Pierre Bartholomée’s Requiem was commissioned by
Guy Janssens and his choir to be the fourth and final instalment
in Laudantes Consort’s and Cyprès’ survey of Requiem masses. The
trajectory of this series has tracked from the earliest known
Requiem by Ockeghem to the present time.
Bartholomée’s Requiem does not compare to more
dramatically conceived works such as Verdi’s Requiem
and Britten’s War Requiem or to more intimate
settings such as those by Fauré and Duruflé. Bartholomée’s
Requiem is scored for mixed chorus and large
ensemble consisting of three saxophones, two horns, trumpet,
trombone, tuba, percussion, marimba/vibraphone (one player),
accordion, viola, cello and double-bass. It falls into seven
sections setting diverse texts such as an excerpt from Isaiah
in the Prelude, parts of the Latin Requiem mass, a long poem
by Charles Karemano as well as fragments from a letter written
to Belgian friends of the composer by a young girl Jessica
who escaped the genocide in Rwanda and managed to get to the
States to meet her death at the hands of members of her family.
Ironically, her letter with many comforting and happy words
(“I am with my mother now”) was received in Belgium after
she had been murdered in the States. The variety of literary
sources and the instrumental line-up as well as the dance-like
character of the music suggest that this is no Requiem mass
for liturgical use but for the concert hall although it may
be performed in churches.
The Prelude, opening
with blocks of sound reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Canticum
Sacrum. The Stravinsky piece certainly means much
to Bartholomée who often mentions it in interviews. Here he
sets words from Isaiah (“The Canticle of Hezekiah”) about
the despair of someone seeking God in vain. This text in fact
emphasises man’s solitude and hopelessness. It has a hieratic,
almost impersonal character. The Kyrie that follows
opens rather forcefully and unfolds in complex polyphony.
The music seems to peter out although it ends with a brutal,
dismissive bang. The ensuing Dies Irae is not of the
furious, more dramatic sort that one hears in the Verdi or
Britten works, but is rather understated, opening in desolation
with the voices singing over percussion ostinato and considerable
instrumental activity. It unfolds culminating in a gaping,
awe-stricken section at “mors stupebit”. The Requiem’s core
is the fourth section Urupfu, a Rwandan word meaning
“death” and the title of a long poem by Charles Karemano.
The setting of Urupfu is interspersed with excerpts
from Jessica’s letter to her Belgian friends on her arrival
in the States and with further parts of the ordinary Latin
requiem mass (Libera animas de ore leonis and Hostias).
This long section – the most developed in the entire work
– is also characterised by dance-like rhythms that are also
a recurrent feature throughout the whole work. After this
hugely varied section, the composer again returns to parts
of the liturgy such as the Sanctus which is set in
a rather unassertive way. Again it’s a far cry from the expected
song of praise, in which pauses tend to emphasise man’s uncertainty.
The Agnus Dei is another unusual setting that tends
to emphasise “the scandal of Christ’s death”, the Lamb of
God sacrificed to redeem man’s faults. To a certain extent,
Jessica, too, is a Lamb of God, though sacrificed for rather
more obscure reasons. The Epilogue brings a sort of summation
by recalling life and death with words from Jessica’s letter
(“Je grandis doucement”) and from Karemano’s Urupfu.
A line from a poem by Henry Bauchau, with whom Bartholomée
has collaborated on several occasions (his operas Oedipe
sur la route and La Lumière Antigone
as well as his concert aria Le Rêve de Diotime),
brings a final, tiny ray of hope: Le chant de l’alouette ne
vieillit pas (“the song of the lark never gets old”).
Through the sheer
variety of its literary sources and a thought-provoking approach
Bartholomée’s Requiem is the work of a true
humanist aware of our troubled times and of man’s response
to them. His powerful, deeply-felt work is not of the consoling
kind but one that is nonetheless quite moving.
Requiem was first performed on 8 November 2007
in Brussels and repeated on 9 November and 10 November in
the Collégiale de Nivelles and in the Begijnhofkerk in Sint-Truiden
respectively. Though the performance in Brussels was quite
fine, this one – the third one actually – clearly shows that
everyone concerned has a greater command of the work’s many
demands. I am glad that this was the one chosen for this release,
the more so that the recording – although live – is just splendid.