The Act of Remembrance
There was a time not very long ago when people were reminded frequently of one of life’s most mature realizations—that we all will die. This reminder may have been in the form of family cemetery plots along country back roads, or a congregation’s cemetery placed next to the church. In fact, it was not too long ago that folks might even picnic in the beautifully manicured surroundings of the cemetery.
Times have changed. Today, cemeteries have been moved out of our sight—to the suburbs, or behind gates and walls. Furthermore, the cemetery is probably the last place most people would think of having a picnic. Since we’re not quite sure how to deal with our discomfort, we decide that what is out of sight is out of mind. Could it be that the same thing has happened to the subject of death as it enters the realm of church music? As we approach the subject of our finitude, are church musicians saying, “out of sound, out of mind”?
The great events of the Christian year as well as the sacraments and ordinances of the Christian faith naturally have produced many of our greatest choral works. These masterpieces both document and add commentary to the Christian story. The perusal of any church choral library will quickly lead to the discovery that Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter are well represented in our choral literature.
There exists another great body of choral literature, often overlooked, which was composed for a purpose that at first observation no longer seems relevant or practical. This is the choral form based upon settings of the requiem text. Unfortunately, this body of literature has too often been neglected by the church and relegated to the concert hall and choral society.
There are three possible reasons for this development. The first reason can no doubt be attributed to many Protestant church musicians’ misunderstanding of the requiem form. Although it is true that the liturgical mass form is difficult to accommodate in Protestant worship, this should not necessarily be the case for the musical setting of the requiem. In fact, in our own day, composer John Rutter with his very accessible Requiem has demonstrated the appropriateness of this work for the Protestant church.
Another explanation for the scant use of the requiem choral form could be that the church musician does not know what to do with a large choral work that does not seem to accompany an appropriate liturgical season. Titles such as The Seven Last Words or Christmas Oratorio point to obvious seasonal placement. The term “requiem” does not seem to bring an obvious season to mind.
A third, and possibly more prohibitive stumbling block to the reintroduction of the requiem choral form may be in the nature of the subject matter of the work. Death is not a subject most churches seek to embrace.
The Origins of the Requiem
The requiem, or “requiem aetemam” as it originally appeared, is indeed a service for the dead. Originally, musical settings of the requiem mass were written for or with specific individuals in mind. Even as late as the writing of Faure’s Requiem, the work was composed in memory of his own father. By the time Faure had completed his masterpiece, his mother had also died. The work commemorates the death of both his parents. Appropriately, it was also later performed at Faure’s own funeral.
In order to understand the requiem mass form and reclaim the use of the genre for the modem church, some background information is necessary. Many of the large choral forms that we know today were solidified in the period between 1600 and 1750, a musical period commonly called the Baroque era. The oratorio, cantata, passion, and opera trace their form to this period. However, the mass form, including the requiem mass, goes back to a much earlier period.
In Alec Robertson‘s account of the story of the requiem (Requiem: Music of Mourning and Consolation), the author begins his history with the funeral rites and prayers of the early Christians. He states that the word requiem, meaning “rest,” is to be found everywhere in the Roman catacombs, the underground cemeteries of the early Christians. One inscription found in these underground cemeteries demonstrates the significance of the word “rest”:
Alexander is not dead, but lives above the stars, and his body rests in this tomb, a rest
that will end with a resurrection.
It was at the close of the tenth century that a specific requiem mass form is found. According to Robertson, “before that as far as we know masses for the dead were not distinguished from others.” The mass for the dead, or “requiem aetemam,” was not liturgically limited to the “Proper” time of All Saint’s Day, the first of November. It could be used at almost any time when there was a death of an important person, or when the death was subsequently commemorated.
The reference to the dead in the Roman service comes in the section called the Canon, the central and most solemn part of the mass. The fixed and never-changing Canon begins after the Preface and Sanctus, and ends with a doxology just before the Lord’s Prayer, which prefaces the preparation for Communion. The Canon contains a prayer for the living before the Consecration of the Bread and Wine. “Rest” and “light” are the leading themes of the requiem. The word “rest” is used in the sense of Augustine’s words, “Our souls are restless ’til they rest in Thee.” Centuries of composers have addressed themselves to the brevity of existence through the composition of a requiem. In each of their compositions, the musicians as well as the listeners again face the reality that humankind will indeed die.
Mortality in Perspective
The beauty of the choral requiem for the church musician is that the genre develops the reality of death. James White reminds us in his book Sacraments as God’s Self Giving, “we do not know death, but we do know the love of God.” The loss of another human is not observed as a sacrament in the sense of Baptism or Communion, but rather has been termed a “natural sacrament.” For Christians, the memorial service and burial itself resemble other sacraments in that the transition is observed “in the context of an assembly of fellow Christians in which the strong promises of God in the face of death are heralded through reading from scripture, hymnody, psalmody, and preaching. Then, in the context of prayer, the departed is committed to God’s keeping.”
