PhDr. Milan Slavický /HAMU Prague – CZ/

Ladies and Gentlemen, In my entry I would like to describe the procedure of work at my Requiem written in 2000-01.

Since a longer time I had an idea to compose a major vocal composition on a liturgical text, but the illness and the following death of my father were the decisive moments which brought me to work on it; my Requiem was than the only composition since my study years written without any particular term of its premiere, any knowledge of performers or even a guarantee of its performance.

I had a unique opportunity to experience the very last minutes of my father’s life and such moment which I was allowed to share, was an unforgettable experience which clearly says what is spirit and what is substance – an experience which can stimulate a creative person not only to think about the eternal dimension of human life but to give him an impulse to an own creative reaction. As I had in mind not only the private dimension of the task, I dedicated finally the composition to “my father and all good souls who lived on this Earth”.

The experience of death, so usual for all former generations, turns to something what people of today are cowardly running away from. The society based on success, wealth and luxury with its cult of youth and efficiency sees illness and death as a fatal failure which doesn’t fit to the concept of successful life and even the traditional consolation from the continuity of the possession in favor of the coming generations fails to function in a society with strongly disturbed vertical as horizontal family ties.

When thinking about the text of my future composition I finally decided to choose the traditional Latin liturgical text of the mass for deceased without any further text elements – I didn’t want to take a position out of that text, to comment it from outside or to confront it with a view of a contemporary, I simply wanted to take stand at the end of the long queue of thousands of musicians who set that text in music since many centuries and to work with it a similar way how many generations of composers did it (including my father and both of my grandfathers): to listen humbly and carefully to its rhythm, structure and inner development and try to unite its stimulations with my music language. Some vocal works I wrote in recent years on Latin liturgical texts (Media vita, Veni, Sancte Spiritus, Regina coeli) proved to be a useful preparation for that task.

I examined different ways of setting of the Requiem text during the 19th and 20th century starting with Berlioz over Verdi, Dvořák till Penderecki and Ligeti, and decided finally to write a half-evening work (of about 30 or 40 minutes) which would use the first part of the liturgical text (till Lacrimosa including), respectively with some cut-downs. The used text corresponds approximately to the approach of Ligeti and ends there, where for instance Dvořák finishes the first part of his Requiem, it means with a similar supplicatory phrase like the final Agnus Dei: „dona eis requiem“.

I divided the text into 6 parts – after the opening Requiem aeternam, linked together with the consecutive Kyrie eleison (both together as movement 1), comes the text of all 5 following movements (2.-6.) from the sequence Dies irae, whereas 4 triplets from its second half remained unapplied.

The mentioned 5 parts of the sequence Dies irae were chosen after a principle of contrast as follows:
the first 6 triplets for the Dies irae (movement 2),
the following 2 for Quid sum miser (movement 3),
triplets 9, 11 and 14 for Recordare (mvt. 4),
triplets 16 a 17 for the penultimate movement Confutatis maledictis (5) and
the last 2 triplets (18 and 19) for the final Lacrimosa (mvt. 6).

It means that I used 15 out of 19 triplets of the Dies irae sequence; what remained unused were triplets Nr.10, 12, 13 a 15, which mostly remain, to say it with a Baroque terminology, within the same affect as the previous triplet and bring no contrast of meaning or mood.

The chronology of the movements how I wrote it is surely worth to mention – the first one was the opening static Requiem aeternam which introduces the listeners to the atmosphere of the whole work and which introduced me to the procedure and spirit of the entire composition. After that I wrote the final Lacrimosa which has a similar atmosphere and uses likewise elliptical meanings. The remaining 4 movements were written „against the stream of the time“ (it means in the sequence: movements 5, 4, 3 and 2). It could seem to be rather absurd, but before I wrote the first note of my pencil version of the score I had a complete scheme of the entire work including the use of soli, choir and orchestral groups, it means a sketch which showed the sound character of each movement, its tectonic meaning and kind of expression. That made me possible to use such a retrograde order and enjoy its advantages, namely to create continuous relationships between the newly written endings and already finished openings of the attacca following movements as to anticipate the future beginning at the end of the previous movement. These ties helped to intensify the interconnection of the entire work. And secondly – thanks to that procedure I wrote the most demanding and labored movement – Dies irae – as the last, when I enjoyed the surety in handling of the sound of whole ensemble.

