27 October 2013
Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.
Thus begins the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead, or Requiem, and this refrain is heard throughout. This music and these words have been offered up for centuries to pray for and honor the dead, and they will be sung in this parish this Sunday morning as part of our commemoration of the faithful departed.
The practices of caring for, remembering, and even providing in some way for the ongoing life of the dead are as old as human history – indeed, the presence of such practices is one way to define what constitutes humanity itself. If a fully developed doctrine about the afterlife is not a part of the Hebrew scriptural witness – and indeed the Bible overall is far from clear about this greatest of mysteries – nevertheless prayers and sacrifice for the dead and a belief in resurrection are attested in the intertestamental period (e.g., II Maccabees 12) and, interpreted in the light of the Christian experience, were certainly part of the Church’s consciousness and practice from the beginning. Tertullian, in third-century North Africa, for example, mentions a widower making his offering on behalf of his deceased first wife as well as his living second wife.
The practice of praying for the dead has had a checkered history among the churches of the Reformation, which rejected what in the West had become rather literal and specific ideas about what happens when we die and what can be done to aid the deceased in their journey into the fulness of God’s presence – and the prevalence and abuse of these provisions. Nevertheless, prayers for the departed are firmly enshrined in the reformed catholic theology of the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer, in which all forms of the Prayers of the People include such petitions. The Prayer Book catechism explains the practice thus: ‘We pray for [the dead] because we still hold them in our love, and because we trust that in God’s presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is’ [BCP 862]. This idea is rooted in the very essence of what it means to be a Christian – as the Church’s Lesser Feasts and Fasts puts it:
The Church is ‘the communion of Saints’, that is, a people made holy through their mutual participation in the mystery of Christ. This communion exists through history, exists now, and endures beyond ‘the grave and gate of death’ into heaven. For ‘God is not a God of the dead but of the living’, and those still on their earthly pilgrimage continue to have fellowship ‘with those whose work is done’. The pilgrim Church and the Church at rest join in watching and praying for that great day when Christ shall come again to change and make perfect our common humanity in the image of Christ’s risen glory’.
In the Apostles’ Creed recited at every baptism and most funerals – and in many other prayers throughout the Prayer Book – we affirm our belief in this communion of saints, this fellowship of love and prayer, of growth and service, of life open to and showing forth the presence of Christ. A Requiem, then, gives us an opportunity to focus on this aspect of our life of faith, to hold in our hearts those who have gone before and who are yet still with us, to think on our own mortality and our preparedness for death, and to give thanks for the promise that death is not the end but only a change and a new beginning.
What is a Requiem? It is simply a special form of Mass traditionally used on the day of a death, the day of burial, on various anniversaries of a death – and on the day of the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed, or All Souls’ Day, November 2 (the day after All Saints’ Day*). It’s an example of a Votive Mass – that is, one used for a particular intention rather than for a particular occasion on the calendar; our Prayer Book has a number of such Votive Masses, called Various Occasions – including one ‘For the Departed’.
The word requiem is a form of the Latin word meaning ‘rest’. It is, as I said earlier, the first word of the traditional Mass for the Dead and thus has come to stand for that Mass or a musical setting of its texts. Some parts of the Requiem are essentially identical to the parallel items sung at any other celebration of the Eucharist: Kyrie eleison (‘Lord, have mercy’), Sanctus (‘Holy, holy, holy’), and Agnus Dei (‘Lamb of God’). These are ancient words of entreaty and praise, mostly unchanging from one occasion to another, forming the backbone of the Mass – what we call the Ordinary.
The Ordinary of any Mass is counterbalanced by parts that are Proper to a particular occasion or intention. The Prayer Book provides proper Collects and Lessons for each Sunday, Holy Day, and Votive intention, but in the historic liturgy of the Church there are also, for each occasion, proper anthems assigned for singing at the entrance of the ministers, before the Gospel reading, at the Offertory, and during Communion (these are in modern practice often replaced by hymns, but vestiges of the older practice remain in such places as the Offertory Sentence, or the Anthems usually recited at the beginning of the Prayer Book Burial Office, and in fact the rubrics for the Eucharist in our current Prayer Book allow for a ‘Hymn, Psalm, or Anthem’ to be sung in each of the traditional places). Composed settings of the Requiem, then, often include at least some of the propers, such as the Introit I quoted at the beginning of this talk – the anthem at the entrance of the ministers – as well as the Offertory and Communion anthems.
