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The creature shouts and whispers before the Last Judgement
To add another Requiem to the hordes of famous works illustrating the script of the Death Mass ! Madness ? … or a challenge ?
The specifications demanded by the sponsor Alain Lyet could be considered as a source of frustration or a source of stimulation : from the « primal scream » – in other words : a surge of primal energy before eternal fears – to the motley group of instruments imposed by the facilities available on the chosen venue for the first performance*, the mounting demands seemed to conspire against the idea of a conventional representation. It would be to misunderstand Patrick Burgan to fail to recognise his motivations behind such a challenge : what is more, he is a discerning reader of scripts which fire his inspiration : the profanity in his vocal works are made up of masterly interpretations of chosen poems, his religious compositions explore complex polyphonies (Nativités) or create spellbinding atmospheres (Audi Coelum, Tristis) which unveil words engraved in our Christian heritage.
So having made the choice of a Requiem to meet the demands of this unusual commission, the different roles were distributed to convey the raw emotions that the question of death has evoked since the beginning of time : collective voices representing fear-stricken humanity in search of forgiveness, release instinctual energies which reach out to our innermost feelings. In contrast the pure melodic sound of the female soloist’s voice rings out to represent the freed soul’s aspirations on this journey towards eternal rest. As for the few solo instrumentalists allowed – a strange hotchpotch: a clarinetist also playing the small clarinet, a saxophonist covering the instrumental family from baritone to alto, two percussionists, a cellist and an organist backed ad libitum by a double bass player – to add the splashes of colour to the canvas which arouse our senses in the interpretation of this remarkable script.
The plaintive call of the clarinet rises above the muted beat of the bass drum and the deeper sound of the Toms punctuated by the fading chime of a bell : it gradually takes melismatic flight while the female choir chants quietly Introit (Requiem aeternam). Expressed by the tension in the shrill voices, a piercing cry bursts out (Kyrie eleison : Lord have mercy!) gripping us more intensely : the singers chant the repetitive words « out of tempo » in pain, as if disorientated. The baritones chant a rarely used phrase of Graduel (In memoria aeterna erit justus : ab auditione mala non timebit) seeking to express priestly wisdom but the ear resonates to the notes of the cello recalling the pleading of humanity. The impression of the lost, bereft people is heightened by the Christe eleison as the voices diminish into « a slow wavering » on a half tone. The superposition of the Graduel voiced by the men « flowing calmly » over the pleading of the women (on Tractus : Absolve Domine animas omnium ) in « fast and agitated flow » and the arabesques of the instruments (clarinet, saxophone alto, cello) bring the eternal light sung by the mezzo-soprano before the choir’s final outburst tutta forza (Kyrie eleison),
but it is indeed this pervading light which creates an atmosphere of temporary peacefulness and harmony.
Driven by a steady beat (rapid tempo noted as « lively ») accentuating the impression of pure terror, a feverish crowd whispers on unchanging tone (not singing) the Dies Irae . The organ is the protoganist this time (it heralds the famous Dies Irae theme), it seems to be swept away. The Quantus tremor scansion (in vocal clusters) rises to a scream. We are plunged into the darkness of fear, into some kind of pagan ritual. But suddenly with piercing, frenzied, jazzy notes, the small clarinet breaks the atmosphere : an original solution had to be found to accommodate the brass section (in accordance with the specific demands of the work) including a mythical moment such as the Tuba mirum ! Indeed the organ stands in for the orchestra’s brass section with great pomp ( the baritone saxophone bangs down on the pedal) reflecting the turmoil of the choir singing in resplendent fifths.
Rooted to the spot in stupefaction, the choir in unison with the organ breaks up the syllables of Mors stupebit (yet with a melodious madrigalism with the words cum resurget): the notes of the percussion shroud this atmosphere of anxious waiting in mystery. The organ resumes its unbridled flight : its purpose to represent the judgement of all our actions listed in the proclaimed Book (Liber scriptus) intensifying the choir’s anguish which brings back the heart-rending cry (small clarinet) and the bursts (choir and organ) of the Tuba mirum.
A deferential exclamation heralds the appearance before the judge (Judex ergo), but the notion that nothing will remain unpunished (nihil inultum remanebit) leads to a flagellation in the declamation. Only the suffering of humanity expressed in the purest of song can soften the Judge : the mezzo-soprano sings a capella Quid sum miser, but the choir opposes her melisma in a terrified scansion before the King of awful majesty (Rex tremendae majestatis). Nevertheless she harmonises the moving, general beseechment (Salvame, fons pietatis). Alone, the cello solo symbolises the song of humanity. It continues in duo with moving simplicity as the prayer turns from the afeared Father to the compassionate Son (mezzo and cello : Recordare Jesu pie). But it is from the Judge (Juste Judex) that forgiveness must be asked and the plaintive cry of the clarinet is heard again to contrast sharply with the stops and starts of the baritone saxophone, woodblocks and chinese blocks ; accompanied by the cello, the mezzo represents the lawyer for our sins (Ingemisco) while the organ shakes and tremors. At first the choir can be heard faintly in the background but heightens in intensity as pagan fear returns with Confutatis « frenzied whispering »; the moaning and groaning of the instruments and chorists gain momentum as the acrid flames flicker (flammis acribus). Unrelenting, the mezzo maintains her claim to be among the blessed (Voca me cum benedictis), and the Confutatis culminates with the shrill cry of the small clarinet and the choir’s renewed singing in fifths. A prayer from time immemorium sounds forth (Oro supplex, sung a cappella by the mezzo) followed – to remain in ancient times – by a bicinium interpreted by the female choir (Lacrimosa). Totally bereft, pardon (Huic ergo parce) is demanded by a continuous breath (relayed by the choir) which increases in momentum so that harmony is reborn while the cello takes on a Hebraist inflexion. After so much terror, an atmosphere of calm spreads with rippling waves of pale light bringing the Sequentia to a close and shrouding the mezzo in prayer (Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem).
