Review: Arthur Gottschalk’s Requiem for the Living

Once again, I find myself in the awkward position of admitting that the subject of my review is actually a mentor, former composition teacher, and friend, as was the case when I reviewed Richard Lavenda’s Chiraoscuro.  So I want to put my bias up front.  I hope that this does not dissuade anybody from taking this seriously because….

…well, because Art Gottschalk’s Requiem for the Living is just an amazing, amazing work.

Requiem Image

It is reminiscent of that magnificent work by Gottschalk’s own composition teacher (and, I suppose, my grandteacher) William Bolcom, Songs of Innocence and Experience, in that both works are monumental, massive post-modern deployments of large forces in the service of a postmodernist multi-aesthetic experience.

A lot of the background of the work can be read here:

Arthur Gottschalk’s latest composition, Requiem: For the Living, written for orchestra, choir, and vocal soloists, almost never saw the light of day. Written in 2001, after the events of September 11, Requiem was crafted from Latin texts as well as the thoughts and teachings of some of the world’s major religious thinkers, and was influenced by the artistry of those whom Gottschalk admired, such as Duke Ellington.

“I was looking at a lot of text. It’s a big piece, eight movements, and I decided, beyond that, I wanted it to be a celebration of style and culture,” said Gottschalk. “It’s a very avant-garde piece, but it easily jumps back and forth from pop, rock, big bands, swing, and gospel; it just never sits still.”

This reviewer has to admit that he chafes at what he has come to think of as “the inevitable 9/11 piece”.  I find much of the artistic output that has been generated in the wake of that terrible event to be mawkish, maudlin, and uncomfortably teetering the line across which ugly words such as “opportunistic” begin to come to mind.  This piece does not come anywhere near that.  The work is heartfelt, but it is also smart.  The emphasis on multiculturalism, and, indeed, on the ongoing process of life itself, is a refreshing departure from many less thoughtful 9/11 works.  Perhaps it is Gottschalk’s upbringing as a New Yorker, or perhaps it is artistic intelligence, or some parts each, that make the work very obviously sincere and meaningful to the composer.

The piece’s “Introit” opens with a massive, dissonant anacrusis in the orchestra topped off by a stunning, thunderous spate of voices, clearly alluding to another great Requiem, the Requiem Canticles of Stravinsky.  Dissonance quickly melts into a gorgeous functionally tonal tenor solo, and we realize that the bridging of vastly divergent aesthetic gulfs is going to be the order of the day.

So this raises the eternal question: how does one bridge these gulfs so that one achieves true integration rather than mere (and possibly superficial) juxtaposition?  Clearly, Gottschalk is using motives and shapes that transcend the aesthetic divides, and fit comfortably within a multiplicity of harmonic landscapes.  Like I said, the piece is very smart.  Tenor solo dissolves into choral fugue which is evocative of the rich history of Latin-language counterpoint.  Little wonder.  Gottschalk taught 16th-Century counterpoint at Rice University for many years.

If your “Dies Irae” is not fiery, you’re doing it wrong.  And so the “Dies Irae” raises a conflagration that begins as a slow burn, and then escalates.  Choral homorhythms are peppered by punctuating brass and string stings, which then gives way to transitory solemnity.  Once again post-tonal dissonance gives way to functionally tonal interludes, imitative female solos, and English-language texts.  But the shifting scenes are never illogical.  As stated, the multiple aesthetic landscapes are unified by subtle motivic shapes.  After some tumultuous scenic shifts, we get the famous Dies Irae melody that everyone knows, followed by ominous choral stabs.  We exit with a calm, but uneasy, musical truce that is mostly consonant and tonal, but entails some octatonic inflections that undermine any sense of closure.

The “Offeratorium” includes Buddhist texts, and string passages that flow easily like a lazy river, with harmonies that are topoi of Americana, unabashedly Coplandian.  The woodwind writing reinforces this impression.  The choral writing here is superb, gorgeously and effortlessly negotiating tricky but always rich harmonies.  The movement always hints at the possibility of becoming darker, but we always land on our feet, like a cat, on the side of hope.

The fourth movement “Sanctus” invokes the music of Duke Ellington and is great fun.  The St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra really swings.  The almost tongue-in-cheek quality of the music is a really interesting counterpoint to the text, which is largely serious.  Gottschalk shows his extensive jazz chops, per his background as a jazz trombonist.

The “Agnus Dei” is more forbidding and solemn, reminding us that this is, after all, a Requiem.  Dark, dissonant string and brass passages carry us on a murky voyage.  Here, the Stravinskian influence is clearly back, as we hear slow timpani ostinati underpinning the middle section.  The movement is tonal, but “wrong-note” tonal in true Stravinskian fashion.

“Lux Aeterna” features striking choral harmonies that serve well the shimmering theme of light.  The composer knows his topoi and avails upon the extensive harmonic lexicon of musical semiotics to serve the text.  One always risks dreadful cliche when one avails upon topoi, but the writing here is deft and charming, briefly visting our old friend, the Lydian mode, before turning back to muscular a serious brass punctuation.

Smartly, the “Libera Me” is built on African-American spiritual themes.  Yet, there is a synthesis between the materials Gottschalk appropriates and the materials he invents out of whole cloth.  Cross-cultural appropriation is always risky, but Gottschalk is very respectful of his material.  The orchestra, which, being Russian, has no particular background for this kind of music, is very convincing.  They are pros, to be sure.  The “Precious Lord” adaptation is quite moving in particular.  It is almost as if Russians themselves know a thing or two about oppression.

The “In Paradisum” is a brass-based fanfare affair.  Its quartal (fourth-based) harmonies and moderate pace are appropriately stentorian, and the counterpoint is, of course, expert.  The entrance of the chorus is very grand, and the deployment of woodwinds, particularly piccolo and bass clarinet, in support of the chorus is a very welcome device.  The piece ends where it begins, with quartal harmonies, brass fanfare, and great power.

That’s where the piece, proper, ends.  But the disc provides an alternate version of the “Introit” as its last track.  So the aesthetic effect of the disc itself is that we end where we begin.  The alternate version is a bit more quick-paced than the first track, and both versions have something to recommend each.  The alternate version has a greater sense of urgency, but the original version has perhaps greater profundity.

All in all, this is a massive, and massively important, contribution to the Requiem literature, the canon of works for orchestra and choir, to 9/11-themed works, and the postmodern concert music movement.  An hour’s worth of music flies by.  Flies.  It is time well-spent, and represents the veteran composer’s crowning achievement.

Legitimately released excerpts from the album can be heard here.

-Robert Gross

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