Dvorak’s Requiem

By Leon Botstein

As distinguished scholar Michael Beckerman—in his very fine notes to this performance—observes, there was no “specific reason” on Antonín Dvořák’s part for composing his Requiem. What Beckerman was referring to was some personal or perhaps public reason to honor the dead with a major monumental choral and orchestral work.

The reason Dvořák wrote the work was a commission from the Birmingham Festival in England. Although 19th-century England was often derided (primarily by its European rivals France and Germany) as an “unmusical” nation, it maintained an outstanding culture of choral singing and a nearly unmatched tradition of choral festivals. Felix Mendelssohn’s 1846 Elijah was also written for Birmingham, and there was no shortage of fine choral works by leading English composers of the second half of the 19th century, notably Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924) and Hubert Parry  (1848–1918)—both teachers of Edward Elgar (1857–1934), the composer of several outstanding choral masterpieces.

Writing on commission has and will remain among the most reliable and persuasive reasons to write music. How else should a composer expect to earn a living? Our prejudices about what ought to motivate a painter to paint or a composer to write music—inspiration, for example—have been shaped by romantic notions of how creative spirits are different from the rest of us ordinary mortals and are inscrutable and impractical. Too much weight in our imaginations is given to notions of intuition, intensity, even madness, and especially tragic biographical circumstances. Too little thought is given to the simplicity of any artist’s circumstances, much like our own, and therefore to the impetus provided by patronage and the prospect of earning money from the performances of one’s works.

That however does not entirely answer the question of why Dvořák chose to compose a Requiem for Birmingham in 1890, as opposed to another type of choral/orchestral work. Dvořák’s Requiem is not for an individual or a particular group. Dvořák was certainly aware that many of the great Requiems that preceded his had indeed been written for a specific reason or occasion. Most famous was of course Mozart’s, which quickly became the stuff of legend—a mysterious commission that coincided with his last illness and his death, and resulted in an unfinished masterpiece. And there was Berlioz’s Requiem, written on a commission in 1837 to honor the soldiers who died in the July Revolution of 1830. That was a patriotic Requiem. Brahms’s Requiem from the 1860s (not a Catholic work, but a Protestant adaptation, so to speak—a “German” Requiem) was inspired by the death of his mother. Verdi’s 1874 Requiem was a mix of the personal and the political; it was written to commemorate the death of his friend, Italy’s greatest writer, Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873), an ally in the cause of Italian unification.

It is appropriate to remember, however, that death at a young age (from our point of view) was a far more ever-present danger in daily life and more common (apart from wars) as a fact of life in the world in which Dvořak lived, a world without the progress of modern medicine and the extensive life expectancy we—even in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic—take for granted. Dvořak himself was no stranger to this fact. He and his wife lost their first three children in the space of a few years in the late 1870s. Furthermore, few if any aspects of life are so inspiring of religious faith as the fear of death and death itself. No encounter in the struggle of life calls out for as much consolation and resistance to its finality as death. Nothing we experience compares to the solemnity, gravity, and sense of human powerlessness inspired by death. And nothing matches the range of emotions humans express in the face of death, from rage and denial to resignation and hope.

For these reasons, no aspect of human life is so universal and so persuasively shatters all the ephemeral distinctions we make in life and on which we pride ourselves, distinctions that so often lead to deadly violence. Death, alone or on the battlefield, foregrounds our fundamental shared existential equality as humans. And our helplessness in the face of death and our relentless confrontation with death desperately call for a response through the shared experience of music. Music offers to us a unique path to consolation. There was, therefore, no more ambitious, respectful, and demanding a way Dvořak could demonstrate his stature and achievement as one of the greatest living European composers of his time—especially to an English audience and then subsequently to audiences all over the world—than to compose a Requiem that could touch the hearts and minds of the international public for music.

Dvořak’s Requiem merits a place alongside the Requiems of Mozart, Brahms, and Verdi. Why it does not, nearly a century and half later, is a mystery to me. Part of the answer lies in the still prevailing assumption that history, understood as the process of preserving and weeding out of works of music, is an objective judge of merit and creates a canon of the “greatest” works. The blunt historical fact is that history is not an objective judge of aesthetic value. Mozart had to experience a determined “revival” in the 1890s, a century after his death, in order to assume the place his music has in today’s repertory. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto would have receded into obscurity if it had not been for Joseph Joachim, who single-handedly saved it from history’s dustbin decades after it had been written. Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, a warhorse of my youth, has all but disappeared. The list of such cases is endless, as is the list of works from our musical past that never got the chance they deserve. The Dvoř.k Requiem is every bit “as good” (whatever that can and does mean) as the Requiems of Verdi and Brahms—the two most often performed Requiems of the second half of the 19th century.

I was first introduced to Dvoř.k’s Requiem by the great Czech-American musician and pianist Rudolf Firkušný. He recommended it to me as the work that should close the 1993 Bard Music Festival that focused on the work and life of Dvoř.k. Ten years later, I chose Dvoř.ks Requiem to inaugurate my first season as music director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in 2003 at a performance on Mount Scopus. In 1993, I wondered why I had never heard a performance of this work growing up in New York City. Now, 30 years later, I remain astonished at why this utterly beautiful, dramatic, monumental, and disarmingly honest setting of the Requiem Mass in music—an eloquent and touching response to our experience with the loss, pain, and suffering characteristic of our shared encounter with death—has not gained its proper place in our public musical life.

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Dvořák’s Requiem