Scoring the dance of death
You would expect to see a requiem performed by a choir and orchestra. But a dance company? Howard Goodall explains how Eternal Light took flight.
Last year I was approached by the artistic director of the orchestra London Musici, Mark Stephenson, to compose something to mark its 20th birthday, a work that would also be a new dance piece for the Rambert Dance Company, to be choreographed by Mark Baldwin. Because each year Musici also performs a Passion Oratorio with Stephen Darlington’s choir of Christ Church Cathedral Oxford, a piece with some kind of devotional or spiritual component seemed appropriate. We agreed that I would write a requiem, bringing these partners together. A bespoke requiem for choir, orchestra, soloists and dance is, I believe, a world first and, unsurprisingly, it has not been without its challenges. For me the most fundamental of these are, what – in the 21st century – is a requiem for; who is it for; and what does it mean?
In an age in which the “sea of faith” has been “retreating to the breath of the Night Wind” – in Matthew Arnold’s prophetic words – the old religious reassurances and orthodoxies can sit uncomfortably with our modern experience of loss. Anyone who has witnessed the funeral of a child will have wondered why, in the words of the 1928 Anglican prayer book, “it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of this child here departed”, or in the doctrine of the Catholic Mass for the Dead, what “sin” the child may have committed to be sent to purgatory awaiting judgment. Most of the famous requiems of the past follow loosely the structure and language of the Catholic Missa pro defunctis in emphasising the torments of hell, the natural wickedness of humankind and the urgent need to pray for the salvation of the departed. These requiems dangle the carrot of heavenly paradise and wave the stick of damnation in fairly even measure and seem to offer a mysterious, often haunting, but ultimately quite bleak, medieval way of looking at death, never mind the unbearable pain it causes for those left to mourn. I could not sincerely have adopted this approach to the writing of my requiem and looked for ways to reinterpret the form, with the help of my collaborative partners, Mark Baldwin and designer Michael Howells.
I stripped the Latin text down to a handful of resonant phrases and went in search of poetry, some sacred, some secular, to shed new light on the various requiem concepts: peace, everlasting light, grief, comfort, and, most controversial of all, faith in an afterlife. The purpose would be to reconfigure the words to underline a sense of solace for the grieving, compassion for the despairing and some attempt – however modest – at assisting in the process of recovery. There could be no glib reassurances about death being freedom or a passage to a “better place”, but there could be a recognition that the departed do live on in the minds, hearts and memories of others, that the love that existed between them and others is unbroken by death, and that the little we do know from those who have experienced near-death is that light is a powerful and universal sensation. To embrace a view of death as a passage towards light of some kind neither contradicts the teaching of the world’s religions nor what we have been told from description. Most importantly, it is what all those who have lost a loved one want to feel.
One poem I studied for the piece was Ann Thorp’s Belief, written from the mourner’s perspective, asserting: “I have to believe/ That you still exist/ Somewhere.” In this poem, as in the Requiem as a whole, faith is seen as the antidote to despair, a pilot in rough seas, a deliberate hanging on to the possibility of hope, however awful the path ahead. As for that path, the slow, day-by-day agony of carrying on, it was again light that provided the central image. John Henry Newman’s hymn, Lead, kindly light, amid th’ encircling gloom is set twice in the piece, with its return at the very end reiterating the words “I do not ask to see the final scene, one step enough for me.” This idea of being able to get through one hour, one day, one week at a time in the wake of debilitating grief seemed to me an authentic and practical expression of faith that would make sense.
Music’s ability to transport us from the everyday, to evoke some other, peaceful place is one way we can offer any crumb of comfort. In the case of a work that will also be danced, it might also be possible to convey a sense of the flight of the soul. The music for Eternal Light: A Requiem flooded into my head in a great rush, confirming the suspicion that I had been nudging towards something addressing grief for some time. It had probably been triggered by a commission I completed in 2005 for the choir of King’s School, Canterbury, in memory of a student, Lucy Holland, who died with members of her family in the Indian Ocean tsunami. Nothing can alleviate the suffering of losing a child, but perhaps some things – kindness, the refusal to forget, and even, in this instance, a piece of choral music sung by young people – could mark the passing of a precious life and honour it with dignity, compassion and beauty. I do not make any claims as composer for Eternal Light, other than this: if my new Requiem can do that for one person or one family, somewhere, someday, it will have been worth writing. For me that is what a modern Requiem is for, who it is for and what it means.