How can I connect more, emotionally, with Faure's Requiem?
March 28, 2018 4:01 PM   Subscribe

I have to sing it in a concert.

I'm singing in a choir and while there is nothing religious about the organization, the vast majority of choral works ever composed have a Christian theme. I'm a very skeptical person and tend towards the belief that Christianity is just a whole lot of colonialism (no offence). But I understand that Christian belief has inspired many composers to create some of the most beautiful works of art of all time.

Normally I am ok with singing Churchy music because I find the music so beautiful (ie: Brahms, Bach, Haydn etc, the music is complex and beautiful in an of itself) and doesn't rely overtly on Christian imagery.

But this year we're singing Faure's Requiem and I find it so hard to connect to the music because a) I find the music cheesy and non challenging (late romantic period I guess) and b) I find the subject matter irritatingly sentimental (I don't believe in life after death)

Is there another way I can connect to this piece if I find the lyrics to be a lot of hooey and the music cheesy and bland? I have to sing it so I might as well try to connect to it, but how? Is there something compositionally interesting that I'm not seeing? Also can anyone explain to me why this piece is so famous and help me appreciate what I'm apparently not hearing? Does anyone have advice on how I can perform better when I have this rather apathetic reaction to the music itself? Or should I just suck it up and fake it?
posted by winterportage to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to consider listening to other music from a similar era - Debussy, Ravel, Delius etc. The historical context might help you at least appreciate the music, even if you don't feel it on a deep level. Many composers of the era explored similar musical themes to a greater or lesser extent.

I personally absolutely love Faure. He subtly subverts romantic idioms, creating music with amazing poise and grace. Some of the chord progressions, instrumentation and dynamics in the requiem make me melt into a puddle. So gorgeous.

I can see how some would consider his music 'cheesy', but I find it somehow light and heavy at the same time. He is one of the great 'bridge' composers who helped transition one era to the next - the formality of Saint-Saens vs the impressionism of Debussy.
posted by Jellybean_Slybun at 4:33 PM on March 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

This is tangential, but I love this masterclass with conductor Benjamin Zander and a cellist playing Faure's Elegy, which is also about death. Maybe some inspiration in there.

I think Faure himself was not particularly religious, and maybe agnostic. This history might be interesting to you. He has a different take on a requiem than most other composers; the music is meant to be comforting and is about the idea of eternal rest. I'm not religious but can relate to the idea of the peace of rest.
posted by pinochiette at 4:38 PM on March 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

Can you associate it with any of the movies that included excerpts in their film scores?
posted by carmicha at 4:39 PM on March 28, 2018

I have a hard time with this question because I adore this piece and find it very moving and gorgeous, especially when lucky enough to perform with orchestra. Maybe just focus on the effort of pure singing, and try to use those long phrases and beautiful melodies as a very specific type of vocal workout? And see how well you can control your breath, sing the cleanest vowels, etc.?
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 5:07 PM on March 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

In the early 90’s I went through a Requiem ‘phase’ with my mother. We went to live performances of the Mozart, the Verdi, Rutter’s (still my favorite) and others (including Andrew Lloyd Webber’s). Somehow we skipped Faure’s. My mother later found a love for the Faure Requiem, and although I don’t adore it, I get a warm feeling every time I hear the piece. Maybe connect the work with someone in your life?
posted by rtodd at 5:21 PM on March 28, 2018

There are a lot of shifts in mode that you won't feel in your own part or in a sectional rehearsal, and that you may not even hear in a rehearsal room without an orchestra. Musically I'd just be happy to think of it as easy to sing (most of it's not even loud!), so you can focus on intonation and breathing. If you need to be challenged to be interested you could challenge yourself to listen more for the harmonic shifts.

For instance, ('scuse me while I look at a score on YouTube) in the first movement, you're going along in a nice, simple d-minor, then hey, relative F-major on "exaudi, exaudi orationem" (all well and good) but then the "meam" is an augmented F chord (what) and the "ad te omnis caro veniet" goes to an augmented A chord (uh, you can't get there from there) and toggles between that and a b-flat minor (oooo-kay) and then resolves by way of F-major and A-augmented to get back to d-minor. In the sorts of voice leading they teach you in music theory class, it's just not done that way. The voice leading itself is really straightforward, but it breaks rules.

