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“Requiem Æternam”: A Closer Look at the Mass for the Dead (Part I)

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Alberto González - published on 10/31/13

The haunting prayers of the Requiem liturgy have long inspired composers to set the texts to evocative musical arrangements. Here's a look at how one of history's most beloved composers used music to heighten our awareness of what lies beyond the grave.

As Benjamin Franklin famously stated in his letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy in 1789, “[I]n this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” It is a shrewd observation, to be sure, elegant both in its simplicity and its undeniable truth. But what Franklin did not mention is that there are also things that are certain in a world that exists beyond that which our human faculties can perceive – the realm of the supernatural.

As the calendar teeters on the edge of October (and lest the festivities of Hallowe’en obscure the commemorations of All Saints and All Souls that follow), the Church calls on her faithful throughout the world to turn their attention toward the Four Last Things. It’s possible that you may not be familiar with the term, as it is not often spoken of by name in a majority of today’s homilies, but it encompasses those realities which we must all eventually face at the end of our earthly existence: Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven. And, as November is the month that the Church has set aside for the remembrance of the faithful departed – those blessed souls who, though having died in God’s favor and thus in the state of grace, continue to be spiritually refined in the cleansing fires of Purgatory – it is fitting that we, too, should direct our focus to them.

Death, of course, is the one natural element of the four, the other three being of a supernatural nature – and which, unless you are graced with a mystical experience, can only be grasped at in this world through the eyes of faith. But fortunately for us, the arts (as they are wont to do) come to our aid by helping us to more clearly and meaningfully envision that which we might otherwise comfortably shelve away in those recesses of our psyche reserved for abstract curiosities.

The mystery and awe surrounding the Four Last Things have inspired many composers to write haunting choral renditions of the prayers of the Requiem Mass. This order of liturgy – a Mass for the Dead – is both a poignant call to pray for the soul of the deceased as well as a somber reminder of that which inevitably awaits us all at the end of our earthly sojourn. As such, the likes of Tomás Luis de Victoria, Michael Haydn, Antonín Dvořák, Maurice Duruflé, and Benjamin Britten have been among those who have created vivid musical depictions of the Requiem Mass that stir within our souls and elevate our hearts and minds to a truly transcendental plane.

Perhaps the best known of any setting of the Requiem is Mozart’s capstone achievement: K. 626. Mozart’s untimely death at the age of 35 came (ironically) while writing his Requiem – a fact which has allowed for many a romanticized interpretation of the final days of his life (the most notable of which would be the closing scenes of Miloš Forman’s Amadeus, in which Mozart is carried out to his pauper’s grave under a weeping sky, with the mournful strains of his Lacrimosa accompanying him on his final journey):

The Mozart Requiem commands great intrigue, given the fact that it was left incomplete by the master composer. In fact, there exist multiple versions of K. 626 – each of which, while based on the musical foundations penned by Mozart, were completed by composers who came after him. The most frequently performed and best known of these is the version completed by Mozart’s own composition student, Franz Xaver Süßmayr; this article will concern his edition of the Requiem.

Mozart’s final masterpiece has no shortage of evocative passages that capture the mournful sighs of bereavement, the trembling fear before the judgment seat of God, the pangs of Hell, and the glory of Heaven. Yet the movements that best capture all of these within a concise framework are the Confutatis and the Lacrimosa. You already had a foretaste of the latter in the Amadeus clip above, but now, let’s immerse ourselves in the piece and examine the Mass for the Dead up close.

Following the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the Requiem Mass (or Missa pro defunctis) was modified into what is today known as the Mass of Christian Burial. One of the key changes to this liturgy was the excising of the “Dies Iræ” sequence, which served as a meditation of Judgment Day. The Confutatis and Lacrimosa comprise the final verses of this sequence, which is typically included in settings of the Requiem.

Confutatis maledictis,
flammis acribus addictis,
voca me cum benedictus.

Oro supplex et acclinis,
cor contritum quasi cinis,
gere curam mei finis.

~ ~ ~

Once the cursed have been rebuked,
sentenced to acrid flames,
call Thou me with the blessèd.

I meekly and humbly pray,
[my] heart is as crushed as the ashes:
perform the healing of mine end.

