For years I have said that all 20th-century organ composers worth their salt have to write their “token” aria patterned after significant organ piece “Aria” by Belgian organist/composer Flor Peeters (1903-1986). Indeed, many have, and we now have lovely organ arias by numerous contemporary composers. Likewise, choral composers worth their salt have to also write their “token” requiem choral mass, and thank God they have throughout history.
Many will argue that Gabriel Fauré’s (1845-1924) Requiem (1887) is one of the requiem measuring sticks, and I will fully agree with them. Fauré’s Requiem is not the most difficult to sing, is not the longest, nor does it require the largest choral forces or largest orchestra. It does, however, exhibit some of the most gorgeous, lyric, transcendent melodies ever written for voices and instruments. From the grave but beautiful opening strains (“Grant unto them rest, O Lord”) to the peaceful, heavenward-looking closing movement (“Into paradise may angels lead them”), the word-painting of these texts is unsurpassed.
Scholars do not know specifically why Fauré wrote his Requiem. Some suggest that he wrote it at the death of his father in 1885 or his mother’s death on New Year’s Eve 1887, but we know that he began the work before his mother’s death. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “My Requiem was not written for anything – for pleasure, if one can say that.” His first version in 1887 was entitled “Un Petit Requiem,” and he revised the work in 1889, 1890 and 1899, the latter being the version for full orchestra that we know today.
While this work is a popular concert piece for choruses and orchestras, it is a great privilege to be able to offer this oratorio in the context of a Eucharistic liturgy. The offering of this work by our Parish Choir, organ, and orchestra this Sunday morning (Remembrance Sunday, Nov. 8) is in memory of all the faithful departed of Church of the Holy Communion since All Saints’ Day 2014. We hope that all worshipers will let this sublime music wash over them in prayers and blessings and remembrances of loved ones.
Of his work Fauré also wrote, “Everything I managed to entertain by way of religious illusion I put into my Requiem, which moreover is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest.” In the past few weeks during choir rehearsals we have often quipped how we wish that we could all depart this earth hearing this heavenly music. Indeed, “faith in eternal rest” is at the central core of the Christian message. Death does not win, nor is it the end of the story, and Fauré reminds us of this fact in a glorious way.
Source: Michael Steinberg, “Gabriel Fauré: Requiem, Op. 48,” in Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2005), pp. 131-137.