The Offertory represents the apotheosis of the rhythm « the apotheosis of the dance » we would be tempted to write, as did indeed Wagner, when referring to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony – such is the outpouring of the instinctual energies of the body. The ensemble shout out in unison a « thundering » Domine Jesu Christe in rousing tones to celebrate, not only the glory of Christ, but that of other masters of the mid XXth century such as Messiaen. Now the scansion spreads its tones across the complete polyphonic chain (organ, marimba, vibraphone and the three melodic instruments). In contrast to the rhythmic trepidation of the women pounding out Domine, Domine, the male choir presents a picture of threat (libera animas omnium fidelium defunctorum de poenis inferni) but is engulfed into the deep abyss portrayed by the script (et de profundo lacu : a vocal glissando sprinkled with the tremolo of the vibraphone and the marimba). The organ toccata rekindles the choral refrain Domine Jesu Christe, this time with the words Domine, Rex gloria ; the rhythmic exuberance reaches its climax. If the staccato beat seems to fragment the segments of the tessitura (Libera eas de ore leonis), the female choir’s trepidation (libera, libera) is a reminder that the anguish is ever present. Sed signifer sanctus Michael evokes brief renewal of the initial resounding unison , then as if driven by the surging beat of the instruments, the choral wave gradually builds up strength in a static whirlwind legato to reach the light (in lucem sanctam). Dying down to a sudden chasm of silence from which emerge various noises : (« suspended, out of tempo ») the trilling of the metal percussion instruments, the friction of the cello’s bow reaching unknown heights, the murmuring of the clarinetist and the tenors, the humming of the basses … and then the female voices cry out in unison the verse Hostias et prece tibi, a pure offering diffusing a mood of appeasement taken up by all the chorists (sopranos and altos split) yet in the background the whispering of the instruments and the male voices.
A slap sound from the saxophonist brings this sequence to an end to be replaced by the sopranos singing the sober words Quam olim Abrahæ promisisti et semini ejus. All fades away again to what we think will be a return to silence, but the vanishing sound is broken by a frenzied Sanctus – in murmurs, shouts and beats but never in song, around which the percussions and the clusters of cascades from the organ, rage. The only hint of humanity to emerge from this surge of celestial forces unleashed by an old testament God (Deus Sabaoth) is the Benedictus of the mezzo soprano on an unchanging B.
After such a dramatic arch, the celestial forces take over. The flat delivery of the Agnus Dei becomes muffled, the male voices gradually break apart before reuniting. Above the unison of the female chorus, the mezzo soprano slowly sings the Lux aeterna. A few solitary words rhythmically scanned are detached from the choral declamation recto tono of Libera me ; the mezzo continues her melodic and spiritual journey (Tremens factus sum) but the crowd becomes noisier and noisier, led by the percussion instruments and the small clarinet repeating its lament from the Tuba mirum. Finally we reach absolute serenity when the male choir singing in fifths arrive In Paradisum. And there, with the angels in paradise, the sweetness of the female voices, the melodic instruments in peaceful harmony, the soft tinkling of the vibraphone ring out. The musical content gently disappears to bring us to a complete silence with the last breath of the clarinet.
A universal composition
Intervals taken from jazz, medieval archaisms, oriental melisma, echos of plainsong intertwine with formal procedures and vocals which are firmly rooted in the contemporary movement, to spread the unitary pneuma of a universal prayer for an hour of engaging music. Patrick Burgan was committed to interpreting the entire script (including verses often left out) to go right to the core and to convey his own original view on the conventions of religious art. His work reaches out to our raw emotions seeking out the tortuous collective unconscious which has always inspired reverence when faced with the final hour.
In the composition of a Requiem, the successful juxtoposition of drama and prayer results in a singular performance where our soul, our imagination, our perception are totally gripped – even after so many other illustrious precursors.
*Commissioned by the State and by Addim 70, the Requiem (completed in January 2004) was first performed on 27th June 2004 in the Basilique Notre-Dame de Gray by Françoise Rebaud (mezzo-soprano) and the Contre-Z’ut ensemble conducted by Alain Lyet. It was performed again at the Ronchamp chapel in 2005 by the same ensemble for the fiftieth anniversary of its construction by Le Corbusier .