Finally, settings of the Requiem often include texts that are not strictly part of the Mass, but are either part of the ceremonies following – such as the Responsory Libera me sung at what we call the Commendation (sometimes called the Absolution) of the Body, or the anthem In paradisum sung at the procession to the grave – or are standalone devotional texts such as Pie Jesu.
Originally, of course, the Requiem, as any other Mass, was sung to plainsong (‘Gregorian chant’). During the late Middle Ages it became common for composers to write complete and unified musical settings of Masses and Requiems, particularly for important feast days and state occasions. Though liturgically practicable settings continued to be produced in all eras, more and more of them of greater and greater scope were written until, in the nineteenth century, they were often divorced altogether from their liturgical context and presented as concert works, often in fact with the composer’s own choice of texts, as with Brahms’s German Requiem. This trend continued in the twentieth century, producing such works as Britten’s War Requiem and many, many others of all shapes, sizes, and qualities.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, this sort of thing had fallen out of favor in the Church, and in fact many elaborate Masses and other sacred works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were banned for a time in the Roman Catholic Church. A revival of the chant was gathering steam, beginning in France, and composers looked to it and to Renaissance polyphony – itself often based on or inspired by the chant – as models for their music.
Which brings us to Maurice Duruflé, the composer of the work we will hear on Sunday. Duruflé was born in 1902 in Louviers, France. At the age of ten he was sent to the choir school at the cathedral of Rouen, where he spent the next six or so years of his life learning to sing and to play the piano and organ, surrounded by the music, architecture, and ceremony of the Church. Every Sunday the choir sang plainsong and Renaissance polyphony for High Mass, Solemn Vespers, and Benediction of the Most Holy Sacrament. Duruflé described the latter thus:
Led by two Swiss men in specially designed uniforms, the boychoir entered, then fifty seminarians, dozens of canons and clergy of the cathedral, all dressed in white and gray ermine, and finally a large velvet canopy under which processed the Archbishop carrying the Holy Sacrament. Directly in front of the canopy were eight thurifers – men carrying pots of incense which they waved regularly, creating great clouds of smoke.
His years in Rouen made a huge impression on the young Duruflé. He took part in this kind of musico-liturgical drama every week, and this sense of solemnity and ceremony – and the chant – permeates all of his music.
In 1918 the War was over and sixteen-year-old Maurice Duruflé was sent off to Paris and the Conservatoire. And what a time to be in Paris! The vast amount and frenetic pace of artistic activity during those years is amazing to think about. Debussy, who had paved the way for many developments of twentieth-century music – not just in France – died, too young, that very year. Representing the more classical strain in French music, Ravel was in his prime; his teacher, Fauré, an important precursor of much that happened in French music through at least the 1930s, had just retired from the Conservatoire. And in the organ world, the influence of César Franck, fountainhead of a great revival of organ playing and composition in the second half of the nineteenth century, was everywhere: his students still held all the important organ posts in Paris. Several of Duruflé’s classmates went on to become great composers for the organ and beyond, and this great ferment is still bearing fruit in the French organ world today.
Duruflé spent a year in Paris preparing for the Conservatoire’s entrance exams and then entered the that institution in 1920. As predicted by his audition jury, he won five first prizes: organ, harmony, fugue, composition, and accompanying. His student years in Paris were the second great influence on Duruflé’s music: he became a master of learned counterpoint, colorful orchestration, rich harmony, and the elegance, balance, and poise which are so characteristic of French music of the period. It was his great achievement to integrate all of this with what he had learned as a boy, to combine seamlessly the sensuous and the spiritual, the worldly and the otherwordly.
