Wednesday, January 6, 2010

An Anthology of Requiems

To push the boundaries of music covered on Shadowtime, I asked a connoisseur of the classical milieu to compile a list of his five favorite requiems. Opera director James Marvel is best known for his radical stagings of classical operas. At the age of 26, he staged a mosh pit into his production of Gonoud's Faust for the Augusta Opera. The audience went berzerk and his career took off. Since then James has directed extensively throughout the United States and Europe, and has taught at universities like Juilliard and USC. He is a regular contributor to NPR and harbors an uncanny obsession with dark musical offerings, regardless of the century in which they were composed.


An anthology is technically a collection of flowers. And a requiem is a mass for the dead. And so an Anthology of Requiems is essentially a collection of Dead Flowers. This collection came about as a project to connect my taste in contemporary dark music with its classical roots. Often, friends and contemporaries with whom I share a considerable amount of overlapping tastes in modern music express an interest in classical music as well. There is much darkness to draw from in the pantheon of classical music. So, this will be the first installment of a small series of classical music recommendations for your listening pleasure. And what better way to start a thing than with a quick introduction to music written for your own demise.

There are Requiems by many famous composers such as Hector Berlioz, Johannes Brahms, Gabriel Faure, Benjamin Britten, and even Andrew Lloyd Webber. All of these deserve attention for fans of music written specifically for the repose of souls. Or fans of music written for dead people. But, I would like to call attention to my five favorites, several of which are lesser-known works.

1. Mozart

I’ll start the list with the most famous. Although he died before actually completing the composition of his Requiem, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart left many sketches and notes indicating the manner in which the other segments would be composed. Some artists do a self-portrait, Mozart wrote a self-requiem, as he admitted to his wife that he was writing the piece for his own funeral.

2. Verdi

No less famous and of equal interest is Verdi’s requiem, which was first performed in 1874 for the one year anniversary of the death of Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni, although it was originally conceived of and begun for the anniversary of composer Rossini’s death. Oh yeah, “Dies Irae” translates into “Days of Wrath.” The opening of this movement is the classical equivalent of Speed Metal. Imagine the same melody performed on guitars with bigger hair and enjoy.

3. Rutter

British composer John Rutter was born in 1945. His Requiem premiered in the United States in 1985. The early sections of the opening movement are as haunting as the later section is angelic. At once accessible and mysterious, the piece remains a favorite among professional and amateur choral groups.

4. Penderecki

Perhaps the oddest choice in the list, but by no means less impressive is Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s Polish Requiem. The piece is perhaps the most political of our offerings, as it was commissioned to commemorate those killed in the anti-government riots that took place in 1970. My apologies for the distracting hairstyles of the chorus members, but the eerie quality of the music more than makes up for any of the 1980s fashion faux pas. Even more embarrassing, it would appear that all of the chorus women showed up wearing the same outfit.

5. Arvo Pärt

Although it is technically not a requiem, and any purist would despise me for including it on this list, I would argue that the piece is written for a dead man and that all music is ultimately religious. So, purists be damned (and they will be), I am including Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s 1977 Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten on the list. Arvo Pärt was influenced by early chant music. And while this work is technically secular, Pärt is primarily known for his religious works. The silence at the beginning and the end of the piece is actually written into the score.


Naomi said...


frankie teardrop said...

this is a fucking great list. i've heard four of the five requiems, and i love all of them with every bit of my being. i have to track down a recording of rutter's requiem, for sure.

frankie teardrop said...

arvo part definitely deserves inclusion, blasphemous or not, and penderecki's requiem is deliciously terrifying.

bless you james!