John Harbison’s Requiem

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The text of almost any musical composition named Requiem should ideally be set to traditional sections of the Latin language, Catholic Mass for the Dead. Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi. All three wrote Requiems using mostly the text of the Missa pro  defunctis.

In 2002 John Harbison completed his Requiem after laboring on and off on his composition for over fourteen years. The results can be heard in the Naxos recording that was made on May 12 and 13, 2017 in Nashville’s Laura Turner Concert Hall, with Giancarlo Guerrero conducting the Nashville Symphony and Nashville Symphony Chorus. The quartet of soloists was comprised of Soprano Jessics Rivera, Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens, Tenor Nicholas Phan and Baritone Kelly Markgraf.

About his Requiem, completed during the aftermath of 9-11, John Harbison has written, “I wanted a sense of ancient inheritance to inhabit my setting: a ritual steeped in the inevitability of death – gradually moving toward consolation and acceptance. My account of the genesis of the piece makes it clear that its sources go back fifteen years. But the events of that fall made my purposes clearer. I wanted my piece to have a sense of the inexorability of the passage of time, for good and ill, of the commonality of love and loss. I wanted to open up an aural space where this could be acknowledged.”

Harbison’s Requiem does not call for one to feel this or that way. The composer instead provides a world of sound that the listener is invited to enter for the space of nearly one hour. That world is inhabited by voices and instruments – four soloists, a chorus, and an orchestra with a good number of woodwinds, brass, percussion, piano and harp, plus strings. That amassed sound is bound to provoke emotions in the listener.

Today, October 27, 2018, I sat down to listen one more time to Harbison’s Requiem, but my listening was interrupted by the news of a gunman’s attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh that caused the deaths of a dozen innocents that had assembled on the Sabbath to worship. Too moved to continue, I stopped writing, and listened to the news coming from out kitchen’s TV. To resume now could compromise my objectivity and yet I have to finish ad post this.

The first part of the text of Harbison’s Requiem is about the depiction of the human contemplating the inevitability of death. The music Harbison writes to express the wrath of God in the Dies Irae, the sounds he creates to accompany the terror we will feel when the trumpet sounds on the final Day of Judgment, the craft in orchestration he puts to use to convey the consolation of the Recordare and the deep grief of the Lacrymosa evolve in the second half into music that memorably assuages the disconsolate and offers a sense of spiritual commonality.

The soloists are beyond reproach. The chorus is simply perfect. The orchestra is marvelous. and Maestro Guerrero a superb leader. Outliving this embarrassment of riches, there will always be Harbison’s profound music, living as long as there are voices to sing it and an orchestra and a maestro up to the task.

Rafael de Acha

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