Another part I remember enjoying singing is in the 'Dies Irae' section of the 'Libera Me' movement, around the text "requiem aeternam dona eis domine." There's a chromatic cascade of harmonies that never quite resolve in any expected way and it's unsettling if you're acclimated to the few hundred years of harmonic tradition it ignores. Talking about music theory is boring, and I was extremely bored by the year of Musikwissenschaft I had on my year abroad where they got into precisely that sort of "and then it does THIS" to a sleep-inducing degree, but singing that sort of stuff is fun. To me, anyway.

It's a lot more interesting in that regard than the 20th century liturgical choral music that followed, which aped the mode switches and more open arrangement without the challenging chromatics. I was a paid section leader in a church choir for a few years and I got particularly bored of the "modern" sacred choral works that were all plagal cadence this and parallel fifths that. Familiarity with those sorts of pieces might be why you're finding it cheesy.

As for the text: I'm unsure why you'd have a problem with the text of a requiem when you don't have that problem with other liturgical texts. One way it's "interesting" compared to the usual requiem mass is that it diverts from the standard text, leaving out some traditional parts of the liturgy and adding others that come from other ceremonies. I don't find the additions and subtractions particularly sentimental, and the rest of it is pretty much the same Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi as every other liturgical requiem mass.

If it helps: I'm an agnostic and I was a professional section leader and soloist in two different church choirs for a few years. There's a lot of modern stuff in English that is really sappy, but they were paying me to sing it all so that's what I did. I focused on doing the best I could musically, and that was easier when the text was in Latin. I could autopilot through most of the Latin, but I actually had to read the English.
posted by fedward at 6:42 PM on March 28, 2018 [13 favorites]

P.S. With the masterclass I linked to above, the valuable part is Zander's instruction, which starts about six minutes in. Maybe thinking about this as an interpretation challenge will help a little- how you can best express the intent of the composer.
posted by pinochiette at 7:08 PM on March 28, 2018

Best answer: Most of the pro section leaders in my church choir were/are agnostic or unaffiliated. They can connect to sacred music outside their own espoused philosophy just as any good performer connects emotionally with a role: they draw on their own experience and use their empathy/mirror neurons to make up the rest.

It’s hard to tell from your post whether you’re aware that a liturgical, Latin Requiem by any composer is likely to have the same lyrics, in slightly different permutations, and movements with similar names in a similar order. (If you knew that and I’m being ‘splainy, just roll your eyes and humour me.)

Here’s why I bring it up: if you compare the text and music of these movements with the stages of grief, you might be able to relate to them more on a secular level. (This will also depend on your personal experience of grief, of course — if you’re not a believer AND not much of a griever, you might have to get a little outside yourself for this. I dunno, maybe listen to other choral settings of similar text and see if they stir you.)

If grief stages are relatable, here’s a juxtaposition:

Perhaps the more Afterlife-heavy/Jesus-y texts remind you of Denial (Introit and Kyrie, Agnus Dei), but even for the faithful, Bargaining resonates in the more interceding, pleading sections (Pie Jesu, Offertory). Anger dominates the Libera Me, which also has plenty of Depression in it. If the Sanctus seems like denial again, try to frame it as Acceptance instead — if the dead person you miss is in Eternal Oblivion, then hey, they’re still not suffering anymore, and someday you won’t grieve them either because you’ll be there too.

All this requires you to have those emotions to draw upon. This will be different for everyone, and I’m admittedly not you: my parish’s annual All Souls service has a necrology, and I have more names on that list every year. I grieve heavily, and I believe because it makes sense to me (or because I’m desperate for false hope/comfort, depending on one’s outlook).

In short, if pop-psych-infused Method acting falls below your threshold of woo-tolerance, go for that.

Otherwise, really do listen to the Requiems we Faure junkies tend to enjoy less, e.g. Mozart or Dvorak or...hell, I think Andrew Lloyd Webber even did one (if God exists, I assume She hates it as much as I do).
posted by armeowda at 7:35 PM on March 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Omg this question was MADE FOR ME strap in my friend.

You are in for a treat because Faure was not religious. Are you excited, because I was when I found this out (being of similar feelings to you, and enjoying this piece a lot).

