By chance and then by design I listened, this week before Good Friday, to requiems, seven of them.
Friday night (April 3) in Mortensen Hall of The Bushnell we shook, rattled, and rolled to Verdi's Requiem, complete with a one hundred seventy voice choir accompanied by a symphony orchestra and, most notably, a percussionist pounding two bass drums at the same time during the opening Deis Irae and the closing reprise. When the trumpets blew, I half expected to see the ceiling of the hall open up and the wrath of God descend.
I also thought of Marguerite Favrao, my high school English teacher. In junior year we studied Shakespeare's MacBeth. I then memorized, as Miss Favrao required, a choice selection of verse: to wit,
If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly. If th' assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease, success: that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all--here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time
We'd jump the life to come.
Sixty-one years later I can still stumble through that quote sufficiently to suggest its drift. But what I remember most about that passage is dear, sharp, feisty Miss Marguerite Favrao asking the class of thirty students what was giving MacBeth pause about his intended regicide. Not a one of us had a clue, and that included the one whom even then friends teasingly called "Reverend" (because I had the keys, not to the kingdom, but to the parish house gym). Marguerite shook her head in disbelief, that in a room filled with Christians and Jews, no one remembered having heard about the last judgment. Thane MacBeth hesitates in his murderous design because he fears the coming eternity when he will be held accountable for what he has done.
Had MacBeth been privileged as I was to listen to Giuseppe Verdi's evocation of the wrath of God (bass drums booming!), my junior year class in English on Shakespeare would have had to swap a Scottish pretender for a Danish prince. But I never forgot Miss Favrao's chastisement for my ignorance and throughout the fifty years of my pastoral leadership have repeated with a certain stress that phrase in the Apostle's Creed, "from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead."
I turned at the end of the Verdi performance at The Bushnell to the brain surgeon behind me and commented, "Boy, there's no doubt Verdi took the last judgment seriously." The doctor, whose surname also ended in a vowel, shot back at me, "They all did."
Sunday morning at the anointed hour we worshiped at Asylum Hill Congregational Church. Barbara's sister Ellie sings in the choir. She alerted us and we therefore planned to attend the Palm Sunday service when the choir would be singing Brahms' A German Requiem. Barbara and I have sung it with the Chancel Choir of Grace United Methodist Church, Valley Stream NY, years and years ago; and we love it. I have been especially fond of the sung text from Hebrews that "here on earth we have no continuing place." That phrase has turned up several times in my eulogies for choristers and their family members.
Johannes Brahms and Verdi were contemporaries, one in Germany, the other in Italy. The Italian requiem is big on fire and brimstone (those bass drums again!) while the German requiem puts the accent on human mortality. I wouldn't read cultural differences into this comparison; but I do find Brahms more in touch with modern sensibility... that is, forgive me the arrogance, my sensibility.
With Verdi I hear God's frown. With Brahms I hear God's tears.
It would be appropriate, the possibility dawned on me, to observe Holy Week listening to requiems. It shouldn't have surprised me, but it did, that the iTunes store is filled to overflowing with CD's of the compositions of masters and others. I downloaded Mozart, recalling that scene in Amadeus with the composer, pale and feverish, scribbling his last opus. But, I discovered to my dismay, the text for a requiem is pretty much prescribed. What I was looking for, and not finding, was a requiem text sized to our generation, that gauged not only our guilt and frailty, but our loss of meaning in a lonely universe. If Brahms could do it, why not others?
In my virtual travels in Apple territory I came upon a Norwegian's requiem. Despite seventeen and a half years among the Nordic immigrant stock in Brooklyn, I had never previously heard of Sigurd Islandsmoen. But, alas for my quest, the standard words of a requiem, which sounded so austere in Verdi and Mozart, are tinged with the sweetness of the folkloric melodies of Islandsmoen.
Next I downloaded Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, composed in the aftermath of World War II. The 1962 performance on the disk was recorded in Coventry Cathedral on the celebration of its restoration after being blitzed by German bombers. I found the text online and was riveted by the poetry of World War I casualty, Wilfred Owen. His words are interspersed with the traditional words of a requiem. The requiem likens the "war to end all wars" (which, of course, it didn't) to Jewish patriarch Abram, deciding at the last moment on Mt. Moriah with his son Isaac bound for sacrifice, not to substitute the ram God provided but to slay his son anyway... and with this deed, the refrain staccatos into silence: "half the seed of Europe [is slain], one by one." A bitter, bitter twist on the rescue in the Biblical narrative! If I was looking for hopelessness to match the modern age, I had found it; but, regretfully, God is helpless to do anything with us about it. The cross of Christ in Britten is sympathy but not remedy. I heard the cry of desolation of the Crucified, but that was it, not the the slightest nod in the direction of the Lucan benediction with which traditional Good Friday Seven Last Word services conclude.
So many requiems, so few days in Holy Week. Seeking solace after my immersion in despair, I downloaded Faure's opus. I was not disappointed. The Pie Jesu and Agnus Dei lifted my spirit on angel wings. I reached for a contemporary reprise and found in my CD library John Rutter's Requiem in which I detected my ancestral British restraint trying to emulate Faure's French plaintive lyricism.
I am ready for some loud and joyous Hallelujahs!