Rosner’s Requiem came about through a set of unusual circumstances. The composer had long been an admirer of the films of the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, and he had often cited The Seventh Seal (1957) as his favorite. The film takes place during the 14th century, and involves a knight who, having returned from the Crusades, is confounded by the moral contradictions of religion. He decides to challenge Death to a game of chess, in hope of defeating this adversary of life. The story draws upon many features of especial interest to Rosner: from his own religious and spiritual uncertainties and ambivalence to his love of games like chess, and even his fascination with numerological symbolism.
Sometime in 1971 Rosner became consumed by the idea of adapting that film into an opera. He wrote to Bergman to request permission for this adaptation, but received no response to his inquiries. So eager to proceed with this project, he began composing anyway. Later that year he decided to travel to Europe for the first time, mostly to meet with European composers whose music he admired; but he also intended to try to pressure Bergman for a response to his idea. He ultimately reached the Swedish director by phone and posed his request once again. Bergman responded that he had never allowed any of his films to be adapted into any other medium, and was not about to make an exception.
This response was extremely disappointing to Rosner, who had by then written a substantial bit of music for the opera he had in mind. But after several months he arrived at another idea: a full-length Requiem. What he had in mind was one that was non-sectarian, drawing upon Biblical texts, secular poetry by French, German, and American writers, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the Jewish liturgy, among other sources. He also imagined how he could repurpose the music he had written for the aborted adaptation of The Seventh Seal. He completed the Requiem in 1973.
The Seventh Seal refers to a passage in the Book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament. The theme of this book is a call to repentance and a warning of the disastrous consequences of failing to live according to God’s ways, revealed through visions experienced by John, held by church tradition to have been one of the disciples of Jesus. John describes a scroll in Heaven, held together by seven seals. As each seal is removed by God, seven plagues are described. These revelations are followed by visions of seven trumpets, played by seven angels. Another plague is announced by each of the angels.
Rosner’s Requiem begins with an Overture: The Seventh Seal, scored for large orchestra, including seven trumpets distributed at different points throughout the performing space; the full chorus; and two passages featuring a vocal trio. The movement begins ominously, as a subdued passage leads to a shattering orchestral explosion. Most of the orchestra suddenly drops out, leaving hushed celestial chords. This is followed by an aggressive ostinato in a 5-beat pattern, as a menacing passage arises from the depths of the orchestra. A 3-beat ostinato follows, together with a stern 2-beat passage in a hemiola pattern. As this passage ends, the full chorus enters softly, a cappella, with the opening lines, sung in English, describing the seventh seal (Revelation 8). The 5-beat ostinato returns briefly, until the male vocal trio enters, singing “Dies irae/Dies illa” from the Latin Requiem text in the style of Medieval organum. A softly mysterious interlude is followed by a forceful passage in multiple simultaneous rhythmic subdivisions. The seven trumpets are then heard, playing ornamented figures in alternation. The alternating figures are gradually compacted together as the tempo increases. The male trio returns, with its Latin quotation presented in ancient organum style. The mysterious interlude is repeated, followed by a continuation of the passage from Revelation, sung in hushed tones by the full chorus. As the chorus continues, a cataclysmic earthquake is described, depicted by the full orchestra, led by the seven trumpets. A sustained note in the trumpets brings the movement to an end. This entire movement is taken verbatim from the opening scene of the aborted opera.
The second movement, Recitative: Ein Wort, ein Satz, provides a considerable contrast: the setting of a poem by the nihilistic German writer Gottfried Benn (1886-1956). The poem, written during World War II, is a reflection on the brevity of life, scored for tenor solo and a small ensemble of percussion. The ensemble is used in a manner that suggests the pointillism and Klangfarbenmelodie practiced by the first generation of serialists, leading Rosner to wryly describe this as his “tribute to Anton Webern,” although the multi-colored movement is clearly tonal. While it is the shortest movement of the Requiem, it is also one of the most important, as suggested by the recurrence of the line “und wieder Dunkel, ungeheuer” (“and again the immense darkness”) in the final section as something of a symbolic motto for the entire work.
Toccata: Musica Satanica is the only movement that features the full orchestra alone. It is a ferociously diabolical scherzo, proceeding with relentlessly turbulent frenzy unabated throughout.
The Toccata is followed by Ballade: Les Neiges d’antan, the setting of a poem by Francois Villon (c. 1431-c. 1463), the best known French poet of the late Middle Ages. The poem contains the oft-quoted line, “Where are the snows of yester-year?” Another commentary on the inexorable passage of time, the setting is scored for soprano solo and reduced orchestra. This movement is an excellent example of Rosner’s unusual brand of poignant lyricism. The ornamented melodic line is wide-ranging and highly chromatic, while the instrumental accompaniment consists largely of consonant triads, as well as delicately scored passages separating the lines. A sense of tonality is never absent, but the tonal centers shift constantly.
