Why Singing Requiems Makes Us Happy

A singer discovers that while life can be hard, singing is heartening. And singing with other people, in particular. Excerpted from Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing With Others by Stacy Horn.

“The wonderful thing about the amateur chorus,” the conductor Robert Shaw once said, “is that nobody can buy its attendance at rehearsals, or the sweat, eyestrain and fatigue that go along with the glow; and nobody but the most purposive and creative of music minds—from Bach in both directions—can invite and sustain its devotion.”

That’s because it gets you out of the house every week to do something that is like exercising joy. As I move firmly and inexorably into midlife, I need it more than ever. I thought that these would be the easy years. I was sure I’d be settled by now, not wondering how I’m going to pay for all the dental work I just learned I needed or still crying about the last guy who broke my heart.

Stacy Horn

Walking home after rehearsal, however, after a night of singing about death, I feel happy. Although George Bernard Shaw once described the Brahms Requiem as something that “could only have come from the establishment of a first-class undertaker,” I don’t feel in the least bit gloomy. I love his Requiem. Everyone in the choir does.

An Affection for Choirs

Tonight our conductor, John McInnes, explained one of the reasons why. For much of his life, Brahms was a choral conductor. In his requiem there are all sorts of obvious clues that Brahms must have had enormous affection for choirs, but one big tip-off, making this choral work a choir’s dream come true: the Brahms Requiem has relatively few solos.

Here is what performances are like for the choir: getting to sing, and then waiting as patiently as we can for the intervening solos to end. For the whole performance it’s sing, wait the solos out, and then phew, we’re finally back to the only part we truly care abou, us singing again. If it were up to the choir, solos would be greatly shortened or eliminated entirely. There are exceptions, and if the soloists are brilliant it’s not quite so tedious a wait, but for the most part solos are a barely tolerable side-trip while we wait for the good parts. Us.

There’s another reason why singing his requiem feels so good. There is some debate about the religious views of Brahms. A German Requiem is relatively free of Christian dogma; instead of employing the standard Latin Roman Catholic requiem mass used in other requiems before and since, Brahms picked and chose his text from the German Luther Bible. When asked, he specifically declines to add lyrics referring to “the redeeming death of the Lord.”

Brahms biographer Jan Swafford writes, “He fashioned an inwardly spiritual work, full of echoes of religious music going back hundreds of years, yet there is no bowing to the altar or smell of incenses in it.”

Although the Lord is still all over the place in the text, A German Requiem is about feeling better. Unlike most requiems, Brahms wrote his for the living, not the dead. “Blessed are they that mourn,” it begins, “for they shall be comforted.” The composer Antonín Dvořák once wrote of Brahms, “such a fine soul—and he believes in nothing!” But it is not as if God were our only option.

Music and Each Other

“Music idealizes emotions negative and positive alike,” Robert Journdain writes in his book, Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy, explaining why singing is beloved of coal miners, middle-aged city women and countless others. And, “by imparting pleasure even to negative emotions, music serves to justify sufferings large and small, assuring us that it has not all been for nothing.” In other words: life is hard, singing is heartening. And singing with other people, in particular. Those coal miners weren’t singing to hear their own voices, they were singing together to know that they didn’t have to face this miserable life alone and it wasn’t all just misery. In times of sorrow (and celebration) there are two other things to believe in: music and each other.

This is a world where a song about death can give birth to great happiness. Alto Missy Backus told me about her first year at college. “I was very depressed and socially isolated and I joined the university symphonic choir. The rehearsals were one of the only bright spots in my week—they provided me with a sense of community and I enjoyed feeling surrounded by others who shared a love of music and performance. My first semester, we performed the Brahms Requiem. It was one of the only times I have been moved to the point of tears while performing; it gives me chills even now to think about it.

“Several years later, I started dating a guy named David and shared with him how meaningful the Brahms Requiem was to me, and how it provided me with comfort during a particularly dark period of my life. He surprised me with tickets to a performance of the Requiem at Carnegie Hall in January 2005. I married David in 2009 and he attended our performance of the Requiem in spring 2010."

Calling Forth the Best, in the Worst of Times

John once emailed the whole choir about requiems in general. “The passage of a life, as no other event, causes human beings—and humanity in general—to reflect on life and the nature of the human spirit as no other event. There is nothing more primal, more communal, than the death rite. It is universal to all times, all cultures. It is equal parts sorrow for the departed, relief that we are still here, a more general celebration of the human spirit and a reminder of our common bond. To the extent that art is a distillation of life and the human spirit, a Requiem cannot fail to motivate the best of the best—often at the worst of times.”

The Verdi Requiem, he told us, was sung by the prisoners at Theresienstadt (Terezin). “Through the course of a single year, the concentration camp was alive with the Verdi, learning it by rote, and singing it numerous times for their torturers. The membership of the choir was replaced four times during that year, but they persisted, and etched out an indelible example of the power of art and the human spirit.”

Every Tuesday night a hundred people or more gather together in Grace Church. We’ll say hello, tuck our bags and brief cases underneath our seats, warm up for a bit, and for the next two hours, sing. It doesn’t matter if we’re stumbling through something we’re attempting for the first time or perfecting pieces we’ve been working on for months, it will feel great. You can’t reach heights like this singing alone in the shower. As I walk back down 11th Street toward home and my cats, I can’t stop singing one of the lines John made a point of translating: kommen mit Freuden. "Come with joy." I’m one day poorer, another day singleer, and we’re all going to die, but together with all these people I have raised my voice and once more I have come with joy.

Excerpted by permission from Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing With Othersby Stacy Horn. © 2013 by Stacy Horn. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.

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