In 1930 he was appointed organist of St-Etienne-du-Mont, a position he held until his death in 1986, and from 1943 to 1969 he was an esteemed Professor of Harmony at the Conservatoire and assisted with the organ class. In 1953 he married a student from that class, Marie-Madeleine Chevalier, and the two gave concerts together for twenty years or so until they were seriously injured in an auto accident.
The present work
In the 1940s Duruflé was commissioned to write a Requiem, which was premiered on All Souls’ Day 1947. He based much of the work on the traditional chant tunes for the Requiem, sometimes merely adding accompaniment, sometimes harmonizing the chant, sometimes taking the chants as subjects for contrapuntal elaboration. Many of the melodies which Duruflé composed himself are written in such a chant-like style that it is sometimes difficult to know exactly where the original material ends and Duruflé begins.
Duruflé wrote three versions of the instrumental part of the Requiem, each with its own charms and showing a different aspect of his genius: one for full orchestra, one for organ alone, and one for organ with a small ensemble of instruments; it is the latter which we use this week.
The piece begins almost abruptly, almost as if we have tuned in to something which is already in progress. And in Duruflé’s mind, I believe, the music – the ceremony – was already and always in progress: the never-ending procession of souls crossing the Jordan.
And so the music begins, and we are immediately carried away by a stream of sixteenth notes in the violas and organ. The men enter like a choir of monks, singing the chant, and then the women, like a choir of angels, answer them with pure wordless sound. In the middle section, the women intone the verse of the Introit – again, with its chant melody – against a simple organ accompaniment. In the final section, the chant melody is given to the violins – in canon – while the choir sings newly composed material. The whole thing winds down gently and leads directly to the Kyrie, which we will discuss in a moment.
Sanctus & Benedictus qui venit
The effect in the Sanctus is much the same, but in an altogether more exuberant mood. Here the chant is sung three times in three-part harmony by the women. But Duruflé soon departs from the chant and interpolates a breathless series of ‘hosanna’s. In an atmosphere of hushed excitement, the altos begin, followed by the sopranos. Then almost before the women can finish, the tenors and then the basses break in, in a new key, with a new accompaniment, and the music is off towards a truly stunning climax, using the full resources of the orchestra and organ to brilliant effect. The piece ends as it began, with the women singing the Benedictus qui venit. The chant is familiar to us at Good Shepherd; we sing it, in English translation (S 122), in Advent and Lent, for which, on account of its simplicity, it is traditionally appointed.
The Kyrie is set somewhat more soberly, as befits its text (‘Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy’) – but it has a depth and power also befitting that text. Here Duruflé chooses a strict, even archaic, style of writing, using musical devices which reach far back into the history of Western art music, which are often associated with sacred music, and which, in the classical imagination, are bound up with the structure of the created order. (We will see that the last movement evokes some of the same sense of timelessness through entirely different means.) First the chant forms the subject of a four-part fugue. Then the tune is played by a trumpet stop on the organ as a cantus firmus – a tune in long notes – against a contrapuntal background, another very old device. The middle ‘Christe’ section is not based on the chant, but it continues the imitative contrapuntal style, building up bit by bit to the explosive entrance of the final ‘Kyrie’ of the chant; again, the plainsong tune (different this time) becomes the subject of a fugue, with each successive voice entering more and more quickly. After this outburst, the movement ends very tenderly with the final chant melody played once more in canon. I often say of this work, and of this movement in particular, that if it were any less beautiful it would be merely well-crafted, and if it were any less rigorously constructed, it would be merely pretty – but Duruflé, like Bach and other great composers, knew how to combine beauty of form and beauty of sound into something greater than the sum of its parts.
Before I talk about the final movement of the work, I will mention the other five. We will sing three of them this Sunday: first, the simple but haunting devotional motet Pie Jesu – which, when, as it often is, it’s scored for solo woman’s voice, always makes me think of a mother who’s lost her child entreating on its behalf; second, the Agnus Dei, based on a very simple chant (S 160) which, like the Sanctus, we sing here at Good Shepherd in Advent and Lent, set a good bit in canon, with a gently undulating accompaniment; and third, the Communion anthem, Lux aeterna (eternal light), a straightforward arrangement of the brief text and its chant tune.
