Music tells a story: it can deliver a narrative to the listener with a fully formed plot, it can tell the story of an emotion, of a concept, or of a moment in history.
Take any given setting of the Requiem: on the surface, requiems are settings of the traditional Catholic Mass for the dead. The story could be as simple as that: religious text that has been set to music.
One peak beyond the surface, however, shows composers facing mortality and grief. For example, Mozart wrote his requiem at the end of his life (perhaps a bit TOO close to the end of his life-he died before it was finished). Rutter wrote his requiem in the year after his father died as he grappled with the loss. Verdi’s requiem was written in memory of Italian poet and philosopher Alessandro Manzoni, whom Verdi greatly admired (what text books call admiration was once described by Verdi’s wife as ‘almost mystical veneration’ and ‘the closest (Verdi) has ever gotten to religion’, so do with that information what you will).
All of this is grappling with the same feeling: the splendor of the afterlife, the fear of mortality, and the pain of those of us are left behind. All of these pieces use the same text. That being said, this music and this text are telling three very different, very personal stories about the composers’ minds and hearts.
Not everyone, however, is given space for a creative voice: arguably, there are people all over the world that have their story and their voice taken away altogether. Their struggles and their pain has been lost to history. This is why some composers don’t tell their own stories, but give voice to the stories that haven’t been told: take Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields . Wolfe wrote a poignant and beautiful composition dedicated to “those who persevered and endured in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region.” The piece, in Wolfe’s own words, ‘is about [the industry of coal mining] and the life surrounding it. The piece is not directly narrative, but looks at the subject from different angles. My intention was to honor the people that lived and worked there, this dangerous work that fueled the nation.’
As long as there are stories to be told, there should be music written to tell them. Mendelssohn Chorus is proud to be a vocal (Vocal! Get it? We’re a chorus!) supporter of new music being written, new voices being uplifted, and new narratives being shared.