Requiems to die for

With our upcoming performance of Mozart’s famous unfinished Requiem with Nathalie Stutzmann and the London Philharmonic Choir to look forward to on Saturday 25 March we’ve put together a list of some of our favourite Requiems, and with something like 2000 known Requiem Mass settings to choose from, we’ve been totally spoilt for choice.

Whilst firmly rooted in the Catholic liturgical tradition, the Latin ‘Mass for the Dead’ text and its associated Gregorian plainchant melodies have drawn an enormous variety of musical responses from composers across the last six centuries. As a musical form the Requiem has gradually outgrown its traditional church context to encompass every musical movement from rich Romanticism to avant-garde modernism, in settings ranging from the reverent to the flamboyant, the beautifully serene to the utterly terrifying. 


 


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Ockeghem Requiem (or Missa pro defunctis, c.1460) - Influential Medieval composer Johannes Ockeghem’s Missa pro defunctis (‘Mass for the Dead’), is thought to be the earliest surviving setting of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead. Although written strictly to serve its liturgical function, Ockeghem’s music is nevertheless overflowing with textural richness and invention, being notable for its rhythmic complexity and creative ‘word painting’ (where the music reflects the text being sung). The work exists as just five movements, which could represent the complete piece as Ockeghem intended (as it wasn’t until the 16th century that the form of a Requiem Mass was standardized), or indicate that some movements have been sadly lost over the centuries.

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Mozart Requiem (1791) - The Requiem against which all others are judged. Commissioned by Count Franz von Walsegg (an amateur musician who had a habit of commissioning works by other composers and passing them off as his own), the piece was far from finished at the time of Mozart’s death, and completed by Franz Xaver Süssmayr, another popular composer who may or may not have been working from instructions Mozart left for him.  The strange rumours that still swirl around the work (was the commission really delivered by a mysterious masked stranger? Did Mozart really come to believe he was composing it for his own funeral?) were fuelled in the wake of his death by his widow Constanze, and stoked in our own time by the enormously popular biopic Amadeus. Ultimately, though, the piece can speak for itself, with music of majesty, drama, and incredible beauty. Don’t miss our performance with Nathalie Stutzmann and the London Philharmonic Choir on Saturday 25 March.

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Berlioz Grande Messe des morts (1837) - Not a composer to do things by halves, Berlioz worked at the cutting-edge of 19th-century musical innovation. Utilising recent developments in instrument design, he pioneered writing for bigger, louder, more technically agile ensembles, experimenting with bold new orchestrations, and conducting several of his own compositions with over a thousand performers. His Grande Messe des morts is no exception, lasting an hour-and-a-half and scored for massive orchestra (requiring, for example, 8 Bassoons and 10 percussionists), hundreds-strong chorus, Tenor solo, and 4 additional brass choirs in each corner of the stage, which exchange volleys of chords before coming together to create a mighty din in the Dies irae. Brace yourself! 

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Brahms A German Requiem (1868) - The fact that Brahms was agnostic in his beliefs didn’t stop him from composing arguably one of the greatest Requiems in the canon, although as you might expect the work isn’t without its idiosyncrasies.  Most obviously, and as the title gives away, instead of setting the traditional Catholic liturgical text Brahms pieced together his own libretto from sections of the German Lutheran bible, and changed the overall focus of the work from that of mourning the dead to consoling the living. Ultimately, this makes for an extraordinarily uplifting listening experience, and music that’s much less overtly theological and more universal in tone than other Requiems. Be sure to also listen out for Brahms showing off his famously formidable technique in the brilliant fugue that rounds off the sixth movement.

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Verdi Requiem (1874) - What Brahms’s consolatory take on the Requiem may lack in good old-fashioned fire and brimstone can be easily found in Verdi’s setting, which packs in all of the theatrical flourishes and dramatic contrasts found in his operatic works. This, coupled with Verdi’s inclusion of female chorus singers and two soprano soloists at a time when only men were permitted to perform in Catholic Church rituals, caused consternation among some critics at the time of its premiere, who felt that the music’s execution and highly dramatic tone was inappropriate for the sacred subject matter and setting. Certainly, it’s in the concert hall more than the cathedral that this work, like many others on this list, has found its lasting place in the repertory.

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Britten War Requiem (1962) - Although he didn’t throw out the entire traditional Latin text like Brahms, Britten’s War Requiem is the second work on this list to deviate from the usual Requiem libretto, this time by interspersing the Latin texts with settings of words by wartime poet Wilfred Owen to create a singular and powerful musical experience with a strong anti-war message. Written by the staunchly pacifist Britten for the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral, which stands next to the bombed-out shell of the original 14th-century building destroyed in the Blitz, the work was hailed as a contemporary masterpiece in the wake of its premiere in 1962, and remains one of the most popular works of the 20th century.

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Ligeti Requiem (1965) - Although only premiered three years after the War Requiem, Hungarian avant-gardist György Ligeti’s take on the Requiem Mass couldn’t sound further away from it; the traditional text is present, but often buried deep inside slowly shifting clouds of dense chromatic harmony and interrupted by sudden bursts of violence.  It makes for an absorbing and unnerving listen, and quickly becomes apparent why Stanley Kubrick chose sections from this and other choral works by Ligeti to accompany his dark and fantastic visions of deep space and beyond in 2001: A Space Odyssey only a couple of years later.  

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