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10 March 2021

A New Requiem

Paul Stanhope with members of the Sydney Chamber Choir Image: Paul Stanhope with members of the Sydney Chamber Choir  
© Keith Saunders

Paul Stanhope's new Requiem will be premiered on 13 March by the Sydney Chamber Choir, alongside works by Brenda Gifford, Mary Finsterer, James MacMillan and Tomas Luis de Victoria. This article is an extract from a longer piece, originally written for and published by Limelight. It's reproduced here with permission.

There was no mysterious masked figure with a bag of silver. And I'm pretty sure none of my rivals tried to poison me. And unlike Mozart with his Requiem, although it took me a while, I did at least manage to complete mine. Mozart of course is incomparable. But I've wondered of late whether composers are spooked by his conviction that he was writing his own funeral music or just whether it's the size of the undertaking - a new Requiem is a comparatively rare beast.

A Requiem is essentially the sung part of a funeral church service in the Catholic tradition. The nickname 'Requiem' literally means 'rest' and comes from the opening line of the Mass: Grant unto them eternal rest O Lord.

In the Australian context, my teacher, Peter Sculthorpe wrote a number of works with the title Requiem, the first two for instruments only. His full choral Requiem from 2004 famously introduced the didjeridu, performed in its premiere by William Barton, into the genre. His idea of placing the Requiem into the context of this country is one I pick up in my piece. As Peter wrote at the time: 'It seems to me, the way the world is going, we need all the Requiems we can get.'

My new piece follows in the footsteps of a number of composers, with Fauré, Britten and Sculthorpe all important influences. I take solace in the fact that Fauré took a long 13 years to complete his Requiem, which exists in three different versions. Mine is written for the intimate forces of a chamber choir with a small instrumental ensemble of four wind instruments, harp (I couldn't resist!) and percussion with soprano and tenor soloists. The piece uses a hand-picked selection of movements from the original Requiem Mass template and, like Fauré, I leave out the Dies Irae.

I also included settings of English poetic texts - some spiritual, some secular - to further personalise my themes. All the English language texts are written by female poets: Neela Nath Das (Indian), Mary Elizabeth Frye and Emily Dickinson (both American) and Australian Indigenous poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal. I didn't deliberately set out to do this, but instinctually was drawn to poetry that seemed a counterweight to the Mass texts, which might represent the paternal and authoritarian tradition of the Catholic Church. The musical conversation between older traditions (for example the use of snippets of plainsong and chant-like material) and much newer musical techniques complements the juxtaposition of old and new literary elements. Such elements of juxtaposition help drive the piece forward towards the final, more peaceful movements.

The earliest threads of this Requiem span back to 1999 when I wrote a Lux Aeterna in memory of a young chorister in St Peters Chorale in Brisbane. Another movement was written in 2016 for the Adelaide Chamber Singers in memory of one of their choristers, Tim Marks, who died suddenly and unexpectedly. The piece, an Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) setting, juxtaposes Mary Elizabeth Frye's moving funeral poem Do not stand at my grave and weep with repeated fragments of the Latin text. Plainsong-influenced solo sections give way to more personal and subjective music sung by soloists. Again, this conversation between old and new, in texts and music, is a driving interest of mine; it climaxes with passionate strains of "I am not there, I did not die."

The Sanctus, that exuberant hymn of praise, is appropriately dedicated to the incomparable Richard Gill who sadly died in 2018. It's my attempt to reflect some personal aspects of the great man: his energy and warmth but also his tenacity and single-mindedness which had such a huge impact on the musical life of this country and on countless people with whom he worked. Insistent rising scales represent this tenacity, and the use of some dissonant edges and rhythmic energy suggest a Stravinskian flavour which I much associate with Richard. Years earlier, I sang as a chorister in Sydney Chamber Choir when Richard conducted the Stravinsky Mass; that performance had a tremendous impact on me. Richard also had a significant hand in commissioning and conducting my earliest orchestral work, and I owe him tremendous gratitude. I hope he would have liked this movement but suspect that, as in other new works, he'd have liked to have a bit of a tinker with it!

Following Peter Sculthorpe's example, three arias drawn from an earlier work of mine Songs for the Shadowland are included in the Requiem to establish a connection not only to this nation but to the Indigenous ownership of this land. These arias are settings of mourning poems by Aboriginal poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal, bringing the contemplation of grief and mourning very clearly back to country, with insights of traditional burials, and a ritual wailing at dawn, suggested in a stark horn solo. These arias, threaded between the Mass movements, continue a long personal quest to find a genuine connection to place through music.

The Requiem ends with the In Paradisum hymn which also includes as a complementary narrative Emily Dickinson's poem 'Hope is the thing with feathers'. This is a message of comfort, optimism and peace. After all the disruption of 2020, and after such an epic compositional journey, I am looking forward to bringing this work to life at last. Requiems are, after all, for the living.

> Paul Stanhope - AMC profile

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