In the Spring of 2017 I was asked by my friends Bryce and Cynthia Somerville, if I would accept a commission to write a Requiem Mass. Initially, I declined their kind offer, feeling as I did that such a large scale commission would be too daunting a creative challenge. However, after further discussions I agreed instead to write a free-standing choral work that could be sung as part of a funeral service. While searching for a suitable text, I chanced upon a copy of the ‘Mass for the Dead’ and after reading the opening lines Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis. (Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them) something unexpected happened: I was struck by an overwhelming desire to set them to music. Thus began an eighteen month journey that would end in a full Requiem. To my great surprise, the music for the Introit came in a rush of inspiration and I completed it with unusual speed. Soon afterwards, I learned of the sad death of Doreen Somerville. The commissioners’ wished for the Introit to be performed as part of their mother’s funeral service and in spite of the solemnity of the occasion, they were so moved by the work, that they once again asked me whether I would be to willing to fulfil their original request. Having set the words of the Introit, I felt that something had changed in my attitude towards writing such a large-scale liturgical work and while I was still apprehensive, given the potential comparison with the great requiems of the past, I nevertheless accepted the commission.
In setting the liturgy it was my intention to try to mirror as closely as possible its constantly shifting narrative. As a song composer, I have naturally included elements of word-painting to highlight key moments in any text and I felt that the Requiem required the same approach. To add to the emotional impact of the work I have also exploited the expressive possibilities inherent in musical modes as for me, modal harmony and modally inflected melody have a symbolic meaning that connect us to the deeper mysteries of the metaphysical world. I hasten to add that these elements occur subconsciously rather than through design, as indeed the Lydian and Aeolian modes and occasionally the more ‘English’ Dorian mode have been a constant feature of my musical language. In my Requiem, I have not only used them frequently, but have also wandered into uncharted territory and explored the mystical and timeless qualities of the Phyrgian mode.
Over the centuries, the liturgy of the Requiem Mass has changed little and composers have approached setting the texts in a manner that has reflected both their creative response to the words and their personal religious and philosophical beliefs. Before I began, I studied how these composers had tackled such textual issues. For example, Gabriel Faure and Maurice Duruflé both omitted the greater liturgical parts of the Dies Irae but set the Pie Jesu. They also set the Libera me and In Paradisum movements, although they are not strictly speaking part of the Mass for the Dead but are instead taken from the Office of the Dead. Furthermore, while Duruflé choose to set the Lux Aeterna, Faure did not. In structuring my Requiem I have followed their general scheme, but with one important difference; unlike Faure or Durufle I have not concluded my Requiem with an In Paradisum but have chosen to end with the Lux Aeterna.
The Introit opens contemplatively with a short passage for organ that comes to rest on a low pedal note. The basses enter, singing a melodic phrase on the words Requiem Aeternam that in its various guises will pervade the whole work. This essentially melismatic idea is repeated and dovetailed through the upper parts until it arrives at a moment of repose on the words dona eis, Domine (give to them, O lord). After a brief interlude on the words Lux perpetua the music builds in rhythmic intensity and leads to the Et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem (And a vow shall be paid to thee in Jerusalem), reaching an impassioned climax on the words, Exaudi orationem meam / Ad te omnis caro veniet (Hear my prayer / All Flesh shall come before you). The music then subsides to a quiet reprise of the organ introduction, ending the movement as it began, with a recapitulation of the Requiem Aeternam, dona eis, Domine.
The Kyrie takes us into altogether more ethereal aural landscape – one that seeks to express the supplicatory nature of the text. It begins with a plaintive melody sung by the sopranos alone on the words, Kyrie,eleison (Lord have mercy on us). This melody is repeated several times before the choir enters with Christie,eleison (Christ have mercy on us). The music rises in an arch-like manner, culminating in a forte climax on the third repetition of Christe,eleison. To end the movement, the introductory music is reprised but this time the altos and basses are accompanied by a solo soprano and tenor.
The Offertorium is one of the longest movements in the Requiem and its narrative consists of several short sections. Beginning with a hymn of praise to Christ, it by turns, confronts us with the soul’s vision of hell while offering consolatory prayers of deliverance as expressed in the exuberant Hostias. The music follows closely the contours of the text beginning with a joyful melody on the the words O Domine, Jesu Christe, Rex gloria (O Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory). At the Libera animas omnium fidelium defunctorum (Deliver the souls of all the faithful) the music becomes increasingly anguished, building to a dramatic outburst on the terror-stricken words, Libera eas de ore leonis (Deliver them from the lion’s mouth), collapsing amid a gloomy vision of oblivion. Following a reflective bridge passage for solo organ the choir suddenly announces the words Hostias et preces tibi, Domine laudis offerimus (We offer thee, O Lord, sacrifices and prayers of praise). This prepares the way for a new thematic idea – a slow march that accompanies the words ‘Hodie memoriam facimus (Souls whom we this day commemorate). The movement ends with a reprise of the O Domine, Jesu Christe music and a four-fold Amen.
