Shortly after 9/11, and very definitely as a personal response to that event, I wrote an article about Requiems for CDNOW, where I worked at the time (just a few blocks away from Ground Zero; fortunately our workday started at 10 AM, so I wasn't there yet that day, but in the weeks that followed there were days where, if the wind came from the wrong direction, we would go home early, it made us so sick). In the years since, I have written about music composed in response to that tragedy, such as John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls. But now I find myself being drawn back to the Requiem idea. Here's a much-expanded take on it.
This roughly chronological list confines itself to works with a sacred basis, though the 20th century yielded secular Requiems, most notably Paul Hindemith's When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd (Requiem for those we love), a setting of Walt Whitman's poem on the death of President Abraham Lincoln, which Hindemith composed after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. I've written at length about that one, which is a lovely work that's also appropriate for this solemn and mournful occasion. (Far less appropriate, though brilliant in their own ways, are the acerbically socio-political Requiems of Frederic Delius and Kurt Weill. I also omit several instrumental Requiems: Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, Rautavaara's brassy A Requiem in Our Time, Takemitsu's Requiem for strings, Zbigniew Preisner's Requiem for My Friend, and Tubin's Requiem for Fallen Soldiers.)
Liturgically speaking, the Requiem, or Mass for the Dead, omits the Gloria and Credo of the Ordinary Mass and adds sections dealing with death. The first Requiems were anonymous chant. The opening Introïtus gives the form its name: "Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine: et lux perpetua luceat eis" (Rest eternal grant them, O Lord, and light eternal shine upon them). It wasn't until the Council of Trent (1545-63) that Requiem texts were standardized. Also, the belief in divine judgment was emphasized; both these factors contributed to a vast increase in the composition of Requiems. Composers usually left some sections unset, with the plainchant for those texts inserted during the church service. Later, composers set more sections, and the use of chant dwindled. Some parts from the Burial Service were appended as well.
After the Renaissance, some composers became attracted to the Dies Irae, a hellfire-and-brimstone depiction of the Last Judgment that had previously been left in plainchant. Written by Thomas of Celano in the 13th century but ascribed to the near-mythical soothsaying Sibyls, it's a warning to the living of what they will face (and an encouragement to virtuous living); its lasting inclusion in the liturgy is an odd historical quirk. The Dies Irae was popular with some composers because it offered variety of mood and an opportunity to write some loud, dramatic music. Not everybody felt this way, needless to say; Beethoven (who never wrote one, alas) said, "A Requiem ought to be quiet music -- it needs no trump of doom; memories of the dead require no hubbub."
By the latter part of the 19th century, some composers began to feel that the Dies Irae didn't belong in a work they saw as offering consolation, and it began to be omitted. Brahms even constructed his own Requiem text out of Biblical passages in order to ensure the proper mood, and soon other composers began editing the liturgical texts and omitting some sections in works written as a whole, with no intention of performing the unset sections as chant. Both the emphasis on the Dies Irae and the tinkering with the texts can be ascribed to the changing economic and social status of composers: no longer employed full-time by churches or royalty, they no longer composed Requiems exclusively to order, but began writing them because they wanted to for personal reasons, whether as a musical showpiece or in memory of deceased friends and family.
Here are my 25 favorite Requiems, plus one specifically for the occasion.
Musically, this is where the Requiem starts, although what is on this album is not all from the Requiem, strictly speaking; there is a lot of liturgy concerned with the dead, not only before and after the Requiem but also bits that could be added on particular days. The selection here extends to 17 tracks. There is something profoundly touching about this simple, non-harmonized music.
Johannes Ockeghem (c.1410-1497) was Flemish but spent most of his professional life as singer and composer at the French Royal Chapel who took polyphony to new levels of inventiveness and helped make imitative counterpoint the focus of the next generation. He wrote the earliest surviving polyphonic setting of the Mass for the Dead (the first written, by Dufay, having been lost), full of variety in both textures and compositional techniques. The chant melodies were used in all movements; his profound setting moves from simple parallel movement at the beginning of the Introïtus to a densely complex Offertorium (the intervening sections being Kyrie, Graduale, and Tractus). This 1984 recording includes the chant for the following, unset, texts (Sanctus & Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Communio, Postcommunio). (This is now on a budget-priced two-disc set with two other Ockeghem masses and some shorter choral works.)
