And I think to myself, what a wonderful world!
The opera composer Giuseppe Verdi was not a religious man, but when the great poet and playwright Alessandro Manzoni died, Verdi decided that a special piece of music was needed to commemorate him. The result was his "Requiem". A requiem is the setting to music of the prayers of the Catholic mass for the dead. It could theoretically be sung during the actual funeral mass. Verdi's Requiem is different– it is a concert piece, intended to be performed in a concert hall. Four solo singers, a backing choir of about 100 to 200 people, and a huge orchestra are needed to do it justice. While the Requiem does contain the prayers set to music, they've been treated in a much more operatic style than you would expect. The result is a piece of high drama which will wow any concert audience.
My choir tackled this mighty work on Sunday, 17th May in the National Concert Hall, Dublin. There were about 140 of us, an orchestra of 58 players and the four solo singers. We packed the house, with an audience of about 1,000, and it was a night to remember.
We started learning the work in January. Some of us had sung it before, but many hadn't, so it was painstaking work learning all the different musical numbers. There are some tricky numbers for the choir, including the Sanctus which is only about three minutes long, but the choir is split into eight separate parts, each singing a different tune.
One rehearsal a week ended up not being enough for all the learning, so we started having a second night in the week. Eventually we hoped we knew it all and could sing it the way the conductor wanted, as this skill is as important as knowing the notes. 140 people all singing the correct notes but at slightly different times is as bad as singing the wrong notes.
The orchestra, on the other hand, are professionals. They had one and a half rehearsals. That is, they had one standard three-hour rehearsal and one of half that length. That's all. We were anxious to keep it to that, and not stretch to two full three-hour rehearsals, as that would cost us more, and the hire of the orchestra is one of the major expenses of putting on something like this, costing in the region of €15,000. To make back this money, we would have to sell every ticket in the house, and through the great efforts of everybody involved, we succeeded in doing this.
The day before the concert (Saturday), the tenor who was due to sing solo with us was supposed to be singing in another concert in Dublin. He had flown over from London, where he lives, on Friday night, but early on Saturday morning had heard that his partner had gone into labour, so he flew back to London on Saturday morning, arranging a substitute for his Saturday night concert. Given the choice of singing in Dublin or attending the birth of his child, he chose the latter. But he couldn't afford to miss too many engagements, so he hopped back on a plane on Sunday afternoon and was with us in time for a rehearsal before our concert. The exciting world of a high-flying singer!
As 8pm on the day itself approached, we all filed into the concert hall and took our places in the choir seats. The orchestra took their place on the stage, the lights went down and the soloists and conductor came on, to applause from the audience. Then we began.
The work starts with a simple phrase of just a few notes played on a single cello, after which the choir sings a barely audible "Requiem". The effect of a large number of people singing very quietly is spine-chilling and we certainly got the audience's attention. Verdi's work is full of dramatic details like this: the choir is asked to sing very quietly and amazingly loud, more so than in any other work I know.
Although divided into seven musical numbers, the biggest section by far is the Dies Irae. You're probably familiar with the main theme of this– it has been used many times on television, and also in the Quidditch section of the Harry Potter computer game! The orchestra and a giant bass drum hammer out an intimidating beat while the choir roars the Latin words for "Day of wrath, that day", describing the terrible day of judgement at the end of the world. This theme comes back three times later on in the work and is definitely the most distinctive feature of the Requiem.
There's lots of other good singing, some of it by the choir, some by the soloists. One memorable section, the Tuba Mirum, has four trumpets on stage playing a fanfare, which is matched by four trumpets off-stage playing an echo of the fanfare. This progresses and gets louder until it seems that it can't go any further. Then the men of the choir come in at full volume. Cool.
It's not all roaring, though. There are some lovely quiet pieces as well, the trickiest probably being one near the end of the work where the choir and the soprano soloist sing unaccompanied. This is hard enough to do when we're all singing together, but there was a 'difference of opinion' between the soprano and the conductor, which resulted in this musical number being a trifle on the dodgy side, to say the least. The more musically aware members of the audience probably noticed, but I'm sure the average listener didn't.
The work ends with a massive fugue. For this, the choir is split into four, all singing roughly the same thing but at different times, and the whole is crafted in such a way that it all fits together to make an exciting musical whole. Fugues are difficult things to sing, but pumped up on adrenaline as we were, we managed it and brought the night to a satisfying end. It was all over except the clapping, the flowers, the pats on the back and the drinks in the bar.
Singing in front of 1,000 people is one of the most exciting things you can do. It has the same sort of adrenaline rush as going on a roller coaster, and it is hard to come down to normal life afterwards. So instead of heading home to our beds (it was 11pm), we all went out for a bit of a party. We'd arranged for the use of a small club in town, and we stayed till 1am drinking, chatting and singing the occasional song with what was left of our voices.
A great night!