Kick Ass Classical, Music, Pioneer Valley

Smith’s “Requiem” conjures visions of sin and death

by Derek Pyle

I was in the 5th grade when “28 Days Later” premiered, a hot minute before zombie takeovers became just more hackneyed commercial cheese. Back then, when cinema could still capture this kind of apocalypse in serious form, one scene stuck in my eleven-year-old mind. The film’s protagonist awakens in a hospital bed to find London an abandoned city; he does not know what has happened, and the empty streets leave no indication. It is only when walking into a church that he discovers a lone human message, in black graffiti on the wall: “Repent; the end is extremely fucking nigh.”

On March 8, I got another apocalyptic shock. Mozart’s “Requiem” was performed at Smith College’s John M. Green Hall, and the decaying doors of eternity opened. The cry of repentance flashed its teeth.

Jonathan Hirsh conducts the Smith College Glee Club and Cornell University Glee Club

Jonathan Hirsh conducts the Smith College Glee Club and Cornell University Glee Club. Photo by Liam Nadire

Despite today’s conception of copyright law, where forms of self-expression are supposed to be ownable commodities, this has not always been the norm. Homer’s “Odyssey” was not an “original” story, but it was the greatest telling. Mozart’s “Requiem” is one of many in the genre of the funeral mass, and these compositions typically derive their lyrics from the Latin liturgy. Mozart’s “Requiem” begins and ends, “Grant them eternal rest, Lord/ and let perpetual light shine on them.” Now the way Mozart puts his version to music, this Latin Holy Spirit is the kind of shit that makes you want to be religious. It’s the kind of music that even makes a glee club seem cool. While it may seem paradoxical to think dirty thoughts about classically-trained performers, I remembered what the preacher in “The Grapes of Wrath” says about Holy Spirit making you want to romp around in the grass, and I suspected that all of the performers got laid after the show. It was that good.

Good, of course, was to be expected. In the world of classical music, where performances are highly structured, it was the unexpected that made the evening particularly exciting. The audience came anticipating Mozart’s “Requiem.” There was nothing else listed on the bill or in the program. But with two of the night’s soloists falling ill just before show time, the main performance was delayed because one of the replacement soloists had not yet arrived. While it was likely an anxious moment of waiting for conductor Jonathan Hirsh, the audience relaxed and rejoiced, because we were given music to pass the time.

The evening began with three pieces sung by the Smith Chamber Singers, “Miserere” by Eva Ugalde, “O Vos Omnes” by Tomás Luis de la Victoria, and “Ave Maria” by Cesar Carrillo. The rippling melodies sounded haunting and lovely. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, it did.

The night ended with Chamber Singers rejoining the larger Smith College Glee Club, onstage with the Cornell University Glee Club and members of the Smith orchestra (which was full of ringers on this particular night). Before the promised performance of “Requiem,” the Cornell Glee Club delivered a stunning rendition of Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria.” It was in those few moments that everything changed. No trip to heaven was required. The sky did not open. Rather the world here on earth grew richer, like moving from two dimensions into 3D. The world around me remained the same, but I was seeing it in a new, more meaningful way. On the earth that night, Biebl’s music cracked open and the divine was with us, finally converting me into a Beliebler.

As the combined ensembles raged through “Requiem,” my mind was filled with scenes of decay—the hundred-plus performers turned to rotting flesh and heaps of bone, the auditorium collapsed in the torrent of sound. Yes, this music has teeth.

No doubt, the evening had plenty of quiet moments as well. There were roaring lions but also idyllic scenes with pastoral lambs—the dynamism would be comparable to the range of emotion expressed on Trent Reznor’s “The Fragile,” where power is created by the contrast with such softness. If my descriptions sound strange to those unfamiliar with the music in question, it would help to understand the history of this piece.

If you have seen the movie “Tombstone,” you know that Doc Holliday was a sickly man who nonetheless raged on with his nickel-plated .41 caliber Colt Thunderer, doing what he did best—killing and gambling—until his final breath. Well, Mozart was like that, too, a man erupting with life by way of ink and quill. And thus it was in 1791 that Mozart spent his final weeks, even his final night, still composing what some consider his greatest work. In the film version of these events, Mozart is commissioned by a masked and anonymous donor, who comes knocking on the door at night. “Requiem” was a funeral piece, and as the legend as runs, none other than the Reaper himself commissioned it. A few weeks after his death, a Salzburg newspaper depicted Mozart composing “often with tears in his eyes, constantly saying, ‘I fear that I am writing a requiem for myself.’”

Now in these days of Google-ready knowledge, you can easily find out the established “truth” behind these legends, but that is not the point. One of the joys of great art is this interaction with the imagination, where the mind opens into a temporal kind of space that can only exist between the notes and your ear. If you want to see a great mythic version of Mozart’s final days, “Amadeus” is worth watching. But if you want to a requiem with some teeth, “28 Days Later” will work just as well, for that is another cinematic depiction of Mozart’s final mythos. Neither is more properly correct, because both are true.

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