Requiem aeternam -- eternal rest -- has been officially granted to the Latin text of the Mass for the Dead, but it refuses to die. Discarded (at least for everyday use) by the Roman Catholic Church, the ancient Latin words remain a vital element in our musical life. Indeed, they continue to inspire composers -- of all shades of belief and unbelief -- as frequently and eloquently today as at any time in history.
The public has recently become more Requiem-conscious. In the final scenes of "Amadeus," Mozart's Requiem becomes a vivid presence -- almost a living character -- in the harrowing drama of the composer's premature death. And it reached some sort of climax a few weeks ago in the television premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber's new Requiem in the PBS "Great Performances" series.
As a meditation on death and divine judgment, the Requiem text has two sharply contrasting dimensions, which give it great dramatic potential. It inspires music of consolation and music of sheer terror. In the climactic "Dies Irae," the words evoke the sound of the last trumpet ringing across the earth, summoning the dead to rise from their graves and submit to a final, irrevocable judgment before the throne of God. But in other passages, the atmosphere is one of peace and contentment. The tone is set in the opening words: "Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them."
Some composers (Lloyd Webber is the latest) set the text to music as it has been handed down by tradition -- as it was used by Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi. Others (including some of the most devout composers) quarrel with the text. Gabriel Faure' left out the "Dies Irae," which is often a pretext for spectacular musical effects. It simply did not fit in with his musical concept, which focused on the elements of peace and consolation.
In his "War" Requiem, one of the greatest choral works of the 20th century, Benjamin Britten also tampered with the traditional text; he inserted a series of war poems by Wilfred Owen, who died in World War I. The example of Britten is clear in the splendid "Requiem for Unbelievers (Flee This Sad Hotel)" of Roger Ames, which was recently given its world premiere in Bethesda, with Jeffrey Rink conducting the Masterworks Chorus. Ames interrupts the Latin text with poems by Anne Sexton, who died by her own hand and writes about death with a curious, urgent eloquence. Ames' work is a significant addition to the choral repertoire and was beautifully performed at its premiere, with particularly notable solo singing by baritone Gordon Hawkins. (That performance was taped and copies are available for $5 postpaid from the Masterworks Chorus, 914 Robin Rd., Silver Spring, Md. 20901.)
Finally, there is Brahms, who composed not a traditional Latin Requiem but a "German Requiem" in much the same spirit, using his own selection of texts from the Bible. Like Brahms, the English-American composer Wilfred Josephs uses the title "Requiem" for a work with a different text but a similar theme. His Requiem, Op. 39, is based on the Kaddish, in many ways the Jewish equivalent of the Requiem Mass. His concept originated in a string quintet, written in response to the trial of Adolf Eichmann, intended as an elegy for his victims and inscribed with liturgical Latin titles though the music was purely instrumental.
In its final form, the idea has grown into a much larger and more ambitious work. The quintet movements become interludes, part of a 10-movement work written predominantly for baritone soloist, chorus and orchestra. Composed in a freely used 12-tone style, the music is an eloquent elegy for all human suffering. Carlo Maria Giulini may have been exaggerating when he called it "the most important work by a living composer," but his enthusiasm is understandable. An excellent new recording, derived from an Australian broadcast performance with David Measham conducting, is available on an imported Unicorn LP (DKP 9032).
The latest recording of the Brahms "German Requiem" is also excellent, with Margaret Price and Thomas Allen as soloists and Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and the Chamber Chorus of the Hochschule fu r Musik, Munich. It can be heard, with the Variations on a Theme of Haydn as a filler, on Orfeo S 039824 H (two LPs).
Textually, Lloyd Webber's is the most orthodox of recent Requiems. But the music for the two soprano soloists (a boy and a woman) sometimes struggles against the implications of the text, and the melodic line, apparently with deliberation, occasionally takes these voices up into regions where they are not wholly comfortable. The tenor's music is more powerful and straightforward -- the voice of one who always believes and accepts what the words are saying. This dialectical contrast reaches its climax in the "Hosannah," a hymn of praise to God that Lloyd Webber does not fully accept as part of a service for the dead.
Lloyd Webber's Requiem may be destined for the same kind of critical coolness that American reviewers showed in the '70s for another composition that ventured into classical idioms: his Variations, for cello and rock group, based on the familiar Caprice No. 24 of Paganini. That music deserved respect, and so does the Requiem. Lloyd Webber may be a Broadway composer, but his Requiem is classical in its seriousness, its complexity, its use of extended, integrated structures and, above all, in its carefully considered relation to the timeless text.
At climactic moments, the music has a splendid color and vigor; in contemplative passages (notably the "Pie Jesu," which seems to be the most popular section), it breathes an unearthly tranquility. Lloyd Webber has a style that is distinctive but clearly linked to a long choral tradition. His melodies are inventive, his harmonic vocabulary rich and expressive, his writing for a classical orchestra colorful and idiomatic. He is sparing in the use of counterpoint, which most composers toss liberally into this kind of music if only to prove that they can. Lloyd Webber does use just enough of it to prove that he can.
Lloyd Webber has dedicated the Requiem "to my father, Bill," a distinguished music educator (director of the London College of Music) as well as an organist and composer, who died in 1982. He has also called it "the most personal of all my compositions," and has included in it a prominent part for his wife, soprano Sarah Brightman. She is featured on the first recording (Angel cassette or LP 38218), with Lorin Maazel conducting and tenor Placido Domingo and boy soprano Paul Miles-Kingston as fellow soloists. Recorded under the composer's supervision and featuring the performers for whom it was written, the recording may be considered definitive.
As for the older Requiems, we may expect a flood of them in the next few years as choruses, soloists and conductors line up eagerly to have their work preserved in the dazzling new digital recording technology. An early choral entry in the digital sweepstakes, and one of the best we are likely to hear, is the Berlioz Requiem conducted by Robert Shaw with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Telarc CD-80109, two compact discs). As the music director of a symphony orchestra, Shaw remains one of the most skilled and meticulous choral conductors of our time, with results that can be heard more clearly than ever in the work's first CD recording.
The Berlioz Requiem has some of music's most spectacular moments -- notably the four antiphonal brass choirs in the "Tuba mirum" section -- and it presents an overwhelming temptation to recording engineers: Why not tweak a few knobs at strategic moments and "enhance" the sound even further? True to the company's recording philosophy, the Telarc engineers resist such temptations; the sound has not only the clarity and wide dynamic range of digital recording; it is totally natural and consistent in perspective -- spectacular but unobtrusively so. Decisions on dynamics and balance are left where they belong, in the hands of the conductor.
Shaw's interpretation deserves such reverent treatment. Person for person, his Atlanta chorus may not have quite the tonal quality of the great Robert Shaw Chorale of bygone days, but it is superbly trained and sings with power, clarity and musical distinction.
Tenor soloist John Aler, who has performed frequently this season at the Kennedy Center, gives the kind of thoughtful, pure-toned, expressively phrased performance that is expected of him. Unlike all other recordings of the Berlioz Requiem, this one includes a substantial bonus: the Prologue to Boito's "Mefistofele" and Verdi's powerful but relatively neglected "Te Deum," two works that add up to more than 40 minutes of music. They are well chosen; the cosmic-sounding "Mefistofele" Prelude is one of the few choral works that can be performed without anticlimax after the most grandiose moments of the Berlioz, and the Verdi "Te Deum" is almost comparable, both in style and in dynamic range.