Requiem, op. 89, B165
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
December (?) 1889 - 31 October 1890
Premiere - date and place
9 October 1891, Birmingham
soloists: Anna Williams, Hilda Wilson, Iver McKay, Watkin Mills, Birmingham Festival Chorus, conductor Antonin Dvorak
Novello, Ewer & Co., 1891, London
1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, tam-tam, bells, harp, organ, violins, violas, cellos, double basses + mixed choir + soloists (soprano, contralto, tenor, bass)
Parts / movements
1. Requiem aeternam, B flat minor (Poco lento)
2. Graduale, B flat minor (Andante)
3. Dies irae, B flat minor (Allegro impetuoso att.)
4. Tuba mirum, E minor (Moderato)
5. Quid sum miser, F minor (Lento)
6. Recordare, D major (Andante)
7. Confutatis maledictis, G minor (Moderato maestoso)
8. Lacrimosa, A minor
9. Offertorium, F major (Andante con moto)
10. Hostias, F minor (Andante)
11. Sanctus, B flat major (Andante maestoso)
12. Pie Jesu, G minor (Poco adagio)
13. Agnus Dei, B flat minor (Lento)
approx. 1 hr. 35 min.
Dvorak’s decision to write a Mass for the dead was not motivated by the death of someone close to him, or by a premonition of his own death; the impulse for the composition was much more prosaic: a commission from the music festival in Birmingham for a work “of first importance”. What was originally a somewhat vague commission assumed a more concrete form when Dvorak’s London-based publisher Alfred Littleton (Novello) suggested he might like to write a Requiem. This incentive appeared to come at an auspicious time. Dvorak had almost reached the age of fifty and, in this new work, he intended to review and, in principle, recall everything that he had achieved, both as a composer and as an individual. At the zenith of his career he would embark upon a true testimony of his relationship with God and attempt to answer the most fundamental issues of human existence.
In composing a work to the text of the Latin Requiem Mass, Dvorak was following a number of his predecessors (Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, among others) and also picking up the threads of his previous sacred works – the oratorios Stabat mater and Saint Ludmila, and his Mass in D major. Dvorak began his sketches for the Requiem at the end of 1889 and he completed the work in October of 1890. He took particular pride in this piece and worked with considerable elan, as testified in his correspondence, in which he described how he was faring with his composition work: In mid-January 1890 he wrote the following to his friend Alois Gobl: “I thought you might be interested to learn that I am currently working on a great Requiem which is to be performed in Birmingham in 1891. The first part, then the ‘Dies irae’ and the ‘Tuba mirum’ as far as ‘Quid sum miser’ are already completed. If God permits and things carry on in this way, it should really be something.” In June Dvorak informed Antonin Rus: “My Requiem is coming along well (I have already done two thirds of it) and I hope that it will be ready soon.” In a letter to music critic Emanuel Chvala, Dvorak atypically betrays something of his intentions: “I have finished my Requiem and now I am writing the instrumentation. I would be delighted to hear your sincere opinion on the work. I am full of hope and I know for sure that I have taken great pains again to go one step further, or perhaps more, than I did, say, in the Stabat mater or in some of my other longer works”. The work was published the following year by Novello in London.
The Requiem is one of Dvorak’s most intellectually profound works. It is devoid of any form of superficial ostentation, pathos or melancholy. It is marked by a sense of courageous sorrow, but without bleak and tragic undertones. The composer does not place life after death above his existence upon Earth; he is grateful for all the gifts he has received. Contemplation on death evokes not dread, but more sorrow at having to say farewell to those closest to him, to nature and to his beloved music.
Dvorak divided the liturgical text into two main sections. The first, an image of the Last Judgement, has eight parts of a prevailing sombre tone. The second comprises five parts which bring an atmosphere of solace and conciliation. Unlike the composer’s Stabat Mater, each part of the Requiem is conceived as a through-composed stream of music, without enclosed choral or solo “pieces”. The development of the thematic material is shared equally by the orchestra, choir and soloists.
