A bass is by disposition and nature a heavy lifter. Think of a jazz trio – there’s always a moment when the pianist and the drummer stand back and let the bass have its solo, but the audience listens politely and waits for it to be over because finally we listen to music for the melody line and the basses by and large don’t carry the melody line and get squirrely and embarrassed when required to do so. You hire a tenor to design the house, a bass to build it. We’re more comfortable down in the basement pouring the foundation.
But this is Mozart’s Requiem, a song for the dead, who in metaphor and in fact reside in the basements of our imaginations. We don’t carry them front center but we never forget them, either, because they are at our destination, they reside in the place where we are all going; though maybe in writing as much I’m learning what Mozart was trying to teach, which is that there is no destination, no line, no progression from here to there, there is only what is, here and now, change, process, life becoming more life, and in such an ever-changing universe one looks for the foundation on which to rest one’s weary feet, and we basses are it. The Requiem showcases the bass line from the moment of its grand, stately opening (”Requiem aeternam . . .”). The piece features by my count thirteen solo bass entrances, which is about eleven more than any piece I’ve yet sung. Among these are some real terror-inducers, from the naked opening to the startling tempo change that introduces the Osanna in the Sanctus.
Twice the music features a magnificent stairstepping line in which the basses first descend (Dona, dona eis requiem, “Give them peace”), then ascend (Qua resurget ex favilla judi cando homo reus, “from the ashes we rise to be judged”), half-pitch by half-pitch, from the mud to the stars. The basses introduce solo all three fugues, the greatest of which — surely not coincidentally, coming from the pen of the randy Mozart and initiated by the butch basses – reminds God of His promise to Abraham that his seed will be scattered far and wide (Quam olim Abrahae promisiti et semini ejus).
We have become so accustomed to the devices Mozart uses to introduce and sustain musical excitement and suspense that they can sound corny or clichéd – the internal crescendo/decrescendo, the pauses between words (Qua / re / sur / get / ex / fa / vi / la / ju / di / can / do / ho / mo / re / us) swelling to a climax. But he did it first, or at least put all the tricks together first, and in no piece to greater effect than the Requiem. Listen closely to enough Mozart – learn enough Mozart and you’ll never hear cartoon music – or for that matter, any popular music – the same way again. It’s true – there are too many notes; but what notes, and how exhilarating to sing them!
Finally: A recording recommendation: I own two. The Vienna State Opera Chorus performing under Sir Georg Solti, and the Academy and Chorus of St. Martin’s in the Fields, under Sir Neville Mariner. The former is a live performance of the concert held in the Vienna cathedral to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death, and it demonstrates all the advantages of live performance: the audience is a palpable presence, and the chorus and orchestra respond accordingly. But it’s interspersed with the text of the funeral mass, intoned by old white guys in Prada gowns, and with all due respect, unless you’re more adept at cutting and pasting tracks than I, you might prefer the crisp and competent Mariner rendition.
And so farewell to Wolfgang Amadeus, beloved of God, at least for a while. Of course there are harder and more challenging roles; still. In my imagination the Requiem was the Everest / Chomolungma of choral roles. I never imagined I’d sing it. I’d sing it again in a heartbeat; I sing it in the shower; driving to and from my sister’s deathbed, I sang it in the car, for comfort for me, from love of her.
For now, it may be back to Happy Birthday for me. Stay tuned, so to speak.