The Flemish de La Rue (ca. 1460-1518) wrote his Requiem Mass in an essentially austere style, though it does have a special timbre due to the emphasis on sonorous low-register writing, and there are occasional outbursts of colorful writing. The Requiem liturgy had still not been fixed, so the set text consists of Introïtus, Kyrie, Psalmus, Offertorium, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Communio. The Requiem plainchant is often paraphrased, in the upper voice, as a <I>cantus firmus</I>, or shared between two voices, with the other voices layered around it and giving it added rhythmic life.
Brumel's (ca. 1460-ca. 1520) is the earliest surviving Requiem that includes a setting of the Dies Irae. He also uses plainchant, sometimes basically just harmonizing it; though Brumel and de La Rue were nearly exact contemporaries who were both heavily influenced by Ockeghem and Josquin, Brumel is a tad more modern in the Requiem context, smoother and (to modern ears, at least) less eccentric, less Ockeghem and more Josquin.
Richafort (c.1480-c.1547) is believed to have been a student of Josquin's, though with the huge gaps in our knowledge of Richafort's life and career, there's no definitive proof of that. Certainly his style -- and not merely in this memorial piece, which has two cantus firmi taken from the older composer's works -- is also strongly indebted to Josquin's. This is rich, smooth polyphony for six voices, though spiced with a few daringly dissonant cross-relations. (A fine selection of motets fills out this album.)
Palestrina (c.1525-1594) clarified the lines of his sacred music to make the texts clearer than in the more chromatic and intricate (or convoluted) works of many of his contemporaries, and this is especially true when he sets the somber Requiem text for five voice parts, though his writing is nonetheless both imaginative and emotionally powerful. Palestrina wrote his Missa pro defunctis -- with its melodies often drawn from plainchant -- near the end of his career; it was published in 1591, and it has been speculated that he intended it for his own funeral. The overlapping melodies make it flow very smoothly, an aspect that this small choir brings out wonderfully. (A selection of motets fills out the disc.)
Widely traveled Spaniard Guerrero (1528-1599) may not have been a match, overall, for his teacher, Christobal Morales, or the most famous Spanish composer of the next generation, Victoria, but his incredibly rich-textured Requiem surpasses that of his teacher and can stand proudly equal to Victoria's. This recording, which includes all the musical elements of a Mass for the Dead, including chant and appropriate pieces by both Guerrero and other composers to speculatively recreate Guerrero's own funeral, uses his 1582 revision of a work previously published in 1566 and possibly dating back at least seven years; the largest changes were made so that it would conform to the standard form that came out of the Council of Trent.
The four-voice Requiem of the precocious and prolific Lassus(1532-1594) is full of harmonic twists, though not nearly as daring and highly chromatic as some of the works of his youth. But the man considered the culmination of the Franco-Flemish style of polyphony (he was referred to by his contemporaries as the "Belgian Orpheus" and the "Prince of Music") produced a complexly involving, musically elevated, yet utterly appropriate setting for this most somber of texts. Each section starts from simple material, builds into great richness, and then relaxes back to simplicity, providing an apt metaphor for the cycle of life and ultimately offering mental repose to the mourners. The remainder of the CD is devoted to Easter music.
Though Spanish, Victoria (1548-1611) studied and worked in Rome for two decades (possibly with Palestrina) before returning to his home country. He concentrated solely on sacred music, and wrote over 20 masses; the ecstatic mysticism of his music reflects the strong influence of the Counter-Reformation in Spain. Some have called Victoria's second Requiem, his last published piece, the crowning achievement of Renaissance polyphony. It's part of the Office of the Dead that he composed for the Dowager Empress Maria, his employer; the entire publication, plus appropriate chant, is included here.