There it is, in two simple verses: competing visions of Hell and Heaven, followed by the heavy cry of a contrite heart. Mozart skillfully employs the musical resources at his disposal to portray both the chaotic fury of the infernal fire and the beatific serenity of the celestial light. The first two lines of this text are sung by sonorous male voices, with basses and tenors singing ascending lines that overlap with one another. Meanwhile, the low strings play a menacing and punctuated line that dances beneath the voices like the very tongues of flames from the pit of Hell. The voices are those of the damned, wailing in pain as they climb over each other in a futile attempt to claw their way out of the bottomless pit.

Suddenly, the music shifts from a dark minor mode to a radiant major key, and the convulsion of the orchestra gives way to a simple violin line that seems to soar effortlessly alongside the cherubim and seraphim. The women’s voices enter at this point, as crystalline and pure as those of the angels, as they sing “voca me.” In this way, Mozart creates two contrasting supernatural worlds that could well serve as a fitting musical representation of the Divine Comedy.

After this moment of heavenly glory, the music transports us back to the unquenchable fire just as quickly as we had left it, only to return to Heaven once more. Following this riveting opening of the Confutatis, the voices all come together as they reenter the terrestrial world to solemnly intone their prayer of penitential supplication to the Almighty Judge, while the detached articulations of the orchestra beat like the palpitations of an anxious heart (“Oro supplex”). The movement draws to a close with a gentle yet suspenseful chord that propels us forward to the final verse of the Dies Iræ sequence – the Lacrimosa.

Lacrimosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favilla
judicandus homo reus.

Huic ergo parce, Deus:

Pie Jesu Domine,
dona eis requiem. Amen. 

~ ~ ~

Tearful will be that day,
on which from the ash arises
the guilty man who is to be judged.
Spare him therefore, God.

Merciful Lord Jesus,
grant them rest. Amen.

At the end of the sequence, we find ourselves before the judgment seat of God. The “day of wrath” weighs heavily upon the conscience of those who are to be judged as their sorrow is shed forth in tears. The Lacrimosa begins with a series of two-note phrases played by the violins known as “sigh motives.” Listen intently, and you will hear the strings heave and weep bitterly not only at this point, but throughout the entirety of the movement.

The melancholy chorus enters with a sob, but is then reconfigured into a true aural painting: an ascending scalar line in the sopranos (“qua resurget”) creates an image of the dead slowly rising from the earth to meet their Lord and Judge, while the disjointed syllables (which ultimately turn into a flowing line) call to mind the physical bodies of the defunct being forged back together from the ashes – slowly at first, bit by bit, until their full human form is restored.

The chorus sings “Lacrimosa” once more in a still voice, but suddenly crescendos together with the orchestra to a dramatic climax (“qua resurget … homo reus”), as if to shake the dead from their slumber.

Acknowledging their sin and unworthiness to stand before the throne of God, the voices once again grow faint as they humbly recall the mercy of the Lord (“Huic ergo … Jesu Domine.”) But ultimately, the Requiem Mass exists so that those who are still living might, in Christian charity, offer their prayers for the faithful departed, who no longer have the luxury of being able to pray for themselves. And so the voices, in resonant accord, once again return to the oft-repeated petition of the Requiem liturgy: “Dona eis requiem.” (“Grant them rest.”)

A brief but suspenseful instrumental passage builds up to the final “Amen,” which is sung with all the strength that man can muster, such that his plaintive cry might be heard in the vault of Heaven. The music then comes to rest once and for all, and Mozart – always attuned to detail – closes the movement with a deliberately marked period of silence. It is as much a moment of deep reflection for the listener as it is a representation of the silence that will engulf the universe when this world meets its end at the hands of Christ.

Take a moment to listen to all of this for yourself in this 1989 performance, directed by the late Maestro Leonard Bernstein:

And with this, we bring our intimate look at the Requiem to a close – but only for the time being. As previously noted, many great composers throughout history have taken upon themselves the gargantuan task of setting these evocative prayers to music. Next week, while we are still in the throes of November, we will examine yet another great rendition of the Requiem liturgy – that of Gabriel Fauré.

Until then, let us take leave of our departed brethren in peace:

Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Requiescant in pace. Amen.

CeciliaClassical MusicDeathLiturgy
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