pro defunctis, in 1583 and later dedicated it to the Empress of Spain. This work, written for 6 voices, is emblematic yet advanced of the polyphonic style of the Renaissance.
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