This work is for all American heroes—and for all those who support them. When I began writing An American Requiem, I, of course, had no idea what would eventually occur on September 11, 2001. Nevertheless, I feel it is appropriate to share with you some of the ideas that precipitated the composition of this work.
My initial interest in writing the piece that became An American Requiem began in 1998 when I started to establish dialogues with American veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the war in Vietnam. It became immediately apparent to me that, in my life, I had completely missed anything having to do directly with the experiences that had shaped, and in some ways, defined the lives of these servicemen. I was born eleven years after the end of World War II and had just entered Oberlin College when the Vietnam War was drawing to a close. And while the war in Southeast Asia and the domestic crises that had pervaded most of the sixties and early seventies was known to me as a child and adolescent, the experiences and their implications were taken in from a distance.
As I continued to conduct these informal interviews, I found myself in the presence of individuals with an integrity and nobility of heart that I had rarely seen in my own generation. I gradually began to understand why such clichéd phrases that I had heard as a child (i.e. “the quality of courage” and “the supreme sacrifice”) had existed in the first place.
Initially, some of what I had experienced in my talks with Vietnam vets proved to be confusing rather than clarifying. Having grown up during Vietnam and in the time of the assassinations of both the Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King Jr., I naturally had a great skepticism about a war that was driven by economic and political agendas. But eventually, I began to understand that regardless of which war was being discussed, there emerged a constant thread throughout my encounters with these veterans: namely their integrity, vigilance, and inner resolve to give of themselves, and indeed, to lay down their lives for their fellow soldiers if the need arose.
Another common insight that the veterans spoke of was their belief in the absolute hellishness and insanity that exists in a state of war. It is still my hope, although it will certainly not occur in our lifetime, that war will be seen as an obsolete alternative to solving the world’s problems. From where I stand, the soldiers who have seen action are perhaps the most qualified to be ambassadors of peace in the world, for it is these individuals who have seen firsthand the darkest side of humanity.
And so, An American Requiem began as both a tribute to the American soldier and an examination of the insanity we call war. In choosing my texts, I sought to juxtapose the personal, private issues that arose out of these campaigns, with the more public, global and philosophical ones. It is for this reason that the work is sung by a large chorus as well as three solo voices; and, it is also for this reason that the work is in two languages. The Latin texts from the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass are usually given to the chorus (while sometimes sung by the soloists), while the American poems that were set are always given to the soloists either individually or in ensemble. The Latin Requiem texts were used not only because they represent a spiritual dimension (involving man’s relationship to a Supreme Being in the face of death), but also because it is an archetypical language traversing both ancient and modern cultures. I also found the invoked images of the Apocalypse and the spiritual hell and fear of annihilation to be an appropriate reflection of the hell on earth that is experienced in war. In some sense An American Requiem is not only about our relationship to war, but also our relationship to death as a part of life.
The texts in English, from Whitman, Emerson, Michael Harper, Hilda Doolittle (known as H.D.) and an anonymous Afro-American spiritual, were chosen to bring these issues into a more personal light. The inclusion of a female soloist—the mezzo-soprano—indicates that the work is not only about soldiers but also about their families, and in essence the witnesses and survivors of such events.
Work on the piece began in Bellagio, Italy (at the Rockefeller Foundation on Lake Como) on September 22, 2000; the orchestration, largely done in New York City, was essentially finished by June 1, 2001, but the entire work was actually not completed until September 20, 2001 in Peekskill, New York. An American Requiem is scored for: Mezzo-soprano, Tenor, Baritone; SATB chorus; 3 flutes (one doubling piccolo, one doubling alto flute), 3 oboes (one doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns (two doubling Wagner tubas in F), 3 trumpets in C, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, 5 percussion, piano (doubling celeste), harp, string orchestra, and 6 offstage trombones.
On the early morning of September 11, 2001, I had just opened a package containing the orchestral engraving of An American Requiem to edit for the upcoming premiere. I knew, because of the length of the work (60’) and the large forces required for performing it, that editing would be a long process. The first thing I noticed however was that there was no dedication on the first page. I had evidently not been able to come up with the appropriate words or way to inscribe such a dedication. Around 9:10 am, I called my publisher G. Schirmer to speak with my editor about the issue of the missing inscription, and eventually found myself on the phone with Deborah Horne, who works in the Promotion Department at Schirmer. She explained to me, that just two minutes earlier, she had witnessed from her office window in downtown Manhattan the second of two jets that had exploded into the World Trade Center. In the ensuing days as I edited and finalized the score of my work, I had in the most disquieting and disturbing way found my dedication.
October 17, 2001