The Requiem, or Mass for the Dead, has long been a part of both religious and musical traditions. At this time of year, I am drawn to the invitation for quiet reflection, and the deep expression of grief and sorrow that the Requiem offers. Mozart, Fauré, Berlioz and Saint-Saëns have arguably composed some of the most moving Requiems in the body of Western Art Music. Not to be forgotten in this genre however, is Czech Romantic era composer, Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904).
Perhaps most remembered for his New World Symphony and Slavonic Dances for orchestra, or for his opera, Rusalka, Dvořák composed in a variety of media. His Requiem Mass, Opus. 89 composed in 1890, though rarely performed outside the Czech Republic, is a glorious example of both his faith, and his innovative Romantic style. Set for chamber orchestra, four soloists, and a huge choir, this work relays the text of Latin Requiem Mass. With thirteen movements the performance time is about 95 minutes. I have included a link here should you wish to engage with Dvořák.
Amidst the vastness and beauty of this work, two things strike me today. First, there is the message of the text which opens the work, and is restated throughout. In Latin, « Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis. » Which in English means, “Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.” The idea of eternal rest, which here suggests that death ends suffering, could perhaps also mean rest from worry, or rest from stress. Outside of the traditional religious context, it sits for me like an intention to live peacefully and put to rest life’s conflicts and struggles so that we can experience lightness, warmth and clarity.
Secondly, I love the simplicity of the opening melody; four notes that form the basis of, and create continuity for the entire work. Some ‘music knowers’ suggest that the opening motif of four notes traces the shape of a cross. This pattern appears throughout the work, as a constant reminder of the presence of God. It makes perfect sense that Dvořák with his devout faith would have considered, known or intended the symbolism of this pattern. I understand the value of having faith. And also, I can see how having a simple, heartfelt mantra can be like a lighthouse guiding us through life’s storms.
Often, listening to music allows me to access emotions that are buried deep, too uncomfortable to be felt without risking overflow into my daily life. I am grateful that composers such as Dvořák have created a channel through which difficult emotions like grief, despair, loss and sadness can be expressed and experienced.