We will not sing the two most extended and dramatic movements, the Offertory anthem Domine Jesu Christe, or the Responsory at the Absolution/Commendation of the Body, Libera me. Both make a good deal of sense in a concert setting, and even at a traditional Latin Solemn Mass with its somewhat different context and expectations, but would seem out of place, musically speaking, on a Sunday morning at Good Shepherd. Their texts, too, which focus on the possibility of the torments of hell in rather vivid apocalyptic and classical language, are more difficult to make sense of for an unprepared group of modern Westerners, who can generally afford to pretend that the lions have been tamed and the fires put out. I do wonder, though, whether hearing these words on occasion would make us more mindful of our sisters and brothers who still live with the very real threat of annihilation from war, famine, or disease – or would compel us to examine our own lives more closely – which, besides memory of and prayers for the dead, is traditionally the other main thrust of burial rites.†
We heard the final movement of the Requiem, In paradisum, a few weeks ago, when the Gospel lesson for the day was the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man; Lazarus is referred to in the text of this piece. The text of this movement is traditionally, and again in the 1979 Prayer Book, one of the Anthems at the Procession to the Grave; it is furthermore found in the Hymnal with its proper chant melody.
In this piece we have moved from the solid structure of the Kyrie through the struggle of some of the intervening movements onto another plane entirely, almost outside of time. The first verse of the chant ‘Into paradise may angels lead you, may the martyrs welcome you at your coming, and lead you into the holy city Jerusalem’ is sung by the sopranos against what can only be called clouds of sound played on the organ; for the second verse, the tune is handed off to a flute stop on the organ, while the full choir appropriately sings ‘May the choir of angels welcome you...’ The whole thing winds down to the last ‘may you have eternal rest’, molto ritardando, pianisissimo, and finally to the last mysterious chord held très long as the last wisps of sound, and smoke – that is, the spirits of the dead and our prayers which go with them – waft their way to heaven.
It is a moment of sublime and transcendent beauty, one of the great moments in Western music. And I believe that this is so because it is such a vivid evocation of Paradise – like the shimmering gold background of a panel icon or mosaic in a church lit with flickering flame. Indeed, Duruflé’s work, which is one of the greatest – perhaps one of the only – truly liturgical large musical works written since the Renaissance (Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil being another that comes to mind), is very much an icon in music. Like an icon, it has the rather unusual power, even when devoid of the sacramental and ceremonial context of the sacred liturgy, to evoke that context very strongly; in its native habitat, it reinforces all the more that vision of heaven which is, or ought to be, part of every liturgy – and, spilling over from that concentrated context, ought to be part of our entire lives.
Indeed, as we pray the prayers of this Requiem Mass, we pray with all the company of heaven, and with Christ Himself, who are always present, in constant prayer and praise. May God be honored in our doing so. May the souls of the departed rest in peace and rise in glory. And may we be granted even now – in this music, at the Holy Table, in one another’s eyes and lives – glimpses of God’s beauty, and be made worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore.
*Though the BCP1979 does not make an outright distinction, All Saints’ Day, the far older feast, traditionally commemorates those who have lived particularly heroic lives of faith (often resulting in particularly heroic deaths as well) and, having practiced the discernment of God’s presence even in their earthly lives, now are able and worthy to live in the full light of that presence (those who have ‘entered into joy’, as Form III of the Prayers of the People [BCP 387] puts it), while All Souls’ Day celebrates all those who have lived lives of faith and may yet be ‘increasing in knowledge and love of [the Lord]’ and going ‘from strength to strength in the life of perfect service in [the] heavenly kingdom’, as the Prayers of the People at the Burial of the Dead [BCP 481] suggest.
†cf. this prayer:
O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered: Make us, we beseech thee, deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of life; and let thy Holy Spirit lead us in holiness and righteousness all our days; that, when we shall have served thee in our generation, we may be gathered unto our fathers, having the testimony of a good conscience; in the communion of the Catholic Church; in the confidence of a certain faith; in the comfort of a reasonable, religious, and holy hope; in favor with thee our God; and in perfect charity with the world. All which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Burial of the Dead, Rite I [BCP 489]