Written in 1606, the Requiem of Du Caurroy (1549-1609) was held in such high esteem that for many years it was the official music for the funerals of the French kings. By this point instrumental accompaniment was probably de rigueur, to up the pomp level, but I've picked an a cappella version for its greater sense of intimacy. (A selection of motets fills out the album.) Hardcore period-authenticity types prefer the Doulce Mémoire/Denis Raisin-Dadre version, which piles on not only instruments but also chant movements and even a chanted sermon, but it sounds cold and bloated to me. An excellent compromise, but out of print, is the mostly organ-accompanied version by Ensemble Vocal Sagittarius/Michel Laplenie on MusiFrance/Erato.
Biber (1644-1704) is heavy on the horns and organ, which far from being brassy is actually quite smoothing, filling all the textural gaps. He also has lots of vocal solos and duos, which would become the big trend in Requiem settings. His F minor Requiem is quite regal without ever descending to mere bombast, and quite a compositional and textural tour de force without losing the appropriate mood. (Biber's Mass in B major, motets by Lassus and Megerle, and various instrumental pieces make this a generously packed album; the idea is that a whole service is recreated, or, more precisely, a possible one is posited.)
It is the stuff of legend that the last piece penned by the short-lived Mozart (1756-1791) was his Requiem, left unfinished at his death, and that it had been commissioned by a mysterious stranger who Mozart thought was Death himself (actually, it was commissioned by a guy using an intermediary because he liked pay composers for pieces written for him that he could then pass off as written by himself). The version most often performed was completed by his considerably less skilled pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr, who sometimes finished sections Mozart started and also wrote entire movements himself. This recording uses Richard Maunder's edition, which throws out the entirely non-Mozart materials, adds an Amen Mozart penned, and cleans up Süssmayr's sloppy orchestration of Mozart's unfinished sketches. The result may be shorter than collectors are used to, but it's as close to pure Mozart as can be gotten in this most famous of all Requiems, and is performed using authentic instruments and performance practices.
Italian-born Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) made his reputation through opera, and pushed French opera into a more dramatic style. Late in life he concentrated his creative efforts on church music, where his mastery of counterpoint could shine to a much greater degree than is practical in opera. Beethoven, not prone to praise of other composers, admired Cherubini (and asked for this Requiem, composed in 1816, to be played at his own funeral), and Berlioz was influenced by aspects of his work, though the conservative Cherubini was shocked by some of their more forward-thinking efforts. There are some connoisseurs who consider this better than Mozart's Requiem; it's certainly between those two for the best between the Renaissance and Romantic periods.
Emphasizing the transience of life and the comforts of heaven, the German Requiem of Brahms (1833-1897) was unique for his carefully chosen Bible passages, avoiding both the language and words of the liturgy. Brahms bestowed upon his new creation some of his most memorable melodies, and emphasized the choir's role more. The work was an immediate success when debuted in 1868 and remains very popular (the New York Philharmonic announced a special performance of it, in the wake of the World Trade Center tragedy, to replace season-opening festivities, and there were other performances scattered around the city by various groups, including an ad hoc choir some friends and I sang in for an uptown Manhattan concert -- an extremely moving experience). Its immense gravity is perfectly conveyed through the direction of Klemperer (a master in German Romantic repertoire) on this 1961 recording, while soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau are ideal soloists.
The Requiem of French composer Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), composed in a mere eight days in 1878 for chorus, soloists, organ, and orchestra, doesn't deserve its obscurity. In the Dies Irae movement, his Tuba mirum is majestic and dramatic (with four trombones prominent in tandem with organ), while his Quid sum miser is achingly beautiful. The Agnus Dei, with one of his loveliest melodies, exhibits some tenderly graceful orchestral writing. The general undervaluing of Saint-Saëns's virtues has consigned all but a couple of his masterpieces to near-oblivion, but this music communicates directly, with modest but undeniable elegance. (The CD is filled out with an assortment of relatively little-heard instrumental works.)
