Whilst the Requiem Mass is a piece of music about death, be it for the dead or those who mourn them, the way that the brief is interpreted has varied enormously over the ages.
An inevitable consequence is that experts hold strong views about whether or not a particular version cuts the muster, almost as if there is a right and wrong way to write one. I remember asking one such ‘expert’ a few years ago whether he’d ever heard the Brahms piece, to which he somewhat pompously replied that only two proper requiems had ever been composed. I didn’t stop to ask which two he had in mind, I suspect Mozart would have justifiably filled one of the slots, but you can be fairly certain that the other would not have been taken by the French composer, Gabriel Faure (1845-1924).
And that, in fairness, is probably right: Dvorak, Berlioz, Verdi, Durufle, Britten, to name a mere handful, all wrote requiems which might be regarded as superior in terms of their construction and orchestration – but noone can be the sole arbiter of what appeals to the ear.
Faure’s ‘Requiem’ is by a country mile his most popular composition, yet the purists struggle to take it seriously. Even his fellow countryman, Poulenc, detested it, declaring it a ‘real penance’ to have to listen to it. It is not hard to see why it is treated as shallow: at only just over half an hour in length (don’t worry, you’re not getting it all here) and scored for a soprano, baritone, choir, organ and small orchestra, it suffers from having a reputation for being too calm and overly charming, as well as not being sufficiently Christian.
But Faure, not himself in any way devout or Christian, (which was, perhaps, just well, for he was a notorious philanderer) was tired of the music he had to perform on the organ during burial services and simply wanted, as he put it, ‘to write something different.’ That is certainly how the priest viewed it on its first performance in 1888, telling him that “we don’t need these novelties…” Not everyone was so hostile: in France he was a life-long friend of Camille Saint-Saens, and overseas he had admirers as diverse as Tchaikovsky in Russia and Copland in the US.
In short, its chief criticism seems to be that it just isn’t serious enough. There is certainly no fear of death or the day of judgment, more a consoling and tuneful account; and even the untrained ear can discern that the orchestration is far from sophisticated. What is hard to refute, though, is that it is a composition of lovely melodies, and surely one of the most accessible pieces of choral music ever written. So if you like a good tune, you will warm to these few minutes.
The ‘Libera me’ was written as a stand-alone piece, and did not even feature in the first performance of the full work. It is my favourite passage of the work, here sung by the Canadian baritone, Gerald Finley. It is a lovely tune, with one or two big leaps, the choir participating with its own theme, before returning to the original tune. It may be unsophisticated to many. And yet I detect a clear contrast between its reference to death and a very palpable, if irregular, heartbeat underscoring it: that device, alone, dispels the charge of a lack of Christian hope in the piece, in a tenuous reference to everlasting life. Even the ‘Dies irae’ is not particularly menacing.
Charm and consolation have to be more welcome at death than fear and trepidation.