Russell Pascoe's Secular Requiem
Wednesday 16th February, 2022
Our concert in April is a big one. Three Spires Singers and Orchestra will join forces with Truro Cathedral Choir and two top-flight professional soloists – Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Julien Van Mellaerts – to perform the Secular Requiem by Russell Pascoe, along with beautiful music by Mendelssohn and Brahms.
You can read about the Secular Requiem in words from the composer himself below. I won’t add anything to Russell’s erudite thoughts except to say that this is a work that says something truly distinctive and original through music that is accessible and has great depth. I suspect it will be an exceptionally memorable and powerful performance and I am personally looking forward to directing the combined choral forces of the Cathedral Choir and Three Spires Singers.
In the first half, we will open with the arresting overture from Mendelssohn’s oratorio St Paul. As well as the chance to hear Catherine Wyn-Rogers performing Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody, there will be Mendelssohn’s Hear my prayer (with its iconic solo O, for the wings of a dove), and two movements from the Brahms Requiem.
Do join us if you can!
The Secular Requiem – Notes from Russell Pascoe
The Secular Requiem was originally commissioned by Three Spires Singers and sponsored by Mrs Victoria Sangster, Prof. Anthony Pinching and Mr John Ridger. A few months after the first performance, members of the Three Spires Singers travelled to London at their own expense to perform it at the Cadogan Hall, helped with sponsorship from Choir members and enthusiastic donors. The future for the work looked bright and a plan was hatched to record it on CD with Truro Cathedral Choir and BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The disc would also contain my Remembrance Anthems, written for Truro’s commemoration of World War 1 in 2018. Then, just as our plans were coming to fulfilment, COVID happened … Everything was put on hold. The period of COVID has reinforced the message of the work’s opening lines:
‘No man is an island’
After an interval of 2 years, we are now back on track again, with the live performance in April by Three Spires and the CD being recorded in May and released in time for Christmas.
The GoFundMe page is also once again accepting donations towards the cost of the CD. Any contributions to the vast expense will be gratefully received!
Why a ‘Secular’ Requiem?
Most people accept that we live in an increasingly 'secular' society - over 50% of UK citizens identify as 'non-religious'. Cornwall once boasted 700 Methodist Chapels and 627 churches. The vast majority of chapels have now been deconsecrated and converted into dwellings, their demise accepted as inevitable and warranting 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 houses popping up 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'. Incredibly, although composers stopped being the paid servants of the church over three hundred years ago, most still choose to set religious texts and often ones in Latin. Finding new, profound texts can be challenging, but surely it is the role of the artist to speak for, reflect and comment on their society?
In recent years many modern composers have set the traditional ‘Requiem Mass’. This medieval Latin text, referring as it does to the agonies of the Day of Wrath/Judgement, has over time been ameliorated by all but the most hard-line Christian Churches. However most modern composers continue to set even the theologically outdated sections!
In conceiving the Secular Requiem (‘requies’ is simply Latin for ‘rest’) I wanted to break free from the conventions of the Mass for the Dead and set meaningful poetry from past and present, drawing on world literature, more relevant to people in the 21st Century. Although the text would be non-religious, it needed to be inclusive and resonate with those with or without a faith. For this task I was fortunate to meet Prof. 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 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 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. None of the poems that we considered quite reflected this, so I persuaded Anthony to write one himself; he sent me the perfect poem, one that unconsciously drew from our many conversations over the preceding months. Consequently, the Requiem ends with a feeling of optimism, acceptance and unashamedly ff in the bright key of A major.