So you want a big, impressive, full-orchestra 19th century Requiem using the traditional text? Skip the usual suspects (Berlioz's has some interesting moments if you don't mind bombast, but it's not what I want from a Requiem, and Verdi's is just plain too operatic for my tastes) in favor of this one written in 1890. The oratorio style was nearly as popular in Dvorak's (1841-1904) Czech homeland as it was in England at the time, and this has all the hallmarks -- big parts for soloists, lengthy settings of the texts (around 95 minutes overall), definitely written for the concert hall rather than the church -- yet is still full of the Bohemian melodicism that was at the crux of Dvorak's style. This 1968 recording led by one of the top Dvorak conductors is full of flavor. It can be found paired with Dvorak's Mass in D major or Kodaly's Psalmus Hungaricus; both make excellent partners for the main attraction.
When French composer/organist Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) began writing his Requiem in (probably) 1886 (after a couple of shorter versions had been performed, he finally finished in 1892 with the addition of the Libera me movement), he wanted a more comforting Requiem. He kept much of the Latin text, but supplemented it with other liturgical texts on the subject. The result is gentle, the polar opposite of thundering showpieces such as the Berlioz Requiem, and emphasizes the choir's role, giving it some gorgeously ethereal melodies. It was originally accompanied only by organ, strings, timpani, and harp, but in 1900 a full-orchestra version appeared, apparently not actually by Fauré, that has dominated recordings; fortunately John Rutter (whose own Requiem I'm not a fan of, but who is a fine choral conductor) scaled it back to something approximating the instrumentation of an 1893 performance by Fauré (organ, bassoons, horns, trumpets, timpani, harp, solo violin, violas, cellos, basses). It is that arrangement that Robert Shaw uses here, and its mellower tones fit the work's gentle mood better. (In the full-orchestra version, I like Elly Ameling/Bernard Kruysen/Netherlands Radio Chorus/Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/Jean Fournet on Philips.)
A later French composer/organist, Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986), also wrote a gentle Requiem (1947) that cuts much Latin text. Compared to Fauré's version, it restores one verse and two more words in the Offertorium, one verse in the Sanctus, and two phrases in the Libera me. By ending with In Paradisum, both Requiems start and end with the word "requiem" (rest); Fauré's was the first to do that. Duruflé incorporates many of the chant melodies, and sounds both more modern yet more ancient.
Pizzetti (1880-1968) was not a forward-looking composer; in his choral music in particular he was strongly influenced by Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony. But those are good influences if you're writing an a cappella Requiem, and his harmonic sense, lush yet paradoxically austere, sounds thoroughly 20th century (his Messa di Requiem dates from 1922). He includes the Dies Irae, built on the traditional chant melody for that text, but his reined-in style abjures the usual Dies Irae dramatic flamboyance, instead sounding tensely mournful. (The other major work here is Frank Martin's Mass for Double Choir.)
The whole "comfort" aspect seems utterly absent from, and alien to, Stravinsky's (1882-1971) abstract, spartan condensation of the Requiem using his unique slant on serial music (not 12-tone, however). But it was performed at his own funeral, and there is a strong feeling of ritual in its starkness. It's also the shortest work on this list, nine movements in 14 minutes.
Howells (1892-1983)wrote his Requiem in 1936 after the death of his nine-year-old son from spinal meningitis. It is an unusual text selection: Salvator mundi in English translation, Psalm 23 ("The Lord is my shepherd"), Requiem aeternam, Psalm 121 ("I will lift up mine eyes"), another Requiem aeternam, and "I Heard a Voice from Heaven," a translation of a section of the Burial Service; Requiem aeternam is the only text from the liturgical Requiem. It was such a private creation for Howells that he did not publish it until 44 years later, near the end of his life. It is a beautiful a cappella work with lush harmonies and a peaceful mood. It's paired here with a more turbulant a cappella motet, "Take him, earth, for cherishing," written in response to the death of President Kennedy. (The CD also includes the stylistically compatible Vaughan Williams Mass in G minor and Te Deum in G major.)
