Music for Dead People

This week Mahlerman is contemplating the peace of the grave…

Over 500 years ago in Flanders, or possibly France, Johannes Ockeghem notated the earliest extant Requiem Mass that contained two melodic threads woven together to make a satisfying, formalized whole – and polyphony had arrived in liturgical music. For hundreds of years before that Plainsong and Gregorian Chant, both monophonic forms, had served Western Christianity when the dead begged recognition. The floodgates were then opened and the last half-millenium has seen the pious Requiem morph into countless forms, often having more to do with the living than the dead. Not many composers since the Renaissance have been able to avoid the form, and few have tried – but even the greatest have expanded the original message to suit their own purposes. The German Requiem of Johannes Brahms really deals with romantic heroism; the War Requiem of Benjamin Britten which we heard a few weeks ago is, with the words of Wilfred Owen, a passionate anti-war treatise from a noted conscientious objector; Mozart’s unfinished masterpiece reveals his anger at the guttering of his candle; and Verdi’s dynamic near-opera seems a long way removed from the graveside.

The intense passion that burns through the music of ‘The Spanish Palestrina’  Tomas Luis de Victoria sets him apart from that master, and from the other outstanding polyphonist of the 16th Century Roland de Lassus. The Requiem Mass, written for the funeral of his patron Maria of Austria in 1603, is without question his supreme masterpiece. Here, the mesmerizing beauty of the Agnus Dei sung by the Tallis Scholars directed by Peter Phillips.

Difficult to think about perhaps this country’s greatest composer Henry Purcell without profound regret. Regret at his early death at 36; but particularly a regret that the strictures placed upon him by the demands of church, court and theatre were unsuited to his unique genius. In a way, he would have been better off working abroad, where fully-composed opera and incidental music, was properly appreciated. Yes, The Fairy Queen and King Arthur contain wonderful music; but are they any more than quasi-operas, with an unfinished feel to them? Purcell died in the same year as Queen Mary, 1695. Here, the magnificent Funeral Sentences, starting with the solemn March, leading to Man that is Born of a Woman, In the Midst of Life, and the final Canzona. Not a Requiem in name or form, but music of surpassing beauty.

Skip forward 140 years and across the channel in France Hector Berlioz was pumping-up the orchestra to a previously unimagined size in delivering his Grande Messe des Morts – in fact he specified that the number of performers should only be limited by the size of the hall. Nearly everything was tripled or quadrupled, timpani required 10 players, four brass bands should be situated at the four points of the compass, off-stage – and the hundreds of singers should be located ‘throughout the space’. Having a care for your speakers, here is one of the few contemplative moments in the score, the relatively serene Hostias, scored for just 8 Trombones, 3 Flutes, Strings, and Male Voices.

Staying in France we find most people’s idea of consolation in the Opus 48 of Gabriel Faure, composed when he was organist at the Madeleine Church in Paris in 1887. The enduring impression in this marvellous work is of a stainless beauty and truth – and in the section here, In Paradisum, a very rare serenity. Strictly speaking this section, along with Pie Jesu and Libera me, renders this work non-liturgical. Nevertheless it was performed at the composer’s own funeral, and I shall be leaving instruction with my children to follow this example as my body is carried through the streets of Peckham by a plumed black horse.

Finally, it feels much like the soundworld of Victoria five centuries ago as we listen to the opening Requiem Aeternam from the Russo-German Alfred Schnittke. I would urge all dabblers to acquaint themselves with the 14 sections of this wonderful work, written in the shadow of his mother’s death, in 1974. No sign of his well known ‘polystylism’ here, although the score calls for an electric guitar – but it is worth remembering that liturgical music was strictly banned in Brezhnev-era Russia but, somehow, this masterwork emerged into the light.

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About Author Profile: Mahlerman

Mahlerman's life was shaped by his single mother, who never let complete ignorance of a subject get in the way of having strong opinions about it. Facing retirement after a life in what used to be called 'trade', and having a character that consists mainly of defects, he spends his moments of idleness trying to correct them, one by one.

6 thoughts on “Music for Dead People

    John Halliwell
    February 19, 2012 at 16:36

    ‘I’ll clear my desk and collect my P45 then……’ Thus wrote MM seven days ago in admiration of Worm’s terrific post: Ice Cold in Alles. I immediately shouted No! No! much to the unease of my wife whose decision to marry me all those years ago grows increasingly suspect. But here yet again is why the loss of the old boy would so diminish every second sunday. Absolutely marvelous music. Even the Schnittke.

    The Purcell is glorious. I remember Brendel, in conversation with Rattle, say that Purcell was England’s only great composer. On that occasion I thought ‘Bollocks: what does a pub pianist know about music?’ Well, after listening to this, Alf may have had a point, but, then again, not much of one. MM, your thought about the benefits that Purcell may have gained from working abroad is very interesting. If only he had; perhaps Alf would have had enough evidence to place Henry above Handel and not far below JSB. But that early death? But then again Schubert (31) and Mozart (35).

    Wonderful post; the text a great accompaniment to the music.

    • Brit
      February 19, 2012 at 21:36

      Hear him, hear him!

    February 20, 2012 at 10:21

    “as my body is carried through the streets of Peckham by a plumed black horse.” Wonders will never cease; MM an associate of Charlie Richardson and upstanding member of the Sarf London gang fraternity!

    Top stuff as always MM. In Paridisium was played at Basil Hume’s funeral mass as his coffin was carried to his vault. So, whilst it might strictly have come after the mass, if it’s good another for a Cardinal, it’s good enough.

    I agree with you – to an extent – about Purcell, but, and here my Catholic prejudices might be kicking in, I think that prior to the Reformation England had a claim to the finest composers in Europe: Phillips, Byrd, Martin, et al made Palestrina sound like the borish and metronomic careerist he was. Life is full of ‘if onlys’, and that’s one of mine.

      John Halliwell
      February 20, 2012 at 13:24

      I agree, Recusant, Byrd, in particular, was a magnificent composer, as was the older Tallis. After agonising over the good sense, or otherwise, of buying a one month subscription to the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, which allows access to the orchestra’s great video library, I recently spent the necessary £24. And one of the first pieces I downloaded was ‘Spem in alium’ sung by the Rundfunkchor Berlin, conducted by Simon Rattle. Apart from some infuriating camera work concentrated on Rattle, it is a wonderful experience; whether as good as Phillips and the Tallis Scholars I simply don’t possess the knowledge or ear to judge, but as sound it is profoundly moving. The following item in this concert’s programme is Mahler’s 8th Symphony. After the spareness and great beauty of the Tallis, I felt unable to digest the excesses of the Mahler.

      By the way, I now conclude that the subscription to the BPO’s concert library would be cheap at twice the price

  3. Worm
    February 21, 2012 at 14:36

    Glad you are back MM, much better stuff than my adolescent efforts!

    I’ll always have have a soft spot for Faure’s Requiem having performed it in St Paul’s Cathedral back when I was but a wee soprano

    February 21, 2012 at 17:36

    All scores very highly on my scale, Mahlerman… I could happily live with funereal church music playing in the background all day – and this is a lovely selection for any day of the week.

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