My morning walks these past few weeks have given me a chance to ponder our collective need to decorate for Halloween. Colorful leaves seem like decoration enough, but the faux graves, rattling skeletons, graceful ghosts, and less poetic effigies of ax murderers and blood-dripping fanged wolves and vampires seem to imply a certain fascination with frightening gruesomeness, and with death itself. It’s all in good fun, I realize, but I’m not sure if these decorations help us to embrace our fears or serve to make them seem more distant and less real.
Church has always seemed like a good place to confront fears, acknowledge weakness and meditate on hard truths, the hardest truth for some being the reality of death. And music throughout all of human history has connected people with the unknowable – giving language to fears, emotions and joys just beyond our comprehension.
The requiem mass has been chanted on behalf of those who have died as a prayer for their entrance into heaven for nearly all of the two thousand years of Christian liturgy, and songs of sorrow and comfort have been sung for thousands of years before then. Many composers have taken up that cause, creating works for chorus and orchestra that grew increasingly more complex and terrifying throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Mozart, Verdi, Berlioz. But first Brahms, and then French composer Gabriel Faure aspired to tell a different, more hopeful story. Brahms sought to comfort the living. Faure wanted to share a message that he had taken away from his many years of playing for funerals as organist at Church of the Madeleine in Paris – that death is “a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness of the hereafter, rather than as painful passing away.” The word requiem after all means “rest”. Requiem aeterna. Rest eternal.
Working on his Requiem setting between 1887 and 1890, Faure expressed a desire to create a new kind of church music and told an interviewer, “It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death.” Days of wrath (Dies irae) quickly give way to the gentle promises of Pie Jesu and In paradisum. Composing filigrees of sound that feed our visions of heaven with images of angel harpists and beams of light, Faure created music that gives our mortal minds and bodies a place to rest in God as we pray for those we love but see no longer. Join us if you’re able on Sunday, November 2 at 7:30 p.m. for a liturgy of remembrance, an All Souls’ offering of the Eucharist and Faure’s Requiem.
And if you’re not able to be at St. Alban’s on Sunday at 7:30, spend a peaceful 35 minutes listening to Faure at home.