Skip to main content

All Hallows

To those tempted to think that classical music is a dull, afternoon affair with sentimental violins beloved by old women with tea cozies – listen to Mozart’s Requiem. For a mass on behalf of the dead, for all its frequent pleas to rest in peace, this Requiem is a seething, tense, and dramatic exploration of the distance from the bowels of hell to the heights of the sublime. This is gut-wrenching music; music that moves you physically. Indulging in Mozart lore, one can imagine the composer scribbling furiously as the grim reaper approaches with his calling card; Mozart tossed into a pauper’s grave without the reception of his masterpiece.

The Commemoration of All Souls Requiem Eucharist at Merton College Chapel began with the Introit and Kyrie as the ministers processed in. It’s a piece that stacks up the intensity, beginning with the winds, adding strings, then the basses, tenors, altos and sopranos until what began as a whistle has become a vibrating mass of sound. The ministers entered the nave at the opening heights and the censer swung in step with the moving bass, the incense ascending with the sopranos, the timpani entering with a roll. This is high drama.

I sang the Mozart Requiem five years ago and its surprising how little of it disappears. The choice Latin phrases spring up “solvet saeclum in favilla, teste David cum Sybilla…” and the gyrating eighth notes that appear and disappear in each voice part, twisting around each other in urgent counterpoint; the quick breaths - it’s a sport. And this is what happens when you’re commanded to bounce around to your seat to the subdivisions by your conductor – years later you can’t help bouncing around in your seat surrounded by strangers who wonder if you suffer from a twitching disease.

I’ve heard the Requiem performed several times, but never listened to it as a part of a service. It was organic the way the music wove in and out of the service proper. The congregation sat in dark wooden pews facing each other, eyes to the colorfully tiled floor, or up to the painted wooden ceiling with clumsy angels and scriptural figures, all the cold stonework at the altar softened by candlelight. Elegant men with canes and famous chins; scholarship recipients identifiable by their proudly-worn full-sleeved gowns; token autumn coughing attacks; ten minutes of hearing the names of the dead recited; and free wine afterward.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Private Life of the Diary

I’ve kept a diary since I was twelve. While I composed nearly illegible autobiographical scratchings in my first years of primary school at my teachers’ request, it wasn’t until I was on the brink of becoming a teenager that I felt I needed a more permanent arrangement. I suspect it had to do with reading The Diary of Anne Frank. My diary’s function has changed over the years – it once had a name (having discovered that Zoe was the Greek word for life, I thought my choice extremely clever), and I used to like my diaries in a variety of shapes and sizes, spangled with glitter, ruled with wide lines, shackled with locks and keys. For at least eight years my diary was the space in which to vent my feelings, and offered some form of therapeutic comfort. This meant it was largely about boys and is, as a result, very tedious to reread. But while the function of my journal has changed, each volume has been a solution to the manic desire to scribble. As I discovered reading Anne Frank, each e…

The Short Story Season I

The New Yorker Fiction podcast, which I’ve now gobbled up in its entirety, has recently been a lifeline while I’ve been travelling from house to house, city to city. It’s been responsible for kick-starting my renewed interest in the short story – more to come – and for introducing me to writers I’ve long known by name but never read: like Elizabeth Taylor.

Paul Theroux read Taylor’s ‘The Letter Writers’ this past January for the podcast and the story remains one of her best, alongside (and forgive the list) stories such as ‘Taking Mother Out’, ‘Swan-Moving’, ‘A Sad Garden’, ‘The Ambush’, ‘The True Primitive’, ‘The Little Girl’, ‘Hare Park’, ‘The Prerogative of Love’, and ‘The Thames Spread Out’. Travelling with the hefty paperback on planes, trains, and automobiles, I feel I’ve dragged round my little plot of England to keep me company.

(A quick note on editions: an NYRB edition of her stories has just been published but it is a selection, rather than Virago’s Complete Stories. Forgo t…

Blast-beruffled plumes

I’ve returned to Minnesota to find it transformed into a Brueghel painting.



Our hunters are gone north or even south, wherever there are more deer. This has been a bad year for deer, threatened by the cold of last year’s polar vortex and the high population of coyotes, which now carry a bounty on their heads.

So, while it’s still autumn in England (I’ve been assured), winter has come. The nights are long, the wreaths are out. I’ve been reading restlessly – Robert Walser and GB Shaw. But some nights, Thomas Hardy feels just right for November melancholia. Here’s ‘A Darkling Thrush’:

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
Th…