A 21st century Requiem: Why did I write a work I didn’t want to write?
Ian Venables reflects upon his largest scale work to date and discusses how an unlikely commission took him in a creative direction that he never thought possible
Composing a piece that I did not wish to write turned out to be more straight-forward than I had envisaged. Many of my works have sprung from commissions and I have had the luxury of writing what I wanted. With my Opus 48, I was asked by Bryce and Cynthia Somerville to write a Requiem in memory of their parents. After a definitive ‘no’, I eventually suggested a short choral piece which could be sung at their mother’s funeral service (she had not yet passed away). I began to regret this decision, until I happened upon a translation of the Introit to the Requiem Mass and realised how inherently human its message is.
I started work and was surprised by how quickly the music appeared. It was duly performed and I was asked again if I would consider writing a whole Requiem. The Introit ends unusually on a dominant chord which is both emotionally and harmonically suggestive of future resolution. I looked at the words for the next section of the Requiem Mass and suddenly my definitive ‘no’ became a definitive ‘yes’. Excitement was soon followed by fear and doubt as a list of names tumbled before me: Fauré, Duruflé, Mozart, Verdi, Britten, Howells. ‘What have I done’, I thought? However, as each movement unfolded, I realised that I was not just writing a work in memory of Thomas and Doreen Somerville, but I was also embarking upon a spiritual journey of my own. This was brought into sharp focus when I was informed of the death of a dear friend, Gina Wilson. Deeply upset, I laid aside the Sanctus and found the words of the Pie Jesu staring up at me. I had always intended not to set it (again one thinks of Fauré and Duruflé) and yet wrote the music in an afternoon. It is set a cappella and sits in the middle of the Requiem as both a tribute to Gina and as a moment of quiet contemplation. I then reflected on the fact that, had she not passed away, it would not have been written.
I now reached the Libera me. ‘Oh dear’, I thought, ‘yet more words I don’t want to set’. I had always wished to avoid any reference to a vengeful God, but could not avoid the Dies Irae, as presented in the Libera me. Its ‘reappearance’ however is not a restatement of any terror-stricken vision, but a reassuring expression of deliverance from such an outcome. In spite of this, I responded by writing music that is both menacing and considerably more dissonant than any other part of the Requiem.
Unlike Fauré, I decided to end with a Lux aeterna. in which I use light as a metaphor for the soul’s journey: the luminescent key of B major (albeit with Lydian inflections) dominating the work’s final pages. So my Requiem found its resolution. It had returned to its opening tonality; I had moved forward in spiritual growth; the commissioners had received the work they had always wished for and any creative doubts that I had about in my own abilities abated.
My partner summed up the whole process with his usual succinctness when he said that, whist he always had faith in my ability to write a Requiem, he was, nevertheless ‘looking forward with great anticipation to the next work I wasn’t going to write!’
Well, in a way … so am I.