Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Year's Music: Dvořák's Requiem Mass

Several years ago, the three of us were in two cars, going east on Interstate 76 in Ohio, nearing the area where the road intersects with I-80 and twitches places as the toll road. We were on our way to western Pennsylvania to help our daughter move in at her college dorm. Turning the radio to the classical station WKSU, I heard what I didn't realize was the final sections of Antonin Dvořák's Requiem Mass.

Lux aeterna luceat eis Domine
cum sanctis tuis in aeternum:
quia pius es.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine;
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Cum sanctis tuis in aeternum:
quia pius es.

The melody and chorus of quia pius es ("for Thou art merciful") really touched my heart! Fortunately I got the name of the piece and, a few days later, ordered the whole piece, on two CDs. I like to return to the piece every so often, as I have recently.

Having only heard the last couple of sections, I hadn't realized how long the piece is, longer than Brahm's German Requiem, which George Bernard Shaw famously criticized. Here is a good introduction by Derek Tan: He writes: "Like many of the composer’s choral works, Antonin Dvořák’s Requiem... remains rarely performed outside the Czech Republic. While reasons for the relative dearth of performances range from the work’s length -- about 95 to 100 minutes -- to the Czech sensibility of the work (whatever that means), the fact is that Dvořák’s Requiem is only about 15 minutes longer, on average, than Verdi’s work on the same text. Furthermore, Dvořák intended the piece for an English-speaking audience; a frequent visitor to Britain -- he visited the island nine times -- Dvořák conducted the piece at its premiere in Birmingham in 1891."

He gives a lot of helpful details about the requiem, which you can read there, and he concludes: "While many other composers opt for a majestic or triumphant 'Sanctus' (think Mozart or Verdi), Dvořák’s version is, first and foremost, lyrical. While there are moments of triumph in the movement, Dvořák emphasizes the breadth of God’s glory rather than its immediacy. This emphasis on God’s mercy is reinforced by his inclusion of the 'Pie Jesu,' an optional text that asks for eternal rest to be granted to the dead. (Most famously, Fauré included the text in his Requiem, creating one of the most sublime movements in the repertoire for solo soprano.) Ultimately, this mood is carried into the peaceful final movement, the 'Agnus Dei,' which ends quietly on fragments of the cross motif, leaving the listener to ponder about the mystery of life and death."

YouTube has several complete recordings: the one conducted by Mariss Jansons and featuring Latvian mezzo Elīna Garanča is lovely, although the photo of a painting of a murdered woman (trigger warning) is distressing to view for a 90+ minute piece. Among the other recordings there, this one is a live performance and is very good: The brief passage "quia pius es" that first touched my heart is at about 1:36:48.

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