MOZART’S REQUIEM: MUSIC FOR THE LIVING
By Nadia Essop
FC#D…AA’Bb…GDC#…C#C’B… I have listened to the opening bars of the Lacrimosa and Dies Irae countless times, wondering how it is possible to evoke an ocean of feeling with such small building blocks. I don’t know, it’s incomprehensible to me. How ironic that one can experience such depth of emotion while listening to a Requiem, a ‘song’ for the dead, written by a man on his deathbed. (But then again, I am dying too, in the way all of us are dying every moment of every day.)
Mozart. The physical form of the name itself is iconic: MOZART. There is heaviness to it, as if made of concrete or formed from marble or granite. The word is Gravitas, which the thesaurus defines as seriousness, gravity, solemnness. But a quick google search suggests the contrary, describing the genius as playful, wild, silly, tortured, troubled. Whether playful or serious, Mozart is shrouded in veils of intrigue and mystery, especially his illness and subsequent death, and the circumstances surrounding the writing of his Requiem.
Death is the inevitable manifestation of the ephemeral nature of all things. We can gaze at the light of a star that died millions of years ago, can be in awe of its beauty, be guided by its light on a dark night – even though that star does not exist anymore. Mozart was such a star, and his Requiem is a light that continues to be perceived by those who look and listen.
On a personal note, I have recently had a few close encounters with death (and that which exists on the periphery of death) by completing a course on how to assist the dying person to cross from life into death, how to wash and shroud the body, and the gentleness bestowed on the loved ones left behind with grief and memories. After that my path crossed with a Brazilian artist during his South African residency. By pure coincidence -some might call it fate- I came to assist him with his research project which happened to be about displacement, slavery, collective memory and death. We visited graveyards and shrines and most profoundly, the inside of an open grave. From that vantage point I could see layers of compressed earth, the branch of a tree and a slither of blue sky. And lastly, my uncle passed away with his head resting on my shoulder while I held him in my arms.
The performance of Mozart’s requiem is for me the culmination of a series of extraordinary events. I have not studied music or the history of music, so I don’t know what makes this Requiem special or great. What I do know is that the music conjures layers of emotions that words are inadequate to describe… tender fierce damned redeemed dark light melancholic sad haunting mighty powerful heart breaking. Words.
Singing and making music is a practice of being fully present. It requires fastidious attention to detail, one note at a time, and alertness to the dance of the conductor’s hands; there’s no time for meandering day dreams. Singing requires life. Perhaps it’s OK to just feel the emotions and to find peace and comfort in surrendering to the music.
Mozart expanded the simple opening notes into a relentlessly complex work. And isn’t that the most beautiful Amen you have ever heard.
2 March 2019
Nadia Essop, member of the Symphony Choir of Cape Town since 2008