As for the ensemble I decided to use the full orchestra including the enlarged section of percussions, large mixed choir (of at least 60 members) and two vocal soloists of the middle voices: mezzo-soprano and baritone. These solo voices don’t cover the extreme registers but have a wide range from the dark bottom tones till the strong tension of the top register; moreover this couple of soloist includes the elementary contrast between the male and female way of feeling and reaction.

When writing the score I listened in my imagination to the voices of two excellent soloists I had as a recording producer many opportunities to work with - and I was very delighted and privileged when one of them really took part at the first performance and when I listened to some of his extremely dramatic phrases exactly as I imagined it during the composition.

In my Requiem, the vocal soloists cover a wide range of feelings from the frightened confrontation with the majesty of death (Quid sum miser) till the piteously urgent appeal for redemption. The choir is involved namely in the dramatic Dies irae, in a long build-up of the Confutatis and in the static random movements.

As for the orchestral sound I decided to create a specific sound for each movement and that’s why I used the particular orchestral groups a very selective way, as showed at the following scheme:
movement soli choir orchestra I. Requiem aeternam MS, Bar SATB divided strings – brass – wood – divided strings II. Dies irae SATB tutti, opposed groups (importance of the percussion!) III. Quid sum miser MS, Bar SATB brass, perc, violin solo, cello solo IV. Recordare, Jesu pie MS strings (at the climax shortly woods) V. Confutatis maledictis Bar SATB woods, brass, perc, harp VI. Lacrimosa MS SA, later SATB low strings+harp, later woods and perc, flute solo, violin solo

As we see, not only the vocal but the orchestral sound too was used a very selective way: in the first movement the orchestral groups follow each other but doesn’t melt, in the third movement there are no woods or tutti strings, the fourth movement has no brass and almost (with exception of the top section) no woods, the fifth movement has no strings and the final movement uses just low strings, harp, percussion and softly sounding woods (flutes and clarinets). Thanks to that each movements has its specific sound character.

As for vertical and horizontal relations I use in my Requiem, as in many of my previous works, a method of selection of intervals, namely two intervallic groups which are rather different. The first group has 6 intervals (1-3-5-6-8-11) and includes both dissonant as consonant elements, the other selection has only 2 intervals (2-5) and has a strongly consonant character, but the vertical stratification (when covering the full orchestral range) can result in a twelve-tone set of tones. Some of my previous compositions, like Two Chapters from St.John´s Book of Revelation, were strongly based on the contrast of that two groups of intervals, in my Requiem I developed the inner contrasts by use of the consonant group in connection which the text dealing with God and divine majesty, whilst the rest of the text is set to music with the flexible use of the more dissonant group of intervals.

The structure of triplet verses of the Latin Dies irae sequence asks the contemporary composer a specific question: how far to respect this structure or how far to negate it in aid of longer tectonic lines based on ideal complexes and not on the regular and stereotype structure of verses. I decided for the second approach as I am convinced that the stressing of the microstructure of the text could create certain pursiness and bring a danger of mechanical character; the way I chose respects the microstructure of stresses in words and sentences but builds longer lines and complexes linked with inner coherence and bounding even in the middle of verses.

This method could offer to a composer even a certain refreshing moment - an author who writes predominantly instrumental music and who is usually not linked with other levels of music thinking (text, handling at the stage, needs of dramatic time etc.) could easily slip into a comfortable set of well-proved models and types of formation and enjoy it for a longer time. But when writing music on such a strong liturgical text and when understanding own approach in sense of musicians of the Baroque time as the emphasizing of its meaning and qualities you simply have to react at the development of the tension in text and to “read its temperature”, to follow it and express it and so to create original tectonic schemes according to the inner development of the text.

I mentioned that my Requiem was created without any particular commission or guarantee of performance, what surely influenced its future stage life – it took almost 4 years from the termination of the score till the premiere of the piece and further 2 years till its publishing on the commercial CD. Nevertheless, I don’t feel that the way how the audience and the reviewers accepted it would be negatively influenced by those delays; this is no kind of music which would react at recent music or public trends and which reception would depend on such trends. On the contrary, my effort was to create music which would stand outside of such relations, music which contemplates about questions transcending the horizon of time, space and so the dimension of our particular historic situation and our human lives. I wanted to write music speaking about the basic timeless problems of human existence – Love, Death and Live.

…de morte transire ad vitam – to pass from Death to Life, this is the wish and plea which the Latin liturgical mass for deceased expresses at the end of its full text version. And this is the idea I intensely thought about during my work on this composition.

Prof. Milan Slavický, PhD
composer, music scientist / HAMU Prague – CZ /

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