It’s possible you’ve heard of Mozart. He wrote some symphonies, some operas, some piano concerti and sonatas, some chamber music, and some choral music. He is the subject of a movie that won 8 Academy Awards (ironically, the Best Actor award included the actors playing Mozart and Salieri, and Salieri won. Proving that historical fact always gets the last laugh, F Murray Abraham would later star in a film called “Blood Monkey.”). Mozart rests firmly on the Mount Rushmore of music.
Gabriel Faure was the foremost French composer of his day, and served as the head of the Paris Conservatoire, where he taught Ravel, Enescu, and Boulanger among others. His music utilizes inventive harmonies and really sets the tone for Impressionism. Faure rests firmly on the Mount Rushmore of mustaches.
The Requiem Mass, or Mass for the Dead, is a liturgical setting from the Roman Missal used to commemorate the repose of the souls of the deceased. It is comprised of 12 sections, beginning with the Introit and concluding with the In paradisum. Not all musical settings of the Requiem Mass incorporate all 12 sections, and many switch the order of the sections around, including the two represented in this Showdown.
These are arguably the two most famous settings of the Requiem in music history (the Mozart is one of the most famous works of music, period). Both are in D minor, a key which carries plenty of emotional baggage. Mozart’s conception of the Requiem views God in an Old Testament (the Guy who rained sulfur on people and told a true believer to kill his own son) way, fearful of the Judgment. Faure’s conception views God in his more New Testament (“Son, I have a great idea for washing the sins of mankind away…hold on, let me finish.”) form, grateful for the peace of eternal rest. Whose side is God on? Much more importantly, whose Requiem is cooler?
The Case for Mozart:
Mozart never completed his Requiem, composing what he did seemingly with the knowledge that he was dying. This fact has created a mythology around this piece that has fascinated listeners for a long time. Does it have an impact on the music itself? It’s hard to imagine it didn’t at the time, and if that’s the case, then Mozart certainly embraced his Catholic roots with his terrifying interpretation of death and Judgment. Here is the Introit:
This music is not necessarily terrifying or sad, but it is very uneasy, a not-so-gentle reminder that “Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them” must be phrased in the form of a question. I’m also reminded of these wise words: “Strong men also cry, Mr. Lebowski. Strong men…also cry.”
All is not doom and gloom. There is a beautiful quartet built on the text, “Remember, blessed Jesus that I am the cause of Thy pilgrimage. Do not forsake me on that day.”
But these glimpses of peace cannot last. The fulcrum of the piece is the Lacrimosa, which is as bleak as you will ever find Mozart outside of Don Giovanni; the music swings along in a really chilling I-swear-to-God-if-it-weren’t-so-dark-I’d-swear-this-was-some-kind-of-waltz vibe:
If the day comes when “From the dust shall rise guilty man to be judged,” I hope it sounds like that, even though it would scare the living (or now dead) crap out of me.
The Benedictus provides a brief ray of sunshine, again thanks to the vocal quartet:
But this cannot last, and the Agnus Dei returns us firmly to the terror of Judgment. The work concludes with a reprise of the Requiem aeternam, culminating in an amazing fugato that would have made Handel proud:
The Mozart Requiem gives me great pause, because I want to believe that God is a bit of a hippie and really just wants us to enjoy ourselves and be good to one another, as if Earthly existence were a Montessori School. But how can you listen to Mozart’s view of the Last Judgment and not be a little concerned that God wants us to get straight A’s? I just gulped listening to it. Again.
The Case for Faure:
Personally, I hope death is what Faure leads me to believe it is. I’d definitely prefer it if dying leads less to Mozart’s cold and cruel Judgment and more to a Rip Van Winkle-style extended nap. Of course, to achieve this vision of a peaceful repose, Faure had to significantly alter the structure of the mass and omit large portions of the text, so maybe I should brush up on Pascal’s Wager really quick. Whatever the changes, the result is remarkable. After the opening Introit, Faure moves straight to the Offertory and gives us a sort of binary form with a choral setting of “O Lord, Jesus Christ, King of Glory, free the souls of the dead” framing a baritone solo intoning the Hostias. Here is an excerpt that includes both sections:
The ending of that movement gets me every time (I’ve performed this piece more frequently than any other); it is painfully beautiful.
After the glorious Sanctus, Faure inserts a soprano solo setting the final two lines of the Sequence, “Merciful Lord Jesus, grant them rest, eternal rest.”
Faure’s setting of Pie Jesu is what world peace and free pizza for a year sounds like. Music cannot be more bucolic than that. It just can’t.
The Agnus Dei movement opens with a rolling melody in the violas, and leads to an initial statement in the tenors that is answered by the chorus, followed by a second statement in the tenors building to the Lux Aeterna (and a subsequent reprise of the Requiem aeternam), which feels like the emotional climax of the piece:
The only real shadows in this work lie in the Libera Me, set for baritone solo and peaking with a frantic cry in the full chorus with the words, “O that day of wrath, of calamity and misery, the great and exceedingly bitter day.”
The arc of Faure’s Requiem concludes opposite Mozart’s with an antiphon traditionally sung during the actual burial of the deceased, In paradisum:
What a perfect vision of death as release from struggle. Significantly less gulping this time.
It’s impossible to escape confronting the religious nature of the music when determining a winner. Mozart has written an unflinching Catholic masterpiece, a true reflection of the terror associated with God’s wrath and the great Judgment Mozart knew he would soon be facing. Faure, on the other hand, has succeeded in composing a work that paints death as a gift, a reward of rest for a lifetime of Earthly struggle. Perhaps this would be easier if I had life-size cardboard cutouts of Pope Benedict and Joel Osteen across the room that I could run to like a child. In the end, I cannot ignore my own desperate hopes for a peaceful eternity. Should I be fortunate to be on a deathbed (as opposed to lying in the street with knife wounds or in the wreckage of a plane crash), the last music I want to hear in this life is the Faure Requiem. It is beauty at its very apex.