A Requiem Review for a Birthday

We celebrate John Harbison’s 80th birthday with a review of the first recording of his Requiem


We don’t need a reason to join thousands of other music lovers around the world in honoring John Harbison, the Pulitzer Prize-winning (among many other high honors) composer born December 20, 1938. But it is particularly fitting (even if it sounds a bit bizarre) to doubly mark the occasion with a review of the first recording of his Requiem. The Naxos release came out early this fall…and when I couldn’t get it reviewed in a timely fashion, I had the idea to link it to his birthday.

Full texts are provided in the booklet, along with a fascinating note by Harbison; it gives the listener scant clues as to specific musical characteristics of the work—but this is more than made up for by the fascinating tale of the work’s 15-year+ genesis.

Harbison wrote most of the first movement Introit in 1985, even though he had no “reason” (or commission) to complete such a major undertaking. He was led to return to the project in 1991 and again in 1995 (the latter when he was part of a group of 13 composers asked to write one movement each for the Requiem of Reconciliation, dedicated to the victims of World War II). On this occasion, Harbison wrote the Recordare, and as he had seen four years earlier, the musical seeds from the Introit were still at work.

In 1999 he “spontaneously” composed the Hostias, and then decided to complete the work, commission or no. But before he was finished he was in fact commissioned in 2001 by the Boston Symphony—and signed the contract just days before the 9/11 attacks.

Harbison adds some other personal details, but quickly reminds the reader/listener that his goal was: “I wanted a way to jump with the text from past to present to future, from they to we to I.”

Indeed, the best was to describe the piece is that it quickly demands focused attention, and as quickly rewards a repeated hearing. One finds neither long-breathed melodies nor rampant dissonance, but rather music of multiple layers of textures and subtle motivic and harmonic links.

Harbison sticks to the Latin liturgical text (as opposed to interspersing poetry a la Britten in his War Requiem), and he divides thirteen movements into two large sections. Thus we get sequences that composers of more famous Requiems (Verdi and Berlioz come to mind) eschewed: Lux aeterna, and In paradisum for example.

Harbison notes that he used a “rather small orchestra,” but the Nashville Symphony sounds like it has a full inventory of instruments on hand. They and the Nashville Symphony Chorus are under the direction of Giancarlo Guerrero, and the ensemble is full of potent streams of color, particularly from the woodwind and percussion sections.

Four vocal soloists are also called for, in this case soprano Jessica Rivera, mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens, tenor Nicholas Phan and baritone Kelly Markgraf. Harbison employs them in creative ways as well; there are no “solo” numbers for any of them. Here or there one singer might have an extended passage, but the other singers quickly add new elements.

As is too often the case, my first hearing was in my car, and sooner than usual I realized how inadequate that was going to be in terms of detailed listening. What I did glean was the overall shape (the work is just under an hour, and really seems to pass quickly, given the full use of available text). Yes, the opening of the Dies irae grabs one’s attention, but not in the obvious thunder and lightning fashion of Verdi, or even Mozart.

On the second you’ve-got-my-attention hearing, fascinating details emerged: in the opening Introit the words “exaudi orationem meum”  (“hear my prayer”) plead with a poignancy that cuts to one’s heart immediately. The opening of the “Tuba mirum,” where the trumpet summons the dead to judgment is no massed brass section, but unsettling exchanges of muted trumpets. Indeed the rest of Part I, which takes us through the “Lacrymosa” (Tears), is decidedly turbulent, with quieter—but still intense—pleading in the “Recordare.”

The opening of Part II is the Offertorium, with all four solo voices overlapping against a background of striking wind colors in the orchestra. Three of the vocalists set a very high standard, which tenor Phan can’t always match. The Sanctus is the closest thing to joyful energy in the work, and the ensuing Agnus dei spotlights the concertmaster and solo soprano, answered in hushed phrases by the chorus. “Lux aeterna” is almost demanding in its command for eternal light, The “Libera me” is a final request for salvation, and the final “In paradisum” is string and choir-dominated, restrained but never completely at peace.

This latest entry in Naxos’ “American Classics” series is a worthy release in every way—and it is not too soon to label Harbison’s Requiem an enduring addition to a very special genre. Certainly here in Madison it gives us heightened anticipation of a series events here in February, marked by the world premiere of his Viola Sonata.

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