Requiem by Gabriel Fauré

The Requiem by Gabriel Fauré is a perfect example of French art at its best. My friends think I’m joking when I compare this piece to a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild. But I’m perfectly serious. That great wine has layer after layer of different flavors, some poetic and feminine, some darker and richer, infinite nuance and intrigue; and yet, at the same time, everything is perfectly balanced, harmonious, not one element overpowering the others. It is amazing that a wine with so much floral perfume never becomes cloying. This brilliance of balance – depth of content with refinement and grace – is the unique gift of French art. And Gabriel Fauré was a definitive exponent of this art.

This amazing Requiem depicts the timelessness of human existence, the procession of generations, human longings, profound sorrow, fear of the unknown, as well as light, hope, the ultimate joys of heaven, and, above all, peace. All of these separate emotions are distinctly expressed, but they also form a perfect harmonious unity which lasts only 30 minutes. There is not a note out of place in this work. And, because its structure and style are so “simple,” the handling of all these emotions takes great concentration and care on the part of the performers.

The work begins with sudden, powerful fortissimos in the orchestra, drawing us immediately into a deep cosmic world. As the sound fades away, a chorus from far away appears: “Requiem aeterna – Eternal rest.” For me this has always depicted the timeless procession of generations of humanity – those who have died centuries ago, others within our lifetime, others who have just passed away, those of us who are alive now, and future generations. We are all part of this unexplainable procession. When the chorus sings the words “et lux perpetua luceat eis – perpetual light will shine upon them,” it is as if we have a vision of an awesome, immense power. The introduction ends in a long sustained pianissimo.

The main section of this first movement, the Introitus and Kyrie, begins with an extraordinarily beautiful melody sung by the tenor section with rich string accompaniment. Fauré, a genius of melody, has here given us music that is simultaneously sad and hopeful. The tenors sing with compassion and heartfelt feelings. This is balanced by the purity of soprano tone which follows - notably in a major key (the piece began in D Minor.) The full chorus comes in with solemn expression. This is followed by a type of “recapitulation” to the opening tenor theme, this time sung by the whole chorus, providing a brief moment of great beauty. But the solemnity returns and carries through to the end of the movement.

The Offertory is the most developed movement of the piece. It begins with a magnificently expressive string introduction. The altos and tenors then enter unaccompanied in the mode of an austere Renaissance piece. The atmosphere created evokes timelessness. It also causes the listener to go to deep internal, personal feelings. Eventually the basses join in, and the chorus is no longer unaccompanied. This highly expressive section concludes at the entrance of the baritone soloist. Here, the key changes to the major, as the soloist offers his own personal prayer. When the chorus returns with the original melodic material, it is now in the major key and the sopranos add their lightness to the ensemble. At the final word, “Amen,” the orchestra drops and the chorus floats up in one of the most sublime moments of the work.

The profundity and length of the Offertory is followed by the simplicity and optimism of the Sanctus. Above a gently undulating string and harp accompaniment, the sopranos sing a sweet and serene melody. They are answered by the men in unison, accompanied by a sublime melody played by the violins. This builds up, little by little, to a thrilling climax of affirmation and ultimate triumph. The works concludes peacefully.

The Pie Jesu, for soprano solo, is the personal utterance of hope for the eternal peace of a loved one. Even though we feel the sense of loss, the confidence of eternal happiness is always present here. This famous movement is an amazing example of profound feelings depicted with the utmost simplicity.

The Agnus Dei begins with the violins and violas playing another exceptionally beautiful melody. It is set in the warm, gentle key of F Major. The tenors pray to the Lamb of God with a pleading tone, but also confident of the ultimate mercy of God. Deep anxiety is expressed at the entrance of the full choir. This subsides, and the tenors return. This time their pleading changes a bit – unsure of the outcome. They fade away, and the celli and string basses drop to their lowest regions. All time stops at the soprano entrance on the word “lux – light.” In the first movement, Fauré depicted light with awesome power. Here it’s more complicated. After the orchestra drops out and the sopranos are holding this note all alone for two measures, the music continues in a major key, with soaring phrases of beauty. It seems optimistic, but, really, it doesn’t feel resolved. And it isn’t; because it leads to an immense accumulation of intensity and power. And then Fauré returns us to the music of the very beginning of this Requiem – the cosmic timelessness and power. Is this his way of expressing that, even though we are optimistic about the presence of a heaven, the cosmos is so immense and beyond our comprehension, that we really don’t know what is in store after death? Perhaps. But this movement’s postlude seems to dispel any doubts of heaven with a reiteration of the beautiful violin and viola melody of the movement’s introduction, this time in an even more glowing key of D Major.

