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Chris Gray asks 'What's in a name?'

Wednesday 23rd March, 2022

 On Saturday 2 April, Three Spires Singers and Orchestra will join forces with Truro Cathedral Choir and two of the UK’s leading classical singers, Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Julien Van Mellaerts, to perform the Secular Requiem by Cornish composer Russell Pascoe. There are so many things I want to say about this piece of music and this performance, but I’m going to confine my blog to one aspect: the slightly naughty title and the concept behind it.

As a close friend of Russell, I lived and breathed the journey of this unusual requiem, from conception through to birth. It is a kind of credo from a passionate artist who feels things deeply; someone with a veracious appetite for knowledge, a strong empathy for human suffering, and a diverse range of interests that extends to a fascination with other cultures. After lengthy conversations over two decades about absolutely everything (not always stoked by a bottle of red), Russell and I always come to opposing conclusions about faith: Russell is a very well informed and carefully reasoned non-believer, albeit one who is not against religion (and who has regularly sought to aid people’s faith through his liturgical composition).

When it came to writing his requiem, it was clear to me that Russell had a vivid instinctive vision of what he wanted to say, but needed to fine-tune the exact texts to convey this, as well as the order to put things in. Professor Anthony Pinching came on board as librettist, working with Russell to choose poems that would articulate his vision, so that he could get to work composing. One of Anthony’s many strokes of inspiration was to structure the work in sections that reflect the five stages of grief.

As a Christian, I find the Secular Requiem moving, thought-provoking and uplifting, even though the overarching message does not reflect my own view. But I detect a tinge of provocativeness in Russell’s title (I used the word ‘naughty’ earlier). The word ‘requiem’ has religious connotations. The Latin word simply means “rest”, but as a title, with a capital R, it takes us right into the Christian liturgy and the Mass for the Dead whose texts have been set by countless composers over the centuries. Russell uses none of the traditional requiem texts, instead crafting his own distinctive message through profound poems by Donne, Thomas, Hitomaro, Owen, Whitman, Tagore, Hardy and Pinching.

Unlike ‘requiem’, the word ‘secular’ has changed its flavour in recent years, with the needle moving along the spectrum some distance from “non-religious” towards “anti-religious”.

You will see where I’m going with this: the title ‘Secular Requiem’ feels like an oxymoron and the apparent contradiction hints at the bittersweet sentiments of the music within, which portrays utter hopelessness, fear and rage, but also humour, love and ultimately celebration.

You can never convey the full power of music through a blog, so there’s only one thing for it: buy a ticket and don’t miss the experience of hearing this uniquely moving piece that comes from right here in Cornwall.

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