Facing Death

Given that Lent has begun and all readers hereabout have been reminded that they, too, are dust, it seems appropriate to relate some reflections on man’s approach to death which have filled my mind of late.  As part of the UMS Choral Union, I’ve learned two musical pieces which look on the fact of Death and endeavor to leave the hearer with some manner of serenity.

The works in question are Johannes Brahms’ Ein Deutsche Requiem and John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls.  For weeks I was so intent on getting the notes and rhythms and pronunciation auf Deutsche correct that I didn’t give much attention, if any, to the broader scope of each work.  But now concert week has arrived, and with it the full orchestra (rather than the piano accompaniment used in most choir rehearsals), soloists for the Brahms, and the children’s choir called for by Adams’ piece.  Finally my part is put in context; finally I can begin to grapple with the significance of these works as a whole (though imperfectly; the audience is, unsurprisingly, much better placed to hear the interplay of the performers).

At first it seemed to me that the Deutsche Requiem and the Transmigration of Souls were the complete antithesis of each other; to a certain extent, that still seems the case, but the full truth is knottier and I hope to elaborate on it.  So first, a discussion of John Adams’ work:

On the Transmigration of Souls

This piece was first performed about a year after the 9/11 attacks on the United States; Adams was commissioned in January 2002 to compose it, which gave him only a few months to write before it would need to be rehearsed.

When first learning it, I felt a certain amount of repulsion.  The notes are not easy, the words do not flow, the intervals are hellish, the rhythm is unnatural, and heaven help the children’s choir.  I thought “This is what modern music is.  I cannot stand it.”  Which, to a certain extent, remains true.  Concert week started, and I thought “Gracious.  Deutsche Requiem…and American requiem.  This is the closest thing we have.  Good heavens.”

It would be rather problematic.  Were this piece the closest we could get to a requiem, it would signify a world full of eternal dissonance, hopeless of resolution.  None of it is quite sung legato; all is sung in various degrees of choppiness.  The choirs repeat and repeat words, stuttering like a defective music box or broken automaton, and in such strange rhythms that all understanding of rhythm, of the words themselves, is lost, and all one’s individuality with it.  It is inchoate, increasingly fragmented, full of sirens and forlorn brass and the crash (the heartrending crash!) of destruction.  Everyone sings in the past tense, saying “She was the apple of my father’s eye,” or “I loved him from the start,” or “I wanted to dig him out.”  No one looks to the future; no one dares.  And when the women finally sing, simultaneously, six or so notes of a chromatic scale, half-steps from each other, each is singing the right note – but it sounds wrong, a hopeless muddle of meaningless sound, a terribly sad end.  I nearly despaired of it, saying “Transmigration of souls?  That’s just what it isn’t.  Not a soul gets mentioned throughout, folks.  Sorry, that’s what you’ve left yourselves with.  You have answered “Light!” with “Love,” but it’s no one’s love in particular and it’s certainly not Love Incarnate.”

Then I read what Adams himself had to say about it:  it is not a requiem, it is not a memorial, it is a memory space.  It is not necessarily about the souls who were living on Earth and then suddenly died (it most certainly doesn’t describe their ultimate destination), but focuses on the souls left behind, and what they face, how that loss transforms them.  He sought, most of all, to convey some idea of what that day signified through musical texture rather than a narrative or flat-out description.  A good deal of artifice is involved in making the words sound “natural,” i.e., the way that they might have been spoken.  Like the texts Adams employed, the work is a portrait of grief – hence the mystical strings and the lonesome horns and crashing timpani.  They represent how suddenly one’s life is changed by another’s death; how bereft are those left behind; how that great interloper enters even our office buildings, our planes, our city streets full of everyday sounds and (what we might be tempted to call) ordinary people.

So in the end, it is an honest way to face the end, particularly another’s end.  Perhaps it is even less despairing than I had thought.  I will leave with what Adams himself said of the piece:

My desire in writing this piece is to achieve in musical terms the same sort of feeling one gets upon entering one of those old, majestic cathedrals…you experience an immediate sense of something otherworldly. You feel you are in the presence of many souls, generations upon generations of them, and you sense their collected energy as if they were all congregated or clustered in that one spot…

Whether it is the presence of “generations of souls” one encounters in cathedrals, of course, is a topic for another day.


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