The Requiem is 90 minutes long and requires a large ensemble. The 100 singers of the Chorale were joined by 75 members of the Los Angeles Children's Chorus, baritone soloist Sanford Sylvan, and a large orchestra (triple winds, quadruple brass, timpani and six percussionists).
As has become common in recent decades, Rouse interpolates non-liturgical texts into his requiem; he has chosen six poems which form a sort of Everyman's progress through life, and the various ways in which death presents itself. These interpolated texts are given to the baritone soloist, which the chorus sings the liturgical text. The interpolations are:
- Seamus Heaney's "Mid-Term Break," in which a boy returns home from school for the funeral of his 4-year-old brother
- Siegfried Sassoon's "Suicide in the Trenches," in which a soldier describes the death of a comrade
- Michelangelo's "Ancor Che'l Cor," on the death of the poet's father
- Ben Johnson's "On My First Sonne," on the death of a 7-year-old son
- Milton's Sonnet 23, in which the poet imagines a ghostly visitation from his late wife
- Michelangelo's "On Immortality," in which the poet contemplates his own death, and concludes that so long as he is loved and remembered by those he knew, he will not truly die
I should note at this point that my memory is not so sharp that I can remember all of the details of a 90-minute work without prompting; I am indebted for much of the following description to Victoria Looseleaf's fine program note, which is unfortunately not available online. The mass begins with the Heaney poem, sung without accompaniment by the soloist; the chorus enters, still unaccompanied, to sing the "Requiem aeternam," a gorgeous, harmonically complex 8-voice motet.
The first instruments enter at the "Dies irae," as the six percussionists go berserk on their battalion of unpitched instruments while the chorus shouts the text in strict rhythm, but on no particular pitch. Each group seems to want nothing more than to drown out the other. For my money, the balance was weighted a bit heavily in favor of the percussionists; it was often hard to tell that the chorus was singing at all, much less what they were saying.
The sound dies away in an instant (Rouse is fond of abrupt volume changes) and a handful of unpitched percussion instruments begin rattling rapid-fire staccato patterns -- perhaps a suggestion of the gunfire of far-off battlefields -- as the baritone sings Sassoon's poem of suicide during war.
The rest of the instruments finally enter, some 15 minutes or so into the piece, with a giant unison blare from the brass that introduces the "Tuba mirum;" there is a brief interlude of relative calm as the choral basses sing the bleak "Quid sum miser" over deep drones from the orchestral basses. The brass returns in full force for the "Rex tremendae;" Rouse gives this text a great deal of emphasis, repeating it three times over increasingly frenzied orchestral runs.
The orchestra has yet to calm down when the baritone soloist returns with the first Michelangelo text; the effect is that he has to fight them for control of the sonic landscape. This is the longest of the interpolated poems, and it finally reaches a place of great calm and sadness, which carries over into the chorus's "Quarens me;" that movement builds to a great climax, which is followed by a long silence of several seconds (I was quite surprised that the audience remained silent here).
In other pieces, Rouse has often paid tribute to the composers who inspired him by quoting them; there are no direct quotes of Berlioz in Rouse's Requiem, but the "Lacrymosa" is meant as a musical homage of sorts, like Berlioz's "Lacrymosa," it is a long, flowing piece in 9/8 meter. Rouse also honors Berlioz by using the same edited and rearranged version of the liturgical text throughout the Requiem.
From this point on, the texture begins to thin and the harmonies become less dense. The baritone returns with a heartbreaking performance of Johnson's "On My First Sonne," accompanied mostly by glockenspiel, vibraphone, and clarinet; in one of Rouse's loveliest inspirations, this poem is directly followed by the first entrance of the children's chorus, who sing the "Sanctus." Milton's sonnet is followed by the adult chorus, who sing the "Agnus Dei;" the baritone sings his only line of liturgical text at the end of this movement: "Dona eis requiem sempiternam" ("Grant them eternal rest").
The piece ends with the intermingling of three texts. The adult chorus sings the English hymn "Now the laborer's task is o'er;" the baritone sings Michelangelo's "On Immortality;" and the children's chorus interjects phrases from the German carol "Es ist ein' Ros' entsprungen." The children fade away, followed by the orchestra and the percussion -- a condensed inversion of the piece's gradual accumulation of forces -- and as the baritone fades out repeating the final words of the Michelangelo, which translate as "I'm not dead," the chorus begins a lovely series of echoing repetitions of the word "requiem," which come to a close as the baritone, unaccompanied, sings the final "Amen."
With the exception of a few moments when the balance between chorus and orchestra was a bit off, the performance was nearly flawless. The choruses sang Rouse's difficult music with great skill; intonation and enunciation were impeccable. Solo baritone Sanford Sylvan was superb, and his interpolations were intensely emotional, with the Heaney and Johnson poems being particular high points.
Ninety minutes is a lot of new music to absorb in one sitting, and it would take more hearings (which I would welcome) for me to make any sort of evaluation of the music's overall quality. There are certainly moments of greatness in it -- the "Dies irae" is thrilling; the Johnson setting is devastating; the entrance of the children's chorus is a spectacular coup de theatre -- and I was never bored by the music; the contrasts between the more apocalyptic passages and the ultimate sense of solace and acceptance are very effective. The ninety minutes flew by, and I would not have guessed that I'd been sitting for that long. I hope there will be a recording.
(Edited to add: Victoria Looseleaf's program note is online, after all.)