A Towering Lament for Troubled Times
By Victoria Looseleaf
Well into the first decade of the 21st century, humankind is experiencing relentless sorrows: From cataclysmic religious wars and rampant poverty to the escalation of disease, famine and genocide, the onslaught of daily news continues to generate a blanket of grief. And while Gustav Mahler once said that to write a symphony is to create a world, to write a requiem is to fashion music intended to provide solace. In his monumental Requiem, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Christopher Rouse has done precisely that. This 90-minute aural juggernaut, a world premiere written to honor the 2003 bicentenary of Hector Berlioz' birth, will, at long last, be heard in all its mutable glories, the staggering juxtaposition of an apocalyptic vision with music of compassion and intimacy assuaging mourners of all stripes. That we can come together in Walt Disney Concert Hall to open our hearts to the sounds of a large, lush orchestra, double chorus, children's chorus and baritone soloist --- the acclaimed Sanford Sylvan --- to cleanse our battered souls, is a rare opportunity, indeed. From the first unaccompanied note Sylvan sings, intoning the lines of Seamus Heaney's sad treatise, Mid-Term Break, to his final “amen,” we journey to the darkest corners of devastation --- moral, spiritual and physical --- arriving at a place of peace. Such is the grace and power of Rouse's thrilling score, where we can lose ourselves in this remarkable, 16-movement work, an awesome universe uniting us ever briefly.
After the baritone's ethereal crooning of cooing babies, candles and a coffin, this neo-plain-chant, unmetered opening bleeds into the second movement, requiem aeternam, the overlapping gambit one of the work's hallmarks. A cappella, this quasi motet begins with an exposed soprano entrance, an eight-part chorus soon chanting in Latin. Reminiscent of slow-movement Bartok, the chromatic vocabulary climaxes on the words, “et lux perpetua,” the entire chorus ascending stepwise in sound waves revving up to forte. Shades of Lutoslawski and Gorecki color the chromatic tonality, the movement ending starkly, its open fifths imparting a medieval, Josquinesqe feel. As the chorus sings its last note, a snare drum, timpani and bass drum enter in hushed tones, an exotic march towards the fiery crescendo of the Dies irae. Here, musical Armageddon erupts, a battery of furioso percussion waging war with a screaming chorus (think the Beatles' Revolution No. 9), where the singers, in strict rhythms but having no assigned pitches, contribute to what can only be dubbed as a frenzied aural crusade. This sound cataclysm ends with the pianissimo entrance of woodblocks, temple blocks, castanets and the Latin American guiro, these instruments accompanying the baritone's lamenting of Siegfried Sassoon's combat poem, Suicide in the Trenches. Stretching out the notes like taffy, Sylvan is at metaphorical war with the Ferrari-paced, albeit soft percussion, the melee ceasing at the silence-shrouded words, “He put a bullet through his brain.” The chorus then begins a quiet panoply of pitchless humming before unison brass - four trumpets, four trombones and tuba - announces the dramatic Tuba mirum, now triple forte. Chorus and full orchestra enter, their complex chords splashing in different rhythms, after which wild brass fanfares and overlapping tempi yield to a mysterious mood surrounding the words, “mors stupebit.” A short orchestral interlude heralds the arrival of the foreboding Quid sum miser, where, monk-like, the basses of the chorus pile on top of the droning orchestral basses in the section highlighted by a brief soprano surge, before ending in prolonged silence. The Rex tremendae, for choir and orchestra, also begins with unison brass, which careens into a fast, almost stuttering repetition that explodes with Jackson Pollock-like sonic splatterings. The skittering eighth note orchestral passages are pitted against the chorus as the sopranos soar to high C in this perfect melding of text –-- “the fearsome King of majesty” --- and tones. Smacking of Berlioz as well as Mozart, this grandiose movement makes way for a harmonically simple “salva me,” the hushed passage presaging the return of the Rex tremendae. Even more catastrophic in its end-of-the-world feel, the chorus' last syllable spills over to the return of the baritone: a merciful guide hurling us into the first of two Michelangelo poems, Ancor che il cor. Or is he? Trying to begin his soliloquy, the soloist is thwarted by constant orchestral interruptions until he is finally able to break through with text.
This fantasy-like wall of sound continues until the arrival of two long silences, 9 and 11 seconds, the latter ending the movement. This much-needed, surprising calm floats into a low E-flat groan that ushers in the ninth movement, quaerens me. Here the basses and bassoons, altos and clarinets, and tenors and flutes craft a sustained, resonating world as prelude to the percussion sneaking in again, nimbly crescendoing to a huge climax, the downbeat signaling the Lacrymosa. One of the longest movements (and similar in scale to that of Berlioz' Requiem), its heft is equally significant, the 9/8 rhythm producing undulations of sound. A sensuous soprano solo akin to Bjork's vocalese on Medulla leads to a near primal-scream that slams us into another silent ending before the arrival of the Domine Jesu Christe. With a filigreed orchestra under a unison chorus, this stark simplicity acts as a buffer before the Hostias, whose low C major, triple forte begins in the strings, the basses and sopranos humming three-part chords before the altos and tenors enter with the text. This ghostly eddy of sound ends on a sublime E major chord. Overlapping Ben Jonson's heartrending poem on the death of a child, On my first Son, the stealth-like addition of glockenspiel, vibraphone and clarinet form a textured cornucopia, as the baritone, now lyrical, croons romantic harmonies (think Mahler's Kindertotenlieder), that create a launching pad for the astonishing entrance of the children's chorus in the Sanctus/Osanna. A wash of treble bling in C Major, the adult choir in runaway train mode (208 to the quarter-note), offers the “Osanna,” before colliding into the opening of Milton's Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint. As the orchestra fades away, the baritone begins the dark, syllabically-set text, ending in a hush before the final Agnus Dei, comes charging in on block chords. Listen for the low F-sharp bass purrings, insouciant brass outbursts and the chorus soaring in open fifths and thirds, before the baritone gently murmurs, dona eis requiem, and two enormous bells toll. Marked FFFFF, these chimes reverberate as double choruses offer hymnbook harmony, with Now the Laborer's Task is O'er. Like an intricately woven tapestry, with Michelangelo's death sonnet On Immortality adding to the fever-pitch feel, this finale dishes out titanic relief when the children's chorus re-enters singing, Lo, how a rose e’re blooming. With death comes birth. And hope. The return of requiem aeternam, its waves of ascending lines climaxing on Et lux perpetua, is prelude to the overlapping phrases that soon melt into the hushed a cappella quietude: the baritone's final utterance, “amen.” Devastating, unstinting, fiery, and forged from grief, Rouse's massive Requiem is a soaring work of art whose haunting beauty has the power to heal and enlighten. Now more than ever.
Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, La Opinion and Performances Magazine. In addition, she is the Program Annotator for the Geffen Playhouse as well as the producer-host of the long-running cable access television show on the arts, “The Looseleaf Report.” This is her third season with the Los Angeles Master Chorale.