In my life to date, I’ve sung at two funerals and performed one requiem mass. These occasions did not overlap: the funerals were those of two grandfathers, in whose honor I sang the Schubert Ave Maria and Amazing Grace respectively. The requiem, meanwhile, was the Verdi, one of my first concerts at the Cathedral, less than a week before my wedding.
Perhaps for this reason, requiem masses hardly feel liturgical to me. I’ve never so much as attended a funeral where one was performed. To me they are the stuff of concert performances: expressive and cathartic, yes, but primarily a thing of the stage rather than actual religious observance. Verdi, Brahms? Can you imagine these being performed during services at your little corner church? Would they even fit in the door?
Mozart would, though. The Mozart Requiem is a miracle of infinite scale: your little corner church could easily pull it off, with just the staff choir and a few weeks’ rehearsal, and it would be perfectly appropriate for the occasion. Or you could stage it at the major concert venue in your city with a couple hundred voices and full symphonic accompaniment, to equal effect. Heck, you could host a sing-along of the thing and hand the score to strangers to sight-read. The magic has no prerequisites.
I’ve now done all three. In February of 2008, scant days after our first date, & and I attended a performance of the Mozart Requiem at our local corner church, interspersed with a regular third-Sunday-of-Lent service. (Apostates that we were, we spent the nonsinging parts of the service passing my blackberry back and forth, cracking each other up with thumbtyped jokes.) In June of 2009, I sang the piece myself for the first time at a Cathedral Sings! event. And now I’ve sung it at the Kennedy Center with CASW.
And I still can’t figure it out.
A comic experience, a challenge, a notch in my belt: I’ve been circling this piece for years without ever managing to pin it down. It is insultingly simple, even for someone with sight-reading skills as poor as mine. So where does its depth come from? Why is it something new every time I look at it, hear it, sing it? I keep waiting to find the hook, the thing that clicks the Mozart Requiem into place in my head and fixes it in my firmament. Performing the Verdi helped me settle the score with my ex-husband. Listening to the Brahms has helped me make peace with more than one incident of workdrama. But the Mozart? I still can’t figure out what it means to me.
In a sense I almost feel like I wasted this concert. Here was a chance to perform one of the greatest masterpieces of all time (maestro’s words, not mine, but he’s right) on a world-famous stage with some of the strongest voices in the city, and I walked off the stage no wiser. I discovered nothing profound in that performance. The music was brilliant and immersive, but the flood of it swirled right past me.
But my husband was grinning ear to ear, thrilled with the performance. My mother, who had never seen me sing at the Kennedy Center before, was moved to tears. The reviews were uniformly complimentary of the chorus. And the baby, when we got home, was delighted to see us.
And there will be more chances.