The three types of requiems

February 24, 2009

There are three types of requiems: a Type One requiem is performed by a symphony orchestra with chorus and soloists as a part of an orchestra or chorus’s concert season, that is really just another piece of classical repertoire that commemorates no one in particular; a Type Two Requiem is programmed to celebrate the death of a well known public figure or group (JFK, astronauts, air crashes, bombings, war victims, holocaust victims, AIDS, and so forth); and a Type Three requiem is used in a church service to honor the death of a member of the church.

Christ Church in Andover, a medium-sized Episcopal church, held a funeral for my brother last Saturday, and the choir came in on a Saturday to sing the John Rutter REQUIEM. The choir, with a single soloist, was able to put it together quickly, and perform it with only a solo flute and an organ. The Rutter Requiem is truly the common man’s requiem. There are not too many other requiems that can be put together so quickly with such small forces with such a huge impact.

The Stravinsky and Ligeti Requiems, which I love, are really art requiems, and not practical for a traditional funeral, and are really Type One requiems. Both works require professional instrumentalists, capable of interpreting modern music, and singers with perfect pitch, or terrific ears. The average church choir could never perform these works, and I doubt the composers would even want them to. An average congregation would be puzzled, if not offended by programming these pieces. [On the other hand, most new music aficionados will turn up their noses at the Rutter.]

The Mozart and Verdi requiems, though not as difficult as the Stravinsky and Ligeti, require a good orchestra, professional soloists, and a talented and dedicated chorus. These requiems can be either Types One or Two. Occasionally, excerpts from the Mozart can be performed with solo organ and be used in a Type Three venue. The problem, in my opinion, is that the common man, especially these days, doesn’t always relate to classical music. For this reason, I hope that composers will consider composing simple, accessible works honoring the dead and consider not using the [Catholic] requiem mass, and have a contemporary poet or lyricist supply the words.

My requiem, “Hidden Legacies” (text by John Hall), was written when AIDS was decimating gay men, and gay choruses who needed a musical vehicle to process and exorcise their anger and horror. The piece served its function for that period and I felt honored to have helped so many. The topic, instrumentation, difficulty, and musical language was appropriate for that time and only that time.

Requiem-type pieces can benefit from musical language that speaks to people of its time. Although, if “High School Musical” is any indication of what the American musical is evolving to, may God strike me dead.


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