The tender melancholy of the fourth movement is followed by the striking contrast of Sutra: Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo, one of the longest and perhaps the most unusual section of the entire work. According to Zen Buddhism, Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo is a sutra, or aphorism, that, if chanted repeatedly, will ensure a long life. The movement is scored for full chorus and orchestra, with a central section that features a solo baritone.
It begins as the male voices chant on one note the ten Sanskrit lines of the sutra repeatedly, with some instrumental reinforcement. Gradually, additional instruments enter over the repeating sutra, creating a beautiful hymnlike counterpoint to the single-note ostinato. Soon the female voices add to the texture with lines from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, sung in English, that provide a perspective of wisdom to those who have lived proper lives and are in a state of posthumous transition. The texture is further enriched by a reminiscence of the 5-beat ostinato heard during the first movement. As all these elements are repeated and elaborated, augmented by additional instrumental forces, the volume rises to an extreme level, when it suddenly breaks off. The baritone soloist, accompanied by just a few instruments, then sings, in English, a gruesome depiction of the underworld where those who have lived evil lives are condemned to excruciating torture and damnation. This is followed by an abbreviated return of the opening section with chanting of the ten lines of the sutra.
One of the most dramatic contrasts in the Requiem occurs with the arrival of the sixth movement, To All, to Each, the setting of a portion of the American Walt Whitman’s famous poem, When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d. Rosner chose a verse from the portion called “Death Carol,” which conveys Whitman’s serene acceptance of the inevitability of death. In truth, this is the most—or perhaps, the only—comforting portion of the Requiem. It is set for mixed chorus a cappella, in the consonant, modal style of the madrigal, a genre of vocal music that flourished in 16th-century Italy and England This madrigal reflects both polyphonic and homophonic usages. Consistent with Rosner’s approach to the Renaissance style, he retains the consonant harmony, which he inflects with a chromatic freedom of tonality.
The seventh movement, Organum: Lasciate ogni speranze returns to the Medieval organum style heard briefly in the first movement, and features the male vocal trio, supported by solo instruments in small groups. The text is taken from Dante’s “Inferno,” a portion of the 14th-century Divine Comedy, considered to be Italian literature’s greatest work. The text is translated, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter.” After the use of only small instrumental support, the full orchestra is gradually reintroduced to bring the movement to an end.
Prayer: Kaddish follows next, and is perhaps the movement whose musical style is the most romantic of any section of the work. It is scored for soprano solo accompanied by the full orchestra, further reinforcing the impression of a neo-romantic aria. The text, a standard Jewish prayer, incorporated into the service to acknowledge the recent death of a loved one, is largely in Aramaic, rather than Hebrew. The prayer builds with increasing agony to an anguished climax, before receding in resignation.
The ninth movement is Passacaglia: Libera Me, scored for full chorus and orchestra, and is one of the most complex portions of the work. Libera Me is a Roman Catholic responsory associated with the Requiem Mass, though not actually a part of it. It is sung after the Mass, but preceding the burial of the deceased. The passacaglia was one of Rosner’s favorite forms, and it appears in many of his works. This movement of the Requiem is one of his most elaborate efforts in the form. It begins as the bass voices, doubled by the cellos and basses, introduce the passacaglia theme, a 13-note melody that includes eleven of the twelve chromatic pitches. In keeping with classic passacaglia form, 18 fairly strict variations follow, as the music builds in volume, complexity, and intensity. After these variations the music breaks off into a free development of elements of the theme, as the music becomes increasingly agitated. When this development seems to reach a peak, a modified version of the cataclysmic final portion of the first movement reappears, leading to the climax of the entire work.
The sustained final note of the preceding movement leads without pause into the final section, “und wieder Dunkel ungeheuer” (“and again the immense darkness”) scored for small ensemble with prominent use of the piano. As noted earlier, this movement is similar in tone and material to the second movement, “Ein Wort, ein Satz.” A mood of mysterious calm prevails throughout, as motifs from several of the preceding movements make their appearances, leading to a subdued conclusion.
Rosner’s Requiem is notable for its juxtaposition of a wide range of expressive extremes, but also for the delicacy and imaginativeness of instrumental colors that permeate the work. (It is worth noting that at the time he completed the Requiem, Rosner had yet to hear any performance of his orchestral music, beyond sight-readings by student pick-up groups.) The work may be viewed as a contemplation of death and the evanescence of life from a variety of religious and poetic perspectives. (Notes by Walter Simmons)