The presence of a church in bereavement is a strong statement of support and love. It does not make up for the loss of a loved one, but is a witness to an enduring love that surrounds us on earth and the beloved one in God’s keeping. God’s self-giving is experienced socially through the loving concern of others whose very presence in our affliction is a sign of divine love. God’s love is made visible not only in words and actions, but as White reminds us, in the assembly itself.
The requiem teaches about death and about how to die. It both consoles the living and commends the deceased to God’s continuing care. Though we are diminished, we are also instructed in the true nature of our own life. As Tillich states, “and if one is not able to die, is he really able to live?”
Composers in all musical periods who have been impelled to compose settings of the requiem do more than embellish the story with fancy embroidery. They tell the story, and in telling it, reveal insights that would otherwise remain undisclosed. And to the degree that mortality is integral to that story, setting finitude to music becomes integral to the vocation of composers. Paul S. Minear states in his book Death Set to Music: Masterworks by Bach, Brahms, Penderecki, Bernstein, “there is, accordingly, nothing strange about the fact that requiems and masses hold a central place in the history of Western music.”
While it is true that composers have been drawn to the form and text of the requiem, what of the audience—the listener—us? Judith Viorst in Necessary Losses gives the following insight into the human approach to the subject of death:
The self that we have created through so many years of effort and suffering will die. So whether or not we live with images of continuity—of immortality—we also will have to live with a sense of transience, aware that no matter how passionately we love whatever we love, we don’t have the power to make either it, or us, stay.
The thought of death generally produces a feeling that most of us cannot abide. Consciously or unconsciously, we push death thoughts away. We go about our lives with the fact of our own death emotionally suppressed. Viorst concludes, “denial of death impoverishes our lives.”
The Church’s Response
From birth to death. God works through the community of faith to give God’s own self to us. There are specific seasons and anniversaries in which the faith community could continue and enhance its ministry both to the bereaved as well as to the entire community. Music is a way of telling a story and of inviting singers and listeners to accept a role in that story. Music can articulate the rich subtleties experienced in joy and happiness, as well as suffering and death. Music releases a wider spectrum of emotions than can be released by confessional formulas or historical reconstructions.
One of the great statements regarding the practice of remembrance is found in Colossians 3:1-16. Most church musicians are very familiar with the concluding verse of this passage: “…sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” However, this statement comes to us within a context.
The context for verse sixteen is set in verse three of the chapter: “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” The verses that follow are a requiem for the dead, of which all of those who have died in Christ are a part. Verse ten states that those who have died in Christ “have put on the new self.” Verse 5 states that this new self has “put to death whatever belongs to earthly nature.” The passage continues to describe the characteristics of this “new self.”
In verse sixteen, those who have died in Christ are told to let the word of Christ live in them “richly.” The word “richly” prefaces a description of how that “word” is allowed to dwell in one richly. These words help us understand the importance of the use of the musical form of the requiem in the process of remembrance. “Richly” describes how the “word” will “live in you” as those that are in Christ “sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.”
Many of us grew up in churches where formal and informal occasions were observed which allowed us to reflect upon death, remembering relatives, friends, and saints of our family or our religious heritage. When we sing the hymns “For All the Saints” or “Tell Me the Old, Old Story,” chances are we learned that “story” from some of those folk we remember on occasions such as church homecomings, camp meetings, family reunions, or even around the family dinner table. Each occasion gives opportunity for reflection, whether it be in an amusing anecdote, a time of silent remembrance, or a ritualized observance such as the singing of a requiem. The themes of family remembrance and faith are inextricable.
Some churches have established a moment in their yearly cycles of time to include a service in which family and saints of the church that have died are intentionally remembered. The most common time for such a remembrance is in the fall of the year. Whether this observance happens on All Saint’s Day on November 1, or the annual church homecoming, the observance gives opportunity for healthy reflection on death and remembrance. Remembrance is viewed as an important aspect of community life.
Whatever the choice of requiem settings (see box), the choir’s presentation of the work need not solely depend upon the choir and orchestra’s preparation. An invitation could be extended to the entire congregation to share the name of a deceased friend or relative who has contributed to that individual’s heritage of Christian faith. The name of the remembered persons could be printed in the worship folder as a further act of remembrance. The response by the congregation will be strong, since their universal need of remembrance will be met through this chance to respond in an appropriate and satisfying way as they sing the Requiem and remember.
It is unrealistic to propose that most choirs could respond at a moment of death with a sung
requiem commemoration. It is also unlikely that the average choir could prepare such a major work for even a later commemoration. However, the act of remembrance and reflection on the saints of one’s personal and church
family is nevertheless a worthy activity for the community of faith through music ministry. Regardless of the setting, a season of remembrance should be considered in the church year. The choral form of the requiem gives artistic focus and beauty to this important occasion of remembrance.
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