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Requiem : for soprano and tenor soloists, offstage soprano solo, SATB Choir, winds, percussion and harp

by Paul Stanhope (2021)

Work Overview

The Requiem Mass is an ancient liturgical form, stretching back to the mid sixteenth century when its components for formalised by the Council of Trent (which began in 1545) and to even earlier times when the antecedents to the Requiem were sung as plainchants in funeral Masses. Although early Requiems were quite austere vocal forms, by Mozart's time, the Requiem had become emblematic of the concerns of its age: the form was ripe for dramatic exploration. And, of course, the many stories around Mozart's Requiem (considerably embellished in the 1980s film 'Amadeus') have guaranteed a continuing fascination with the form. Moreover, a Requiem deals with weighty themes and has a long and rich heritage.

Composers since Mozart have brought ever more personal slants to the Requiem: Fauré's famous chamber-inspired Requiem emphasises the aspect of consolation by removing the Dies Irae - the fire and brimstone movement about the Day of Judgment - instead emphasising grand yet simple music of solace. Brahms, meanwhile, ignored the Latin Mass altogether, curating his own libretto from the German bible, while Britten inserted the poetry of Wilfrid Owen into his stirring 'War Requiem'.

I have followed Britten's lead of incorporating English poetry, with the difference that the poetry settings are replacements of some of the Latin Mass movements rather than just additions. 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 tradition of the Catholic Church. For me, these Mass texts are from a problematic tradition and require new forms of illumination to render them meaningful. Such elements of juxtaposition help give the piece momentum and drama which drives it forward through towards its final, peaceful utterances.

The conversation between literary elements is also complemented by a juxtaposition of ancient musical sources, such as plainchant fragments and simple modal harmony, and more contemporary techniques such as extended instrumental and choral extended techniques and textures. The instrumentation follows the chamber-style forces of Fauré, although I've chosen four wind players (oboe doubling cor anglaise, clarinet doubline bass clarinet, bassoon and French horn), harp and percussion without strings.

The commission for this Requiem came about thanks largely to Richard Gill, who took over from me as Music Director of Sydney Chamber Choir. One of the many people Richard inspired as a teacher was Russell Mills. Russell was a hospital administrator at Westmead but he had a lifelong interest in art, music and theatre as well as philanthropy. After being diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2013, he established the Russell Mills Foundation as a legacy bequest to encourage the arts and social justice in Australia. Upon his death, the Foundation awarded money to Sydney Chamber Choir for a major new composition which I was very honoured to receive. The work as a whole is dedicated to Russell, even though individual movements have separate dedications.

This Requiem was completed before Covid-19 brought a wrecking-ball to many aspects of life in 2020, including a particularly devastating blow to the performing arts. The piece as a whole has a number of themes all beginning with 'C': consolation, connection to country, commemoration and, strangely enough, celebration. Although a Requiem is weighty and sombre in many ways, it also has the capacity to be uplifting and life-affirming.

Work Details

Year: 2021

Instrumentation: Solo soprano, solo tenor, offstage solo soprano, SATB choir, oboe/cor anglais, clarinet in Bb/bass clarinet, French horn, bassoon, percussion, harp.

Duration: 45 min.

Difficulty: Advanced — Professional soloists and instrumentalists, high standard chamber choir

Contents note: 1. Introit -- 2. Tree Grave -- 3. Kyrie/The Rain of Merciful Cloud -- 4. Song (Love is Linked with Pain) -- 5. Sanctus -- 6. Agnus Dei/Do not stand at my Grave and Weep -- 7. Dawn Wail for the Dead -- 8. Lux Aeterna -- 9. In Paradisum/Hope is the thing with Feathers.

Dedication note: Dedicated to Sam Marks, Martin Wesley-Smith, Richard Gill, Ben Wilson. Dedicated to Russell Mills with movements dedicated to the memories of Martin Wesley-Smith, Richard Gill, Sam Marks and Ben Wilson.

Commission note: Commissioned by The Russell Mills Foundation.

First performance: by Sydney Chamber Choir, Paul Stanhope at Paul Stanhope: A New Requiem (City Recital Hall) on 13 Mar 2021

Awards & Prizes

Year Award Placing Awarded for/to
2022 Art Music Awards: Work of the Year: Choral Winner Paul Stanhope


Resonate article: A New Requiem by Paul Stanhope




Performances of this work

13 Mar 2021: at Paul Stanhope: A New Requiem (City Recital Hall). Featuring Sydney Chamber Choir, Paul Stanhope.

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