You can read about him not being religious on his wikipedia article if you like, and also other places, but here is what I recommend:

Go for a walk before sunset, preferably along the top of the Avon Gorge on the edge of Bristol, but whatever works for you. Take your walkman/listening device of choice. Find a spot in which you can watch the sun go down from start to finish. Sit somewhere comfy, I would recommend a big flat rock but again whatever works. Now: watch the sun go down whilst listening to the requiem from start to finish, ideally timing it so that the moment it hits Peak Beauty coincides with the sopranos' solo moment of lux.....aeterna in the middle of Agnus Dei.

Feel the weight of the beauty in the world, and hear the music that Faure wrote, channelling that beauty through his incredible melodies and harmonies. You will never forget it.
posted by greenish at 3:14 AM on March 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Hi, I sang the Fauré Requiem a couple weeks ago, I'm not a believer, and I don't really love Fauré's music or the Requiem, AND I was singing alto, which basically has nothing to do in the Sanctus or In Paradisum but it was a pretty good experience for me. I have a few ideas about it.

First off, I think that although the music is not difficult to sing, it's generally not *easy* for an amateur singer to sing it *beautifully*. So focusing on just singing it as beautifully as I could helped. The alto line in the Offertorium is not difficult, but singing it with a beautiful even tone and good vowels throughout is still worth doing (and not easy, at least for me). That out-of-nowhere "Lux" in the soprano line in the Agnus Dei is freaking gorgeous when it comes in like a laser and nobody scoops up to the C, but again: it's really hard for a lot of singers not to scoop.

On a non-vocal-production note, two members of my chorus died this season - not people I was close to, but still. Members of their families were in the audience during our performance. Hopefully this is not the case for your chorus! But you can be almost 100% sure that there will be people in the audience and/or in your chorus who are grieving, and who might want/need to hear what the requiem has to say.

Also, I feel like the Fauré Requiem, especially in the Offertory and Libera Me, deals very well with the idea of "I don't want to die!" which is definitely a feeling I understand, even if (maybe especially because!) I don't believe in an afterlife. The fear of death is all over that piece, and I know that feeling.
posted by mskyle at 7:44 AM on March 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I've always connected best with requiems by considering them as aspects of grief or mourning. Fauré, as pinochiette mentioned above, treats death as a blissful, eternal rest. There's a few assumptions that I think you've made that could do with reconsidering which might help you find more of a connection.

Firstly, I'm not sure it's true that Christian belief necessarily did inspire many of the composers we associate with church music! It's true that composers like Bach did compose largely devotional works for choirs, but it's important to understand that for centuries, this was the default mode for choral performance. If you wanted to write for a choir, that was the form available to you. For the same reason, Bach wrote a great number of fugues for keyboard - he was really good at writing fugues, but there's no reason to think he would have written fugues if he'd been alive today. Just the fact that a piece is set to a Christian text doesn't necessarily mean it was intended purely to glorify the Christian God.

As an agnostic who's sung an awful lot of church music, I've always considered the "church" part to be as much a framing device or form as anything else. The greatest strength of music is its abstraction - it's quite a modern idea (not necessarily a bad one) to consider lyrics or text as part of what makes a piece or a song beautiful, rather than a frame which to hang music upon. I sang choral evensong with a chapel choir twice weekly for years, and every service had (varied, individually compelling) settings of the same two texts, and also psalm settings, which can be sung to any text at all! A mass setting is no less beautiful for being a mass than a piano sonata is for being a sonata. The text is still important to the work, but just as the sonata form has meant different things to different people over the years, the requiem text/s can absolutely be considered as a form, not necessarily literal, for different composers to interpret in their own ways.

Fauré, as others have noted, was outwardly fairly non-religious. He's quoted as saying the following:
"Everything I managed to entertain by way of religious illusion I put into my Requiem, which moreover is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest."
I think that's a fascinating window into his own feeling, which seems quite conflicted - he clearly considers religion illusory, but the word "managed" suggests he aspires to belief even if he can't accept it. He spoke elsewhere at length about his feelings writing the requiem, but it's clear that he felt it reflected his personal feeling about death deeply, rather than echoing dogma from other sources. The text is carefully selected following a few different traditions, and includes the In Paradisum, which isn't from the funeral mass at all. It's definitely not an orthodox requiem.

Another thing that I find interesting is your statement that you don't find the music challenging, and hence less enjoyable. If you're used to singing Handel or Bach works, you'll find the Fauré much less challenging in the athletic, semiquaver sense, and it's true that some of the movements are deliberately very simple in orchestration, but his use of harmony and melody isn't at all - in fact, I think it's fair to say that it's the juxtaposition between the extremely simple statement of the movements like the Pie Jesu or the In Paradisum and the unexpected harmonic developments that follow that make them so effective for me.

