Context for Arthur Gottschalk's
Requiem For The Living
by Garrett Schumann, Composer
Requiem compositions are one of the oldest genres in the history of composed music in the West. Musical settings of the Catholic mass for the dead date back to the 8th century, when Pope Gregory notated Europe’s earliest Christian chants. Over time, composers have consistently approached the Requiem with creativity, earnestness, and reverence, such that the genre’s symbolic power has grown beyond its liturgical roots. Beginning, perhaps, with Mozart’s Requiem of 1791, these works have been treated more as humanistic than sacred. And, certainly since the twentieth century, composers have used the framework of the Requiem Mass to make personal statements of concern and mourning for all of humanity to hear.
Arthur Gottschalk’s Requiem for the Living compellingly reflects on and adds to the history of the musical Requiem. Gottschalk’s approach relies on and pays homage to the Renaissance practice of “troping,” or the incorporation of non-liturgical texts in a musical setting of a mass. This process enables Gottschalk to uphold the Requiem’s origins while joining traditional Latin scripture with other sacred and philosophical writings, including a Yizkor (the Jewish prayer for the dead), the prose of Duke Ellington, as well as Muslim and Buddhist texts. This glimpse into Requiem for the Living’s composition speaks to one of the work’s central characteristics: Gottschalk’s ability to make a personal setting of the Requiem Mass while also respecting the genre’s long history. In so doing, Gottschalk works toward the balance of introspection and compassion that has made Requiem compositions appealing the composers and audiences for centuries.
The care Gottschalk takes in composing Requiem for the Living also emerges in his sensitive revelation of the work’s many musical references. For the most part, the piece has a consistent voice that, ironically, is defined by a collage of frictional dissonances and soothing, Renaissance-style counterpoint. Requiem for the Living’s second movement, the ‘dies irae’, most clearly embodies Gottschalk’s post-modern recipe, which essentially functions as the whole work’s musical backbone. As a result, when Requiem for the Living departs the austerity of this sound world, it seems to do so with a deliberate purpose. Again, the second movement is instructive. Here, we briefly escape colliding fragments of the Gregorian ‘dies irae’ chant melody when Gottschalk unveils a glorious, if not romantic, soprano solo that assures the listener there is, “nothing to fear.”
Requiem for the Living’s textual and stylistic interpolations seem to represent Gottschalk’s individual take on the Requiem genre altogether. To this end, we should consider the work’s grandest musical allusions: swing music in the fourth movement and African-American spirituals in the seventh. These references respectively correspond to the word, “Hosanna,” and the only English text presented by the choir in the whole piece. Armed with these allusions to popular American musical styles, the fourth and seventh movements of Requiem for the Living appear conjoined work’s symbolic landscape, and may represent Gottschalk’s most obvious humanistic appeal in the composition. Certainly, these profound stylistic references mark one way Gottschalk augments the longstanding musical heritage of Requiem settings without destroying its traditions.
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