Unlike almost all other requiems, Fauré chose to eliminate almost all parts of the Requiem liturgy that depict hell and damnation. The lengthy liturgical sequence, Dies irae (Day of wrath) – which provided Verdi with about 40 minutes of juicy moments of horror, fear, and darkness – this liturgical movement was completely cut by Fauré. Instead he inserted the shorter liturgical text, Libera me. This movement brings back the baritone soloist in a serious plea (“Deliver me from eternal death”.) The chorus comes in evocatively with the word “tremens –trembling.” Suddenly, the French Horns call forth loudly the Day of Judgment. This is a bona fide moment of intense fear. This intensity is remarkably strong, but inward, as the chorus sings in unison the baritone’s original theme. The soloist returns at the end, this time with a note of resignation. Our fate is ultimately in the hands of the Diety.

As we turn the page to the final movement, In paradisum (In Paradise,) any fear or doubt is immediately gone. We have already left human existence and are in the midst of a beautiful and blissful heaven. The strings provide a glowing and serene cloud of tone to which Fauré has added gentle, staccato flute arpeggios on the organ. These running 16th notes give a sense of eternity. After two measures the extraordinary pure sound of the sopranos enters. The rest of the chorus eventually comes in, and the sonorities increase. But the peak here is a gentle one. The sopranos return, even more peacefully, as they sing “May a chorus of angels receive you.” Little by little, the music departs into peaceful eternity.  

Dennis Keene


Russian Orthodox Choral Music

The Russian Orthodox choral repertory is extremely rich and has become immensely popular in the last three decades. This body of music was seldom performed when I started out as a choral conductor. Now it is standard fare in choral concerts all across this country and Europe. How glad I am to return to some of it tonight. Since it constitutes only half of our program, I had to be selective. I chose three individual pieces which are great favorites (the Tchaikovsky, Lvovsky, and Tolstiakov), and wrapped those around six of my favorite movements of the great All-Night Vigil – or “Vespers” – of Rachmaninoff.

Blessed are they by Tchaikovsky is his finest choral composition. And since it is a piece properly sung at a Requiem service, it forms a perfect bookend to the Fauré after intermission. The piece is concise, rich in melody, and very inspiring. The climax in the middle is a truly magnificent vocal outpouring of emotion from the full ensemble.

Lvovsky’s Lord, have mercy is quite a celebrated work and very evocative of an actual Russian Orthodox Liturgy. It was composed for the special service of the “Elevation of the Cross.” As the priest holds the Holy Cross, the Deacon intones the petition for mercy, and the chorus follows with the words “Ghospodi, pomiluy – Lord, have mercy,” with 78 repetitions. As the priest slowly bows with the cross to the ground, the volume of the repetitions gets softer and softer. As he raises the Cross high, so, too, does the volume of the countless repetitions. The Deacon intones a second petition for mercy, and the whole choral cycle repeats. It is a unique musical experience, unlike any other piece we sing.

Bless the Lord by Tolstiakov is a most appealing work which we have performed many times. We gave the first New York performances when its modern edition came out in 1991, and we were the first to record it. (Our recording may still be the only one.) It is a choral tour-de-force, and provides a rousing conclusion to the first half of our concert.

In between the Tchaikovsky and the other two pieces, we are performing six of the fifteen movements of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, often referred to as the “Vespers.” This extraordinary collection of fifteen movements stands without peer in the entire Russian Orthodox repertory. This is genuinely inspired music. The depth of feeling, the melodic inspiration, and the “choral orchestrations” place it in a league of its own. When I use the term “choral orchestrations” I mean the manner in which he groups together various choral voice parts. The choral textures and colors he created in this work are beyond those of any other Russian choral work that I know.

The introductory Come, let us worship is a straightforward chorus of praise, a grand opening to Rachmaninoff’s composition. Blessed be the man is a wonderful alternation of lyrical passages (sung by altos and tenors) and “Alleluias” sung by the whole choir. As the work progresses, the Alleluias get progressively louder, higher in pitch, and more animated. A climax is reached, and then the Alleluias become softer and lower, taking the basses to the lowest regions. Gladsome Light is imbued with an amazing inner peace and serenity. Only in the middle does a momentary darkness appear with a deeply expressive tenor solo. But soon we return to the rich beauty of the earlier material. Glory to God  is one of the briefest movements. It is based on a traditional Orthodox chant, which is heard right at the beginning and repeated several times with different orchestrations. After a brief build up, the music stops suddenly; there is a pause; and then we experience one of the most sublime pages in the whole Vespers. The following movement, Praise the Name of the Lord, may be my favorite movement. The choral color he creates is quite remarkable: the sopranos and tenors form one floating unit - an accompaniment – and the altos and basses come together in a very particular light color as they sing the chant together in octaves. We conclude our selection of Rachmaninoff with the triumphant final movement To Thee, the Victorious Leader. Rachmaninoff leaves the soulful, deeply felt world he maintains throughout most of the Vespers, and gives us this joyous, brilliant finale.

Dennis Keene