Carl Rütti’s Requiem (2007) was first performed by The Bach Choir under David Hill, with the Southern Sinfonia, Jane Watts (organ), Katharine Fuge (soprano) and Edward Price (baritone), in Winchester Cathedral on 16th February 2008.
Carl Rütti was delighted and honoured when, in 2005, he was approached by The Bach Choir and asked to write a Requiem. Although he had already written several pieces on the subject of death, he knew that he was undertaking one of the most daunting tasks facing any composer. “When it was suggested that I write a Requiem for The Bach Choir I hardly dared accept the challenge, but then I remembered the losses in my own life. There is only one thing a human being faces for sure: death. No words are strong enough to express the feelings of the bereaved, nor sufficient to explain what will await us after death. Music may be the most appropriate language – therefore it is a huge challenge for a composer.”
The original commission was for a twenty-minute piece, but by 2007, when the Requiem was completed, this had grown to around an hour. With the idea that the work should be accessible to as many choirs as possible, The Bach Choir asked for the same orchestration as the Fauré Requiem – strings, harp and organ – as well as a version with organ accompaniment only. Rütti did not miss the huge forces with off-stage trumpeters and vast arrays of percussion used by some composers when expressing the complex text of the Requiem Mass; he was content that everything he wished to say could be communicated through more slender forces. A violinist from the age of five, a concert organist, and having composed for his sister, who is a harpist, Rütti was familiar with the demands of these instruments. Moreover he was keen to experiment with the percussive effects that could be generated from other instruments, particularly the strings.
Writing for double choir with soprano and baritone soloists, Rütti chose to set seven movements of the Latin Requiem Mass. His aims were twofold: first, he wanted to express the feelings of the bereaved – feelings of grief, despair, fury, but also comfort; and second, he tried to foresee the moment of passing away. The Requiem begins and ends a cappella, sung by one solo voice to symbolize, as Rütti explains, “that we enter and leave life weak and alone”. Rütti’s intention in the Introitus is that the soprano soloist and – ad libitum – first choir begin some distance away from the second choir, the two elements moving closer together as they sing.
In the Kyrie
the initial prayer for pity is transformed into a cry for pity. Conflicting rhythms are heard simultaneously, the orchestra driving the music along in a steady two beats to the bar while the voices sing in three. The double chorus is used antiphonally, coming together at the climaxes.
expresses the moment of death and Rütti draws on music from his Pavane
(1997), in which the theme was the soul meeting God after death. The music here is passionate, with driving rhythms and hard-hitting harmony, creating a sense of fear. This is the closest he gets to a Dies irae
, a setting which he wanted to avoid as it did not concur with his idea of God. The moment of facing God is introduced by the very distant baritone solo, reminding us of the promises God gave to Abraham. This is the first of three occurrences of this central melody. In the final section of the Offertorium
the organ, which has an individual virtuoso part throughout the work, is used to symbolize God appearing to the soul after death.
At the centre of the seven movements, the Sanctus
again makes specific use of the organ, this time to aid the strings in describing the ladder between heaven and earth on which angels rise and fall as Jacob saw it in his dream (Genesis 28, 12); this is a wonderful parable for the close interrelation between heaven and earth, life and eternity. The Benedictus
re-uses the baritone solo melody from the Offertorium
, this time accompanied and a little less distant.
The Agnus Dei
acts as a striking contrast to the other movements. Scored for soloists, reduced strings and harp only, Rütti expresses the lamb as the most defenceless animal symbolizing Christ. This movement is written in memory of two of Rütti’s close friends, singers from Cambridge Voices, a choir with which he continues to work closely. Cambridge Voices gave the first performances of many of Rütti’s earlier works, notably Songs of Love
and Verena die Quelle
, and his idea was to introduce the style of music of these earlier compositions into the Agnus Dei
begins by alternating gently flowing strings with long, luminous chords for the choir on Lux aeterna
; within that sound the listener is given a taste of something beyond. Rütti was inspired by the river as an ancient symbol of the way from life to eternity, and this movement achieves a sense of calm, indicating that the drama is coming to an end. The painting Isle of the Dead, by the symbolist Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901), exerted a strong influence over Rütti, as it had previously inspired other composers, notably Rachmaninov and Reger.
The captivating melody, already heard in the Offertorium
, permeates the final movement, In Paradisum
, building to the biggest climax of the work. Rütti’s intention was to depict the singers escorting the deceased as he is carried on his last journey to the cemetery, and he drew on his experience of the funeral of his father-in- law, at the end of which the coffin was carried out by the villagers.
As the music fades, the choir accompanies the soloists as if with its last breath. Gradually the voices become fewer – the heart is failing – and we hear the song of a blackbird, something of a lucky charm for Rütti, and here used as a symbol of life after death. The work ends as the soprano soloist walks into the distance – into heaven – and her sound soars into the atmosphere.
Read an interview with Carl Rütti