Two requiems separated by 113 years are performed this week. Christopher Morley looks at their creation.
As Holy Week approaches, two requiems dominate concert activities over the next few days, one of them almost totally neglected, the other one born in a recent blaze of publicity.
Birmingham Choral Union perform the Requiem by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford at the Adrian Boult Hall on Saturday, Colin Baines conducting. And it was just across the road, that it received its premiere 113 years ago at Birmingham Town Hall.
The work was a commission from the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival for its 1897 meeting (another requiem, that by Antonin Dvorak, had been premiered six years earlier).
These facts in themselves give the lie to the assertion in some people’s minds that the failure of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, commissioned for the 1900 Festival, was due to the fact that it was a work of Catholic provenance. That wasn’t true.
The simple fact is that it was badly under-rehearsed under WC Stockley, who had been brought out of retirement after decades of service, in order to oversee rehearsals after the untimely death of the hugely capable Charles Swinnerton Heap. The fact that Stockley was a staunch Establishmentarian, who had retired even before the commissioning of Stanford’s Requiem, leaves speculation open.
And Stanford, himself British (born in Dublin in 1852 – no separate Republic of Ireland in those days), had indeed paved the way for another British composer to write a “Roman” work.
Stanford was always more generous to Elgar than the nervy, well-balanced, chip-on-both-shoulders composer ever acknowledged, and in fact, turned up unannounced to stand at the back of the congregation for the funeral of Elgar’s wife, Alice, at the Catholic church of St Wulstan in Little Malvern in 1920. “I had to come,” he told the grieving widower.
Born in the Worcestershire countryside, and without a formal musical education, Elgar undoubtedly resented Stanford’s impeccable credentials – he was Professor of Music at Cambridge University between 1887 and his death in 1924, Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music between 1883 and 1924, and teacher of so many of the illustrious younger generation – perhaps overlooking the fact that a prestigious Professorship at the new University of Birmingham had been created specifically for himself.
But to return to the Stanford Requiem: sometimes typically Brahmsian in its derivations, it is generously melodic, and well worth hearing (it deserves more – there aren’t that many works of this stature by British composers of that period).
A few days later, one of the most recent requiems written by a British composer can be heard in Symphony Hall, when the CBSO, conducted by chorus director Simon Halsey, performs Howard Goodall’s Eternal Light.
The orchestra will be joined by the CBSO Youth Chorus, soprano Natasha Marsh (one of Birmingham University’s most illustrious arts graduates, with a first in Music and Drama) and the current British super-tenor Alfie Boe, who recently received enthusiastic reviews for his Alfredo in the new Welsh National Opera production of Verdi’s La Traviata.
Howard Goodall, a student contemporary of Simon Halsey, with television theme-tune credits ranging from Blackadder to The Vicar of Dibley. He is also a huge motivator in the Government’s “Sing Up!” initiative (though how long that will last, given the impending public spending cuts, remains to be seen).
Speaking to me last year, he told me about Eternal Light, which originally had choreography from the Rambert Dance Company. I’d asked him how much he had felt overshadowed by the great requiems of the past.
“You could say it’s a bit daunting, because the requiems that are out there in the repertoire, some of them are even more substantial – like the Verdi Requiem, which is an enormous piece, and some of them are very, very well-loved. In fact most of the famous Requiems are the Mozarts, the Faures, etc.
“I thought there’s no point in retreading old territory, I’ve just got to do my own thing here.
“I think there’s a huge amount of music out there, and I think if you as a professional composer are worried about not matching up to everybody else’s music, you’d never write anything.
“The picture I had in my head, with dancers, was going to be this idea of light, a sort of incandescent, bright light, and both in the music and in the dance we were going to try to attempt something which was looking at the soul in flight, if you like.
“And obviously that started to make me think of a kind of music that hopefully would have enough in it to be able to make a dance work out of it, with different movements, and a slightly different attitude in each movement, and that also would stand on its own as a piece of choral music.”
And yet, I think once we reach the gentle, gracious waltz-rhythm of the “Lux Aeterna”, many of us will be thinking of Howard Goodall’s setting of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd”, his title-music to the wonderful Vicar of Dibley BBC television series.
* Birmingham Choral Union perform Stanford’s Requiem at the Adrian Boult Hall on Saturday (7.30pm, details on 0121 553 3070)
* The CBSO performs Howard Goodall’s Eternal Light, along with Holst’s Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda and Finzi’s Dies Natalis (soloist Alfie Boe at Symphony Hall on Tuesday March 30 (7.30pm) and April 1 (2.15pm). Details on 0121 780 3333.