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.