Bookending a Large Piece of Music: John Rutter’s Requiem (Musical Musings #9)

Through the centuries, there have been several famous large-scale musical works known as requiems. A requiem is essentially a prayer for the dead, but it’s not as creepy as all that. Requiems are typically religious works, with Latin phrases like “Requiem aeternam” which means “grant them rest”, or “Kyrie eleison”, which means “Lord have mercy”. But this particular Requiem has a musical aspect that absolutely fascinates me, so I thought I’d talk about it a little bit. So let’s jump into John Rutter’s Requiem.

Requiem was first published by English composer John Rutter in 1986, and remains a choral masterpiece to this day. The piece is made up of seven smaller pieces, which all contain different parts of the requiem’s liturgy. Throughout the piece, the listener is treated to techniques from all different eras of music, from Bach-style cadences to a banter of blues between the choir and a cello. But it’s the first part of Requiem, called “Requiem Aeternam”, and the last part, called “Lex Aeterna” that I want to focus on.

Looking at “Requiem Aeternam”, the very opening of the piece, the listener finds a series of unruly chords sung by the choir, with all the notes clashing and sounding very distressing. This then dissolves into a section on light (which reads “et lux perpetua”), which sounds quite nice, but the piece doesn’t stay there long. After only a few seconds, the orchestra changes the key, and the main theme tune is introduced, which anyone who’s ever sung the Requiem will be hard-pressed to forget. This is the section that reads “requiem aeternam, donna eis Domine”, and is the main substance of the whole piece. The women sing it without the men, and then the men join in, allowing the choir to begin to split into harmonies. This theme shows up many places elsewhere in Requiem, but never as the main theme except for here and in “Lux Aeterna”, which I’ll bring up in a minute.

After the main theme is established, a minor section is sung, and then the piece returns to the theme, changing the words to “Kyrie eleison”. Then the minor section is introduced again, with the main theme ending the “Requiem Aeternam” piece. Now, let’s look at “Lux Aeterna”.

“Lux Aterna”, the closing of the piece, begins with a soprano solo. It’s quite pleasant, unlike the beginning of “Requiem Aeternam”, but it still leaves the listener wondering where the piece is going. Then the choir joins in behind the soprano to sing a short bit, only lasting a few seconds (“They rest from their labours”). This is similar to the “et lux perpetua” section in “Requiem Aeternam”. Then, the orchestra changes the key, breaking the song into its main theme, which reads “lux aeterna, luceat eis”. Then, just like “Requiem Aternam”, the women sing this theme in unison, with the men joining in the second time, and everyone splitting into harmonies.

Then there is a difference here between the two. Rather than go into a minor section, “Lux Aeterna” stretches the main theme a little bit longer, and then introduces a unison tenor line (“cum sanctis tuis in aeternum”). Then everyone joins in for the climax, and the orchestra changes the key very quickly, to go back to the same theme that “Requiem Aeternam” introduced, again with the women singing it first, and then the men joining in to end it all.

So “Requiem Aeternam” is structured with a leading introduction, short pleasant bit, main theme, minor section, main theme, minor section, and main theme. “Lux Aeterna” is structured with a leading introduction, short pleasant bit, main theme several times, tenor line, and then the “Requiem Aternam” theme. So while the bookend isn’t exact, it’s pretty darn close. Too close to not be intentional, if you ask me. And it’s brilliant. The way Rutter composed “Lux Aeterna” to be its own unique piece but also feel similar to “Requiem Aeternam” gives the piece a feel of finality, while also allowing “Lux Aeterna” to be enjoyed as a unique work. The audience doesn’t even realise that they’ve been expecting this to be the last piece until the “Requiem Aeternam” theme comes in.

So those are my thoughts on John Rutter’s Requiem. If you’ve never heard it, I highly recommend looking it up online and listening to it in order. Maybe you’ll even hear the bookend effect. Happy listening!

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