• John Harbison
  • Requiem (2002)

  • Associated Music Publishers Inc (World)
  • SATB chorus
  • Soprano, Mezzo Soprano, Tenor, Baritone
  • 58 min

Programme Note

Composer Note
In early 1985 I began composing, on opposite sides of the same page, two pieces for which I had no prospects at the time, both of which waited long for completion. The first, the darker of the two pieces, was an opera based on Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Unable to secure rights, I adapted some of my ideas into an overture, while others became Gatsby's (mainly false) account of his life in Act II, not resumed until 1996-98, when the opera was written on commission from the Metropolitan Opera company.

The second project, a Requiem, was destined to weave in and out of my experience until the present time. Each return to it was occasioned by different private or public events. In 1985 I wrote much of the Introit. In 1991 I was asked for a piece for the Music School at Rivers; the piece I wrote resembles the present Sanctus, but I misfiled it and lost it for seven years, requiring me to write other music for Rivers. When the piece reappeared, it confirmed that it was a continuation of the thought of the Requiem. Then in 1995 I was asked to be among thirteen international composers, each writing a movement of a collective Requiem of Reconciliation for the victims of World War II (commissioned by the Stuttgart Bachakademie for performance by Helmuth Rilling). I was assigned the Recordare (or close to it), and my piece drew again on the core musical ideas of the earlier Introit. In 1999, while still with no prospects for the piece as a whole, I composed the Hostias section very spontaneously, realizing I was still haunted by the piece, and deciding to move to complete it.

Fortunately in 2001, a commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra sanctioned the working through of what had become a highly articulated conception for virtually every section. It was interesting, a little surprising, to discover how persistent the first view of the piece had become, how closely my idea of the large design, even down to the harmonic outlines, was being pursued. This is unusual in my experience, even in pieces written quickly.

Since Britten’s War Requiem in 1962, it has become customary to introduce other text material into pieces of this kind, for drama, contrast, or greater relevance. I never considered such a strategy. The text is a strange collection – sections of the Mass, scripture, an old, poetically primitive medieval poem, all added in at different times, but acquiring a weight and dignity through use and age. I wanted a sense of ancient inheritance to inhabit my setting: a ritual steeped in the inevitability of death – gradually moving toward consolation and acceptance.

The Latin text did not seem at all inaccessible to me. The fanatic passion of my high school Latin teacher, who insisted that we would be forever benighted without four years of her subject, left me not with mastery, but with a sense of familiarity and harmony around words in Latin.

I found it important to consider what my piece could add to the many distinguished pieces of its type, what the role of the piece for which I had initially volunteered could be.

My contract was signed in the first week of September 2001. I continued composing through March 2002. My account of the genesis of the piece makes it clear that its sources go back fifteen years. But the events of that fall made my purposes clearer. I wanted my piece to have a sense of the inexorability of the passage of time, for good and ill, of the commonality of love and loss. I wanted to open up an aural space where this could be acknowledged.

Ideally this piece is not coercively about how you should feel, but rather an offer of a place to be true to your own thoughts. I inscribed, as I wrote this piece over seventeen years, the names of loved ones who died in that time, not to tell the listener about my reaction, but to remind myself that only living alertly in our own immediate lives gives us any comprehension of war, disaster, destruction on a wider scale.

I wanted a way to jump with the text from past to present to future, from they to we to I.

The presence of solo singers helps. They don't sing "numbers" but are part of a collective wide-ranging melody that tracks who is speaking, and from what world.

Requiem. An accidental collection of words about mortality (part I) and continuity (part II), to be shaped into a purposeful collection of sounds. So I decided only to pause once, to use a rather small orchestra to present my Day of Judgment in the most frugal musical materials – instinct under the cloak of rationality. To offer the consolation of one so fortunate as to be able to track, for so long, a train of thought, in apparent safety, to a conclusion.

— John Harbison