Dvořák’s Requiem

By Michael Beckerman

Premiere: October 9, 1891 in Birmingham, England at the Birmingham Music Festival
conducted by Antonín Dvořák with soloists Anna Williams, Hilda Wilson, Iver McKay,
Watkin Mills, and the Birmingham Festival Chorus

Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet,
2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 4 French horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani,
percussion (tam-tam, bells), 1 harp, organ, 18 violins, 6 violas, 6 cellos, 5 double basses,
4 vocal soloists, and SATB chorus

The late 1880s marked a period of enormous success for Dvořák. A decade earlier, he had achieved his first international triumph, seducing both the Viennese “mafia” of Johannes Brahms, critic Eduard Hanslick, and violinist Josef Joachim, and at the same time the Czech public with a series of hits such as the Moravian Duets, Slavonic Dances, and Violin Concerto in A Minor. In doing this, he established himself in the minds of many as a composer to be reckoned with—firmly in the European tradition, but with something like a Czech musical accent. He had also demonstrated that he was a master of the cantata and oratorio with such magnificent works as the Stabat Mater, The Spectre’s Bride, and Saint Ludmila. It was on the basis of this success that he was commissioned to write a major work for the Birmingham Festival. He began sketching the Requiem in 1889, and it was completed by October 1890. The premiere took place a year later in 1891, one year before the composer would embark on his American adventure. The performance, with the composer conducting from the podium, was brilliantly received.

It is usually noted that Dvořák had no specific reason for composing a Requiem Mass. This observation is almost always followed by the statement that the composer was a deeply religious man, as if that in itself could account for the composition. While there is no disputing Dvořák’s religious sincerity, seeing it as the entire raison d’être for the Requiem would open the door to suggesting that Dvořák’s four symphonic poems on demonic texts by K. J. Erben were chosen because the composer was ghoulish. In other words, Dvořák was a composer and—religious or not—chose subjects that were congenial to his musical imagination.

There are several sonic details that could contribute to the idea that there is such a thing as “Czech music,” as opposed to considering the work of Czech-speaking composers simply part of a greater European tradition. Surely the use of certain rhythmic patterns or the presence of national dances such as the polka and furiant is part of it, but there is something even more concrete that involves the multi-generational quotation of three potent musical motives, all of which involve, essentially, four notes. The first two of these are found in Smetana’s Má vlast: the opening four chords of “Vyšehrad,” which are echoed in many compositions, and would become the signal for Czech radio during World War II; and then, the first four clarion-call notes of the 15th-century Hussite song, “Ye Who Are God’s Warriors,” quoted over the years by Dvořák, Janáček, Pavel Haas, and Karel Husa. Both motives are highly charged aural reminders of Czech power and resistance. But the third potent musical symbol, quite different from the other two, involves the first four notes of Dvořák’s Requiem, which resurface as profound reminders of mortality in several of the great Czech 20th-century symphonic works, such as Josef Suk’s monumental Asrael Symphony, Martinů’s Third and Sixth symphonies, Jan Novák’s Oboe Concerto, and perhaps most devastatingly in Viktor Ullman’s one-act opera composed in Terezín, The Emperor of Atlantis.

Make no mistake, this is a supremely disturbing musical idea. These four notes—heard almost 200 times throughout the work—give no quarter, even though it sometimes appears as if the composer is trying to integrate them into the rest of the composition. The use of this flinty theme composed entirely of oscillating semitones means that we have no sense of tonal center or balance. If anything, like death itself, this musical idea represents a negation—it is nothing, a vacuum sucking the life out of musical space.

Contrasting with this we have what might be considered a range of redemptive themes throughout the Requiem, promising such things as resolution, peace, and comfort. Just after the dramatic opening we can hear the shift on the words, “Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion” (“Thou, O God, art praised in Sion”). Here, after the dark murmurings, we are almost blinded by a series of ascending modal thrusts up to a bright major key resolution. And in the last movement of the work, the “Agnus Dei,” after another iteration of the opening motive, the chorus enters with a blissfully medieval reprieve.

The whole composition, featuring these very kinds of stark contrasts throughout, is presented as a vast canvas in two huge parts, both anchored by glorious choral movements in their center, each of which we hear for a second time after an intervening section. In the first, more dramatic part, it is the “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”) that sets the tone. Here, the grim plodding theme—a slightly expanded gloss on the work’s opening bars— is punctuated by truly terrifying choral shouts and screams, some of the scariest music written in the 19th century. The brighter parallel appears in the second section of the Requiem as a delightful earworm, an almost impossibly energetic fugue on “Quam olim Abraham” ([the passage from death to life] which you promised to Abraham).

The score has many wonders, intricately structured moments for the vocal soloists, some finely wrought orchestration, including a gorgeous violin solo in the “Recordare” and brilliant writing for brass. But perhaps the star of the show is the choir which—depending on the moment—can be everything from a modest singer of hymns, to something like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action, to a source of horror, screaming out words of warning.

Whether music is in itself philosophical has been much debated and continues to be. But there is no doubt that thinking about musical meaning after we encounter a major work can involve a range of philosophical questions. Thus, there are many ways to read the Requiem. Perhaps the most conventional of these focuses not only on the dark beginning of the work, but its end, where the “death motive” takes over just at the point one might have begun to think the work would conclude in either triumph or comfort. In this view, the main idea of the work continually undercuts all attempts at reconciliation. No matter how lovely or consonant a particular section might be—such as the exquisite “Sanctus” or the “Benedictus” where the angels seem to literally come into the room—death is still ever present and can never be overcome. An opposing reading would caution us not to be too influenced by beginnings and endings, and rather give credence to the possibility that at the core of the work are those very moments of transcendence, and that indeed, the spiritual passage in the Requiem, as in Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is from darkness to light. Or one could undermine both strong readings and insist that the best way to understand and experience the work is through Martinů’s idea that the responsibility of the artist is to present material—and then it is up to the audience to cooperate by putting it all together according to their lights. In this view, Dvořák has simply assembled the richest possible stew of affective and intellectual states that allow us to reconstruct the composition in an almost infinite number of ways. The conventions of contemporary musical organizations, with orchestras essentially set up to perform symphonic works, and opera companies designed for music-theatrical productions, means that the greatest choral works, aside from perhaps Handel’s Messiah and J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, are performed only rarely. It is unusual to hear the great masses of Haydn, Mozart, or Schubert, again, not because they are inferior to the orchestral works of those composers, but because of the structure of arts organizations. This performance of the Requiem then, is significant, providing yet another chance for a live audience to hear one of the most powerful and provocative works of the 19th century.

by Michael Beckerman, Carroll and Milton Petrie Professor of Music at New York University

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Dvořák’s Requiem