COMPOSER'S NOTES on the Secular Requiem
Monday 3rd February, 2020
The Secular Requiem by Russell Pascoe – COMPOSER’S NOTES
We are always being told that we live in an increasingly 'secular' society - according to recent statistics, over 50% of UK citizens identify as 'non-religious'. If proof were needed, one simply needs to travel around Cornwall to observe the demise of Methodist chapels, once the bedrock of our communities, being converted into dwellings - their demise is largely accepted as inevitable and warrants scant coverage in the media.
Classical music is also often said to be on the wane (although there have never been as many radio stations dedicated to it, opera experiences, or festivals celebrating the births and deaths of great composers). There is a vibrant contemporary 'classical' scene, however this has always struggled to find a large audience that is willing to accept the challenge of the 'new'. Although composers stopped being the paid servants of the church over four hundred years ago, more often than not they reach for religious and often Latin texts for their choral music. This may be because the religious texts already confer the music with a certain gravitas, or a performance is more likely to be secured as many churches/cathedrals still boast excellent choral foundations, or simply the practical consideration that there is no copyright to be paid on the vast majority of religious texts! Whatever the reason, it must be remarked that modern classical composers are not reflecting our modern, more secular society, in their choice of texts.
In recent years there has been a plethora of settings of the traditional Requiem Mass. This medieval text in Latin, referring as it does to the agonies of the Day of Wrath, has over time been ameliorated by all but the most hard-line Christian churches. However, most composers continue to use the theologically outdated text set by medieval composers. In writing my Secular Requiem I wanted to break free from the conventions of the Latin mass and set poetry from the past to the present, drawing on world literature that would be more relevant to people in the twenty-first century. I wanted the text to be non-religious but inclusive and, above all, acceptable to those with or without a faith. For this task I was lucky to meet Professor Anthony Pinching, a retired clinical academic whose knowledge of literature is encyclopaedic. I knew that I wanted to start my Requiem with John Donne's words 'No man is an island' and favoured certain poets, but it was Tony who ran with the idea and placed the selected poems into the framework of the recognised five stages of grief. Ironically, we realised after the work was completed that these 'five stages' draw an uncanny parallel to the five sections of the traditional Requiem Mass – our furious Dies Irae being a stormy setting of Dylan Thomas's 'Do not go gentle into that good night', followed by Hitomaro's 'When she was alive' which replaces the poignant Lachrymosa. Some of the other poets included are Owen, Whitman, Tagore and Hardy.
I wanted the work to end with the feeling that all life, like nature in general, is transient. Anthony was unable to find a poem to reflect this and so wrote me the perfect poem to explore this idea. Consequently, the Requiem ends with a feeling of optimism and loudly in the bright key of A major. The work is scored for choir, orchestra, and two soloists. In March we are privileged to have Paul Carey Jones as the baritone soloist, and Catherine Wyn-Rogers (who sang the work at its premier in 2013) will be the contralto soloist.
The Secular Requiem has had only a few performances but it appears to have made a lasting impression on performers and listeners alike. A few months after the successful first performance in Truro Cathedral, members of Three Spires Singers travelled to London to perform it at the Cadogan Hall. In addition, several people have chosen parts of it to be played at funerals of loved ones, which is an incredible honour. The future for the work looks bright as next May Christopher Gray, Truro Cathedral Choir, Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Paul Carey Jones will be joined by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales to make a CD of it and my other secular choral works, including the Remembrance Anthems written for the cathedral’s 2018 service to commemorate the end of the First World War.
Three Spires Singers and Orchestra with Truro Cathedral Choir
Soloists: Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Paul
7:30pm Saturday 28 March 2020 Truro Cathedral