The complex structure of this extensive work is cemented by a fundamental four-note musical idea (F - G flat - E - F), which winds its way through the entire Requiem. Its melancholy semitone progression and rhythmical ambiguity suggestively call to mind the human quest for answers to life and death issues. The composer’s imagination seemingly knows no bounds: he incorporates this musical question mark into the score almost 200 times in countless variants, without any sense of monotony. Interesting to note, Dvorak used this motif for the first time two years previously in his cycle Love Songs where it appears – also in connection with the notion of death – at the very end of the song “Here in the forest by a brook”, after the words “When will the wave of life carry me away from the world?”; the same motif also makes a brief appearance in the overtures In Nature’s Realm, Carnival and Othello a year later.
According to the testimony of Josef Suk, Dvorak considered the conception of the work in detail well in advance, ultimately gaining from the Requiem a sense of the key of B flat minor, which is indeed the fundamental key of the work. The Requiem surprisingly lacks an unequivocal catharsis, which is otherwise typical of Dvorak’s compositional style (Stabat mater, Rusalka, The Wild Dove and others). The composer is said to have pondered for a long time whether to end the work in B flat minor or B flat major. The solution he finally reached might be seen as a compromise: While the soloists and choir sing with increasing intensity as they move towards the close with the words “Et lux perpetua luceat eis”, finishing in the cathartic and ceremonial key of B flat major, the following orchestral postlude returns to the basic motif in B flat minor. Musicologist Jarmil Burghauser believes that this is a case of deliberate symbolism as the most profound expression of Dvorak’s genius, both as musician and individual: the ephemeral disappears together with death; higher things endure forever.
premiere and reception
The world premiere of the work was held on 9 October 1891 during the Birmingham music festival; Dvorak stood on the conductor’s rostrum. The next performance also took place on English soil, in Manchester on 3 March. Two performances followed in Olomouc, on 12 and 13 March 1892, which Dvorak again conducted. The Requiem received its Prague premiere at the National Theatre on 25 April 1892 with Adolf Cech conducting.
The music critics all agreed that Dvorak’s Requiem was one of the most powerful settings of the Mass for the Dead. The sheer depth and technical mastery of this work overturned once and for all any prejudice against its author as a “natural” composer capable “only” of producing romantic evocations of folk dances and songs. The folk musicianship which Dvorak modestly espoused proved to be a mere fragment of a multifaceted personality and highly intellectual proficiency which enabled him to create major works of his day. Leading contemporary conductor Hans Richter, who did much to promote Dvorak’s work on the international scene, described the Requiem as a work in which “there are places that make you want to cry out in pain and joy.”
Dalibor magazine after the Prague premiere:
“The Requiem exceeded even our most audacious expectations. We can only use superlatives to describe a product of this calibre. He who witnessed the atmosphere this work generated even during the orchestral rehearsals at the theatre, he who sensed the fervour among the performers themselves during the awe-inspiring, breathtaking Dies irae, could not resist the magic through which this prayer incarnate, this epic of sombre mysticism, besieges the soul. Only he whom music has permitted to glimpse the innermost meanders of the human heart, he who, instinctively or unconsciously, is guided by his inspiration to create something beautiful and precious – only he can speak the language of music with such conviction.
Josef Suk’s recollections (retold by Jan Miroslav Kvet):
“When he had finished the Requiem, he played the whole piece to Suk, singing to himself in his tremulous voice. He played through the Dies irae and Suk sat, listening like a little boy. Then he got up, took Dvorak by the hand and, overcome with emotion, kissed his hand. Dvorak, who couldn’t bear overt expressions of deference, looked at him, severely at first, but then – realising, as a musician, what goes on in a musician’s soul – said: ‘Whatever next! Who knows what you’ll come up with yourself one day!’”