After the ‘Sturm und Drang’ of the Offertorium, the music for the Sanctus offers some musical catharsis. Initially rooted in the uplifting key of C major, a softly undulating organ accompaniment evokes a tranquil atmosphere. A reflective melody is heard on flutes that is taken up by the upper voices and sung to the words, Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus. (Holy, Holy, Holy). This peaceful mood is sustained until the central section where the full choir sing Hosanna in excelsis (Hosanna in the highest) in rapt exaltation. The movement concludes as it began with an echo of the hushed tones of the movement’s tranquil opening .
From the outset, it was never my intention to set any part of the Die Irae, including the Pie Jesu, but sometimes one’s creative aims, as in life, can be derailed. While composing the Sanctus I learnt of the unexpected death of a dear friend, Gina Wilson. Although I was unable to continue with the Sanctus I felt a deep need to express my feelings of loss. For comfort I turned to the simple and touching words of the Pie Jesu (Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem sempiternam (Gentle Lord Jesus, grant them eternal rest). However, I decided not to set them in the traditional manner of a solo with an instrumental accompaniment but instead to set the words ‘a cappella’.
The Agnus Dei opens with a mournful chant-like melody sung by the tenors and basses. This idea is intoned several times as the sopranos sing a soaring melody above on the words Agnus Dei qui tollis pecatta mundi.( Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world). This music subsides to a quietly ruminative passage – a moment of repose and contemplation on the words ‘Grant them eternal rest’. A return of the Agnus Dei chant is now heard, juxtaposed against a melodic fragment taken from the Introit ( Et lux perpetua)
Setting the Libera me proved to be the work’s biggest creative challenge. The narrative explains that prayers of absolution are offered, asking God to have mercy upon the deceased soul as they face the Last Judgement – a vision that culminates in the violent imagery of the Dies Irae. These were the very words I did not wish to set! However, I was reliably informed that the words of the Dies Irae, as expressed within the context of the Libera me, are not simply a paraphrase of the earlier terror-ridden vision, but rather a more reassuring expression of deliverance from such a dreaded outcome. This hopeful interpretation removed my remaining doubts about setting them. The Libera Me opens with a ‘crie de coeur’ – Libera me, Domine (Deliver me, O Lord) sung emphatically by the choir. These words are repeated several times before ending this short passage with an echo of musical phrases heard previously in the Agnus Dei and Kyrie movements. A faster moving section follows that builds to an ecstatic outpouring on the word Domine but this joyful moment is scythed by the recollection of that ‘awful day’ and on De morte, a stridently dissonant motif is introduced. This ‘death motif’ finds its fullest expression at the final climax of the whole movement. To underline this intimation of our mortality, at the words, De morte aeterna, in die illa tremenda quando coeli movendi sunt et terra (On that dreadful day, when the heavens and the earth shall be moved) the Introit’s organ introduction is heard but this time it is sung by the choir over a long sustained pedal note. This passage is for me, one of the most important in the whole work: its tone is calmly reflective and it acts as a prelude to what follows. A Bass solo repeats these words and is then joined by the bases and upper voices leading to an outburst on the words Tremens factus sum ego et timeo (Trembling, I stand before thee). This peroration plunges straight into the Dies illa, dies irae text when the basses and tenors chant a menacing and dirge like melody that anchors the anguished narrative. The upper voices join with an agitated countersubject on calamatatis et miseriae (calamity and misery) that heightens the music’s fearful sense of foreboding. This uneasiness intensifies and reaches a cataclysmic climax. On Dies magna et amara valde (Day of exceeding bitterness) the De morte motif is heard three times in succession ending on a highly dissonant chord over which can be heard the organ introduction to the Introit, only this time greatly distorted. This vehemently discordant passage winds down and resolves into a moment of calm before the music to the Introit is reprised.
As a metaphor, Lux aeterna (Eternal light) has for me, a transcendental resonance – one that connects our inner world with the spiritual world that lies ‘beyond the veil’. It is for this reason that I chose to end my Requiem with this visionary text.
Following a quiet introduction on the organ, that seeks to conjure an iridescent and impressionistic sound world, the sopranos enter with a radiant melody on the words, Lux aeterna, luceat eis, Domine (May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord). A contrapuntal dialogue between sopranos and altos ensues and reaches an evanescent outpouring on Aeternam, quia pius es (Forever, for thou art kind). After a restatement of the Requiem Aeternam, dona eis, Domine, words – that incorporate a fleeting reference to the music of the Agnus Dei – there is an unexpected modulation into the key of B major that heralds the return of the opening Lux perpetua melody. Effectively a coda to the whole work, the constant repetition of the words Lux aeterna creates an almost hypnotic aura, ending my Requiem in a mood of resplendent optimism.