THE CORONAVIRUS has changed the lives of billions of people around the world. Confined to their homes, people have been unable to work or socialise as normal; some who have lost a loved one have been barred from attending funerals and forced to arrange “virtual wakes” instead. Once the pandemic is under control, many will feel the need to properly honour their relatives, friends and countrymen. A public commemoration of the victims of the virus, with music, would be a poignant way of doing so.
Composers have often written new music to pay tribute to the victims of tragedies. After a gunman killed 16 children and a teacher in the Scottish town of Dunblane in 1996, James McMillan wrote “A Child’s Prayer”, a choral composition. In 1959 Krzysztof Penderecki wrote “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima”, an orchestral piece. But it is requiems that are best suited to communal mourning.
The requiem, or mass for the dead, is a key part of Christian rituals. Roman Catholic churches, as well as many Anglican ones, use the Latin liturgy at funerals and on All Saints’ Day. The words may be familiar even to some infrequent church-goers: “Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine: et lux perpetua luceat eis” (“Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord: and let perpetual light shine upon them”). Composers including Giuseppe Verdi and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart have set the texts of the mass to music, and though minor keys predominate, the style of the compositions ranges from sombre in the “Requiem aeternam”, to dramatic in the “Dies irae” (“Day of Wrath”). “Requiems are one of the topics every artist, especially every composer, wants to approach, because we all make the same journey on this earth,” says Gianandrea Noseda, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC.
Requiems are often performed in concert halls and other secular settings. Most feature a chamber orchestra, though Verdi’s majestic requiem in memory of Alessandro Manzoni, an Italian poet and novelist, completed in 1874, was written for a full symphony orchestra; it has long been a staple of the concert repertoire in Italy and abroad. Mozart’s composition—which he wrote in his final months in 1791—is likewise part of the choral repertoire, as are the requiems by Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Duruflé. Andrew Lloyd Webber, best known for his work in musical theatre, wrote a requiem for his father which had its premiere in 1985; the “Pie Jesu” section has been recorded and released as a single by a number of female musicians. “The question composers ask themselves is: how do you depict death through music?” Mr Noseda says. “And not all composers of requiems are believers. Verdi, for example, was not.”
In this way, requiems have been an aid to public grieving regardless of faith. During the second world war inmates at Theresienstadt, a concentration camp, gathered to rehearse and perform Verdi’s. From 1980-84 Penderecki wrote a “Polish Requiem” to honour the 42 Poles killed during anti-government protests in 1970. Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem”, commissioned for the consecration of Coventry’s new cathedral in 1962, incorporated poetry by Wilfred Owen. In 2003, days before the opening of the Swedish parliament, Anna Lindh, the foreign minister, was assassinated. A performance of Bedrich Smetana’s comic opera “The Bartered Bride”, which had been planned for the parliamentarians, the royal family and other dignitaries, was hastily replaced with Verdi’s piece.
Now, to acknowledge the loss of life due to coronavirus, Milan’s famous La Scala opera house is said to be planning a performance of Verdi’s requiem in the city’s cathedral this autumn. Mr Noseda hopes to perform Mozart’s requiem to honour the more than 100,000 dead in America. Roxanna Panufnik, a leading British composer, is contemplating writing a new piece in response to recent events. “I would do a requiem for the whole world,” she says. “It would draw on musical influences from the countries that have been hardest hit and would incorporate religious texts and religiously inspired poems from the faith communities that have been hardest hit. But I wouldn’t call it a ‘Covid Requiem’; I’d want it to be a requiem for all time.”