In the end, everyone likes what they like - if late romantic compositions feel cheesy to you, that's OK! And I don't expect to convince you. Personally, I've spent a few years coming to terms with the fact that I don't really like Beethoven. And that's OK too! But your original post seemed extremely dismissive, and I think that's a bad position to come from. The best experiences I've ever had with performing pieces that I didn't like or "get" have been when I've taken it as a learning opportunity.

There is a consensus against you, much as there was against me when I sang the Duruflé requiem for the first time and found it boring (I no longer do). Whenever I'm in that position, I try to examine my own beliefs and what I'm up against as closely as I can. Particularly useful for me is learning about the context of a piece, which is I think what we most often miss when performing classical music. Knowing the background of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring made it far more compelling for me than just knowing that it's a ballet.

In the worst case - yes, suck it up and fake it. I have absolutely done this. But it's nicer not to have to!
posted by spielzebub at 7:49 AM on March 29, 2018 [5 favorites]

I'm with Bananas and the other unequivocal lovers of this piece.

Just listen to the Agnus Dei and prepare yourself (or better yet, don't) for the indescribably dramatic and gorgeous transition at 5:33. And then find some other recordings and see how they handle the same spot.
posted by JimN2TAW at 1:41 PM on March 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

Like this one.
posted by JimN2TAW at 1:43 PM on March 29, 2018

Best answer: Do you remember that VH1 show from the 90's called "The List"? Basically, a group of celebrities are given a musical topic - such as "best guitar solo" or "best power ballad" - and they each bring their own choices to the table. They debate it and in the end, the winner is chosen. My friends and I used to do our own version of this in college. After we'd gone through the obvious topics - best rock anthem, best female singer, etc - we started digging into really random and nitpicky topics. Best song to play when breaking up with someone. Best song to sing along to in the car. Best instrumental bridge. note in any song, ever.

My choice for "best note" was from Faure's Requiem. It is sung by the tenors in the fifth movement - Agnus Dei. Greenish already mentions the soprano's "Lux..." in the middle of that movement. That section - starting with the "Lux..." is hands-down one of my favorite vocal passages of all time. The way the chorus weaves in and out of chord progressions reminds me of an old river, ebbing and flowing towards the sea. Tension builds and recedes, there's dissonance when one part wanders a bit but then it resolves, until it finally begins to build and build in both intensity and volume and then - THEN!!! - at the last moment, after all of the voices have been twisting and winding up in dense, close chords - the tenors sound like they jump an octave and break free from the tension with a clear high penultimate note and then the basses drop down to resolve it all. It's at about the 3:00 mark here but you really should listen to it from the "Lux..." at the 2:00 mark. I don't think that the tenors really jump an octave, but who cares? It's the crest of the river as it crashes into the sea!

That tenor note? That is THE BEST NOTE in all of music. Period, full stop, it has been deemed so by a group of probably stoned college students sitting on the steps of the art building in 1998. And these were a bunch of folks that to my knowledge, had never heard Requiem or even gave half a crap about "church music". Requiem, man. It's the shit.
posted by Elly Vortex at 3:30 PM on March 30, 2018 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, thanks for the awesome answers, people! I wanted to mark best answer for all the answers! I love the idea of connecting the movements to the stages of grief, definitely something I can more easily relate to. Also, I am singing soprano so I am definitely going to and focus a bit more on the Lux aeterna to make it sound more laser-sharp.
posted by winterportage at 7:53 PM on March 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

You don't really need to have faith to appreciate the Fauré Requiem- it's a very lush piece of choral writing with some fine orchestration. Many choirs lack the funds to perform it with full orchestra but if you are in one of the lucky choirs, listen to the interplay between the high vocal lines and the string parts - especially the violas. In my line of work which is arranging singing vacations in Europe I get to sing the Requiem at least once a year and I never get tired of it. Context helps too: a few years ago we sang the piece in Faurés own church in Paris - La Madeleine - which looks like an ancient Greek Temple. In time you may learn to love the intensity of the writing and be ready to tackle the Requiem of Faurés pupil - Duruflé - also an organist in Paris.
posted by ncouchman at 3:15 PM on May 16, 2018

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