Music To Die For: Why We Love Requiems

From the sweet lyricism of Fauré to the populism of Brahms to the theatricality of Verdi, requiems remain the favorites of singers, conductors, and audiences alike. We talked with Kathy FitzGibbon, director of choral activities at Lewis and Clark College and head of faculty at the Berkshire Choral Festival, about the enduring appeal of requiems and the modern interpretations they have spawned.

Chorus America: For many of us, requiems are the favorite pieces that we perform. In fact, one informal poll of choral singers put the Brahms German Requiem at the top of the list. Where did the requiem form come from and how has it evolved?

“Personal” Requiems:
A Listening Sampler

FitzGibbon: The Latin requiem comes from the Catholic Church and served specifically religious and liturgical purposes. It was part of an actual funeral mass that was to be used in the church for that purpose. The earliest polyphonic requiem that has survived is by Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1410 – 1497) which uses the original Gregorian chant melodies as the musical basis for five sections of the Catholic requiem mass.

As time went on some of these Catholic masses began to have more of a concert kind of feeling to them, but they were still out of that Catholic framework. The Cherubini Requiem had more theatricality—the entrance of a giant gong in the “Dies Irae” does not appear anywhere else in the requiem. That was a shift. Later, in the 19th century, Verdi painted that movement in a ferocious kind of light, emphasizing the drama and fear in the text about Judgment Day.

I also put the requiems of Dvorak and Berlioz in that theatrical, dramatic category with Verdi. Even the well-loved Mozart Requiem also has some theatrical elements, but it is still from the sacred/Catholic tradition. Mozart was very familiar with the Catholic rite.

The Brahms German Requiem really pivoted things. This requiem comes out of the Lutheran funeral cantata tradition, which used sacred texts but also sometimes had other texts in German that were tailored to each individual occasion. Bach and Schütz and other Baroque composers wrote funeral cantatas, but until Brahms no one was taking the Lutheran funeral mass and calling it a requiem. Brahms was basically saying, “I can take the grand scope of the Catholic Latin requiem, but use German, the language for the people, and have a little more flexibility and creativity with the requiem form.”

The Brahms Requiem, as well as some of the other “alternative requiems,” both personalizes funeral music and links it to early traditions. Brahms took musical ideas, such as the fugue and the chorale, that trace all the way back to Bach and Schütz and used them to evoke the earlier Reformation-era times.

German culture at the time was closely linked to Lutheranism. Germans felt a real national identity and pride in being Lutheran, in breaking from the Catholic tradition of Austria and the South.

Was Brahms expecting his Requiem to be performed as a concert?

Yes, he had it performed in a church but not as part of a service. There is a back story there, too. The pastor of the church where the work was to be premiered was ticked at Brahms when he realized there was going to be no mention of Jesus in the piece. Brahms said in effect, “Yes, so? That is my whole point. It is to be a human requiem, not necessarily or overtly religious.”

So the requiem became a more personal expression rather than a religious one?

Yes. There is a universal aspect to life that we all must grieve the people who die. It seems to be a logical opportunity for musical expression to somehow communicate this universal idea. For so long that way of communicating was the traditional Catholic text. But then there was an evolution, really mirroring what was going on in music in general.

The Romantic composers were much more interested in the personal kinds of expression. So it would make sense that, in that time period, composers would begin to personalize texts as well. Even composer who are setting the Catholic mass are picking and choosing the movements. In the Fauré and Duruflé Requiems, they are not using the “Dies Irae” movement, for example.

They just did not like the idea of God’s wrath?

They went along with the idea of mourning the dead, but they sort of glossed over the judgment part and instead focused on the “In Paradisum” at the end, which not all requiem composers choose to set.

The Catholic requiem itself does not need to include the “In Paradisum.” Back in the Middle Ages, they would finish with the burial mass and go to the church cemetery where the body would be buried. That is when they would sing “In Paradisum,” usually in chant form. Those setting the funeral mass would set the main part that takes place in the church, but not necessarily the “In Paradisum.” It’s harder to take your violin with you to the church yard!

Choosing to integrate the “In Paradisum,” and chucking the hell and brimstone, so to speak, is a deliberate choice so that you end with the idea of paradise.

It changes the emphasis from praying for the dead to comforting the living?

That is Brahms’ idea, too. His work is much more about those who remain than the salvation of the dead. That raises another theological issue. The Protestant post-reformation idea had been that if you have done good works on earth—rather than, in pre-Reformation Catholicism, paid indulgences and that sort of thing, then you are going to be just fine in the afterlife. This shifted the emphasis to comforting the people who remain rather than praying for the souls of the departed.

Why do you think requiems have persisted as a form? Is it because the subject matter is deep and abiding—everyone dies?

I think so. It is deep and abiding and certainly something that everyone must face. I come from a mixed religious heritage—a Christian father and also a Jewish mother. I have a lot of friends who are Jewish and deeply moved by singing the requiems.

There is more religious dogma in the mass texts, but with the requiem, I find it turns my thoughts to mourning specific people whom I have loved and who have passed away. I find that, for a lot of people, that seems to be true. Even for the composers, it’s something important.

Brahms wrote the requiem before he wrote any of his symphonies. He was in his early 40s and quite young to be writing a requiem. He was about to lose Schumann when he started and his mother died partway through his compositional process. The requiem genre was something that really spoke to him that he thought would express his own feelings for the people that he had loved in his life.

It seems there is something special that inspires composers to write a requiem. The music has some added emotional potency from the composer’s point of view and from the performer’s point of view.

There are a number of modern works that if not requiems, certainly come out of this kind of sensibility. I think of Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna and Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls as being somehow related to the requiem form.

Yes, and Vaughan Williams Dona Nobis Pacem has similar qualities, in its emphasis on death. Another one is Hindemith’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d based on the Walt Whitman poem written as an elegy to Abraham Lincoln’s death. And Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles, a partial setting of the Roman Catholic requiem mass, is atonal and a little crazy but very interesting. Schumann’s Requiem für Minone is also more in the personal arena.

Delius’ Requiem was his reaction to the horrors of World War I and is not based on the church's liturgical text at all but on a text by Friedrich Nietzsche, an anti-Christian philosopher who believed in man, nature, and life. Britten’s War Requiem uses traditional Latin texts, interspersed with of poems Wilfred Owen, who died shortly before the end of World War I.
The category of “requiem” gets broader as you begin thinking about personal reactions to the idea of death and loss on the composer’s part, the performers’ part, and even the listeners’ part as well. It is comforting the living and finding something that has spiritual components—now broadly defined and not coming from organized religion so much as from poetry and general reflective and contemplative qualities.

Can you tell us about your current research on requiems?

This spring, I'll be traveling to Germany for several months to research requiems written in the style of Brahms during the Third Reich.

The Nazis took advantage of people's emotional associations with this genre by commissioning composers to write requiems for major state funeral events, and I'm curious about the fact that the composers wrote in the style of Brahms. I'll be able to look at documents in the national archive to see whether the composers describe why they chose that style, especially when the Nazis' musical organization rarely concerned itself with Brahms's legacy and with sacred genres.

Are there any broader conclusions we can draw about the requiem's abiding popularity?

For me, what helps me in contemplating whatever are the deep questions of life is the intersection of words and music. To help express whatever the fundamental truth is—whether it is joy, love, death, the words and the music together—is what express it for me.

For most people the biggest questions are “what is the meaning of life?” and “why do people have to die?” The requiems hint at some of the depths of what that means for us.