This is the most brassy, dramatic work on this list, but because its tone is more anguished than the showpieces I've dissed, it is more psychologically apt, though not offering comfort so much as catharsis. The Agnus Dei with its eerie, dissonant organ accompaniment and solo in the middle when the solo soprano isn't singing is the most haunting movement in the entire Requiem repertory, and for once makes the plea of the text sound desperate. Martin (1890-1974) wrote it near the end of his own life, and after he had incorporated the influence of serial music (though, like Stravinsky, he did not do so within a 12-tone format), so this is far more jagged that his 1922 Mass for Double Choir.
This remarkable work combines the Latin text of Mass for the Dead (sung by the choir), poems by Wilfred Owen dealing with the horrors of World War I (sung by the two male soloists -- Britten deliberately picked an Englishman and a German), and Latin hymns (sung by a boys choir accompanied by organ). Britten (1913-1976) wrote it in 1962 for the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, which had been bombed in World War II, and less than a year later recorded it with the same soloists used at the premiere. No other musical epic has ever depicted with more soul-shaking force not only the insanity of war, but also the essential spiritual element of humanity that bonds mankind together. Every element, from the angular orchestral accompaniment to the emotive solo melodies and rich choral parts, is musically masterful. (I've written about it more here.)
Bryars (1943- ) wrote his Cadman Requiem to commemorate his friend and sound engineer Bill Cadman, who died in the Lockerbie terrorist bombing in 1988, when Pan Am flight 103 was blown up in flight over Lockerbie, Scotland. Two of the sections of the traditional Requiem are used, the Kyrie and the Agnus Dei, along with the Burial Service's In Paradisum; between them come solo vocal movements setting the first surviving English poem, Caedmon's "Creation Hymn," and Bede's Latin paraphrase of it. The original version was for the Hilliard Ensemble (a male vocal quartet specializing in Medieval/Renaissance and modern music), two violas, cello, and optional bass, but Bryars had the inspired idea of rearranging the accompaniment for Fretwork, an ensemble of six viols (the ancestors of our modern violins, violas, cellos, and basses), giving the work an even more ancient and haunting sound than it already had, appropriate given its texts. (I prefer the studio version, on a Point CD that also includes two other Bryars works; this links to a CD of the Lockerbie Memorial Concert on Bryars's own label, with the same two ensembles, that culminates in a performance of Cadman Requiem after a mix of short Bryars works and an assortment of Medieval/Renaissance vocal works. The original version of Cadman Requiem has not, to my knowledge, been released.)
The newest work on this list treats the Requiem as a single work rather than a string of movements (as the composer puts it in his notes to the album, Crystallisatio, on which it appears, "from a structural point of view I have regarded this work not as a cycle but rather as an integral whole"), so there is only one pause, after the Sanctus. Tüür (1959- ) is an Estonian composer, and the work mixes elements of Russian Orthodox church music and the mid-20th century avant-garde (especially in the pointillist orchestral colors). Although it can be dense and dissonant, especially during the Dies Irae text, it is also full of big, boldly melodic gestures. The Agnus Dei and Lux aeterna offer ethereal beauty with an undercurrent of tension.
This Requiem was composed by Moran (1937- ) for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and for the youth choir at the church near the World Trade Center that quickly became a makeshift food-and-rest center for those working on rescue and cleanup, and is thus an apt conclusion for this list. With a light instrumental accompaniment of organ, cellos, and harp, and written only for high voices, it is the most sonically gentle work here. Mostly consonant, harmonically speaking, musically it's a bit lightweight as well, and I prefer to skip the empty calories of the instrumental Offertory in the middle that's based on the ground bass of Pachelbel's Canon, but overall the work's lack of intellectual heft (though it doesn't pander like John Rutter's sappy Requiem does) is offset by beauty and symbolism. - Steve Holtje
Originally posted on September 10, 2011.
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who is halfway through recording his five songs composed on texts from James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach with singer Kate Leahy and cellist Suzanne Mueller.