Alexandra Coghlan

Why we love requiems

Alexandra Coghlan explores the history and enduring appeal of musical settings of the requiem mass

‘Tuba Mirum Spargens Sonum’, c.1888, by Henri Fantin-Latour, depicting Hector Berlioz conducting his Grande Messe des Morts

At some point during the 20th century death disappeared. The dying were discreetly removed from our communities and homes, taken to hospitals with short memories and wipe-clean walls. Mourning blacks faded before vanishing altogether; the elaborate funeral monuments of the 19th century shrugged off curlicues and cherubs and arranged themselves into unobtrusive, apologetic sobriety. Coffins — gauchely literal — gave way to the more tasteful euphemism of the ash-filled urn. Only concert halls bucked the trend.

Suppressed from everyday life and language, death found a different outlet. How many choral societies or symphony choruses today go a year without performing a requiem mass? How often do Classic FM or Radio 3 go a day without playing music from one? It’s a rare Proms season that passes without a requiem or two, and every autumn around Remembrance Day concert halls and cathedrals across the country sell out performances of the Verdi, the Rutter or the Mozart. Even opera houses have begun to get in on the action.

In an increasingly secular society the persistence of requiems — musical settings of the Catholic mass for the dead — feels like a contradiction, an aberration. Artistic appeal easily accounts for the popularity of the historical settings, but not for the form’s vigorous ongoing life in the hands of today’s composers. Is it just cultural tourism or role-play, nostalgia for the rituals and consolations of a more spiritual age? Or is it a trace of something, a need that persists, but which we have silenced?

How we die reveals a lot about how we live. Death, and how we choose to commemorate it, exposes not just our fears and our faith (or the lack of it) but also our priorities, aspirations, what we value and what we disregard. In the 15th century they had a handbook for it, the Ars Moriendi — ‘The Art of Dying’.

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