A Requiem, Derailed by the Pandemic, Arrives When It’s Needed Most

You’ve probably heard a story like this before. Courtney Bryan’s Requiem was set to premiere with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in late March 2020. In a time of incalculable loss, her music became part of another kind of casualty: the sounds that vanished from stages around the world.

Like many premieres originally planned for the past year, Bryan’s Requiem, written for the vocal quartet Quince Ensemble and members of the Chicago Symphony, was stranded in limbo. But through the orchestra’s turn to online programming and a season-ending series organized by Missy Mazzoli, its composer in residence, the piece was given a new date this week, when the latest episode of CSO Sessions lands on the streaming platform CSOtv.

Maybe it’s actually more fitting that the Requiem be released now, as the United States emerges from its worst days of the pandemic — over 600,000 deaths later — and the country celebrates its first federally recognized Juneteenth, a year after the emotional, nationwide peak of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd.

“I think about the loss in my own life, but I know that a lot of people have had a lot of losses during this time, due to Covid and other situations,” Bryan said in a recent interview. “So I’m really happy that this is the actual premiere.”

Bryan, who is based in and from New Orleans, is a composer and performer who deals in collaboration, with an open ear to traditions like jazz and gospel — and, occasionally, to topics around racial justice like Black Lives Matter. In “Sanctum” (2015), she wove live orchestral playing in with sounds including the voices of demonstrators in Ferguson, Mo. Her oratorio “Yet Unheard” (2016) commemorated the life of Sandra Bland.

Her Requiem was meant to be more abstract — haunted by contemporary tragedies, perhaps, but not explicitly tied to any one in particular. It draws from a broad range of inspirations, including death rituals from the Anglican Church, “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” Neoshamanism’s death rite known as the “great death spiral” and New Orleans jazz funerals, as well as text from the Bible and the traditional Catholic Mass.

Its five movements — Bryan associates that number with life — begin with a gentle, a cappella harmony built from elemental “mmm” sounds before each of the four voices of the Quince singers begins to follow a unique line, with detours into half-sung Sprechstimme and percussive sibilance. The other instruments don’t enter until about seven and a half minutes in, when the clarinet and brasses offer a chorale-like interlude, mournful and dignified.

The Requiem is primarily a showcase for the Quince singers. They follow that instrumental passage with repetitions of the word “listen,” in different ways: The score instructs one to exclaim, and the others to plead, chant on pitch and whisper. A bass drum resounds, signaling the start of a dirge that includes a duet of simultaneous yet lonely melodies from the clarinet and trombone. By the end, after sadly beautiful word painting with the “Kyrie eleison” text and a clarinet solo of upward runs, Bryan arrives at a finale that is less restful and resolved than a traditional Requiem’s, but more cyclical, closing with the “mmm” vocalise that started the piece.

Bryan talked more about the work and its inspirations in the interview. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Was this commission specifically for a Requiem, or was that your choice?

It actually goes back to when I met Quince. I was really taken not only with their music and their voices, but also how they talked about music and the things that they cared about. We bonded, and then a year after that — about four years ago — we were talking, and I told them I would like to write an a cappella Requiem.

I grew up in an Anglican church and was deciding between the Catholic Mass and the Anglican Mass, and thinking of writing a Requiem, but in my own style. As I got into it, I started reading about different dying rituals from traditions around the world, how people approach funerals and the celebration of life. Then I took a pause, because it got really big. There was a lot to learn, and it was changing the way I approached it — and because we didn’t have a specific deadline, I stepped down.

Later, I heard from Missy Mazzoli about a commission at the Chicago Symphony, and I knew that Quince was on the program. So I changed it. The first section is still a cappella, but then I added instruments.

Even with more musicians, it’s still far from the scale of something like Verdi’s Requiem.

It was already going to be chamber size. But yeah, I ended up going kind of minimal with the way I used the instruments. I checked out classic Requiems, definitely Verdi’s and Mozart’s, and the feeling I got — or even just from reading the Catholic Mass — was this feeling of rising up against death. It feels like there’s a battle or a triumph, and I found that I was most interested in thinking about death and the cyclical nature of life and death, and more, kind of, an acceptance. So all my text was Christian, but it’s my perspective on the Requiem.

I was about to say, there’s a tension at the end of your piece, between triumphant language like “Death will be no more” and music that’s more unsettled and mysterious.

It felt like a natural ending because it’s a life cycle; it wasn’t a triumph or an arrival point. And with the text, “The first things have passed away,” I thought it was something that was not an ending or a beginning.

When you were exploring traditions of mourning, what did you find yourself attracted to, conceptually and artistically?

The one that hit home the most is just thinking about New Orleans — the idea of the celebration of life and the jazz funeral. There’s the walking of the casket from the church to the burial ground, but there’s a whole ceremony in a jazz funeral that starts with the dirge, and then it goes up-tempo to a celebration of life. So that was a major influence on the instruments that I chose: the brass band or the New Orleans ensemble. I wasn’t trying to replicate the style, necessarily, but there are little symbolic things.

What do you make of the context of this Requiem’s premiere, as opposed to spring last year?

I know some commissions come in response to this historic thing, and you have your own take, but this was something that I just wanted to do. That’s why it’s interesting that it took its own time and that the actual premiere is after this really profound time of loss. I find these kinds of things mysterious, how they happen. So, I hear it differently. It sort of came out of some of the work I was already doing, where I was writing music about police brutality. I wouldn’t say this piece is about that; it was a chance for me to go in deeper into these ideas about life and death.

Quince asked, in the middle of the rougher parts of the pandemic, how I would feel if they just recorded the first, a cappella part and put it online for people — just something to share. The folks at the Chicago Symphony were very supportive of that, so we did. It felt good to have something like that to offer, and I feel the same way as it is being offered now. I hope it will be healing to people.

Requiem

Streaming at cso.org/tv.

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