Requiem, Aeternam

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Photo of the West Virginia Symphony Chorus (from the WVSO web site)

You have to be a bit of a masochist to want to sing in a symphony chorus when you are over 60. We just completed performing the Verdi Requiem with the West Virginia Symphony, and over the past 3 days, we sang the choral parts or performed the 85 minute requiem a total of 5 times. Sat in the back of a bus going from Charleston to Morgantown, a 3 hour ride each way on Friday. Was shoehorned into seats on the stage – we had nearly 320 singers, soloists, and symphony members on the stage for last night’s performance in Charleston. About 250 of those were chorus members, waiting for their chance to sing Verdi’s dramatic and poignant melodies.


For us, the work on the Requiem began last spring, as we were finishing up the chorus year and received our copies of the work. We familiarized ourselves with the scores then, and followed up our introduction with a late summer workshop where we went through the entire work. Then each Monday evening after Labor Day we had rehearsals, up through this past Monday (November 6) for two hours. All of us undoubtedly put in extra time cuing up the Requiem on YouTube, working with our scores to help ensure familiarity with each difficult part. Then came the Thursday through Saturday marathon where it all came together.


There really is very little time to put together a massive work like this. The main reason is money – each session with the orchestra for rehearsal or for a performance must be paid. The orchestra musicians put in much more independent time with the scores, since they are professionals and are compensated for their work and time on stage. But the amateurs who are chorus singers had no opportunity to come together until our first rehearsal with the orchestra. We had 5 different choruses join forces for this work. Our Symphony Chorus, and the choruses from 4 different colleges and universities across West Virginia were all represented on the stage.


So on Thursday, we had little more than an hour to practice together without an orchestra, then the orchestra players came in after their contractually mandated dinner break. A 2 1/2 hour session on Thursday, then an afternoon session on Friday after our bus drive up. Two rehearsals was all that we had together as an ensemble to piece together this exquisite work.


Why do we do it? What motivates us to invest the time and energy and money in order to support our singing habit? I’ve seen much writing about music, and its energizing and motivating force. Let me just say that you’ve never felt music’s full power until you are sitting directly behind a professional orchestra, playing some of the most lyrical and powerful music ever written. Then you are invited, nay, urged to lend your voice to the mélange, and not only that, but to sing with full expression and full power as you plead with God to keep from sending you to the pits of hell.


This type of music is difficult. It is always a challenge to sing a fugue, where each vocal part is echoing the other sections, melodies intertwining throughout the section, and it can be devilishly difficult to keep on tempo, and have the correct Latin words come out of your mouth. The challenge is one of the main reasons for doing this – it is because you can, and you are confident enough in your own abilities that you believe you will not crash the concert due to your own mistakes. For although you as a chorus singer cannot make the concert wonderful on your own, each of us had the ability to create huge mistakes that would have ruined at least a part of the performance.


It is difficult to describe the connection between a conductor and a chorus, when both are in synch. The conductor has control of everything going on, and with a dramatic work like the Verdi, our conductor played up the dramatic pauses. We watched, totally engaged and concentrating, as he demonstrated when to begin a phrase where we sang a capella, and when to stop and place the final consonant. That is another reason to do a work like the Verdi, it forces you to concentrate and be fully alive in the moment. There’s not many experiences in life that engage you to that extent.


The main reason, though, that I continue to perform music like this is because it allows me to participate in the creation of beauty that represents the peak of Western civilization (in my opinion). Choral masterworks, especially those of a sacred nature, touch at human emotions in their most naked form. Pathos and pleading to God for mercy for our sinful nature. Lyrical melodies that will stay in my head for months and years as we sang about the lamb of God. Verdi was an opera composer, and is acknowledged as one of the best of all time, but many say that his Requiem was his greatest opera. To be a participant in a performance of such a work is exhilarating to the soul, even though it saps the body and causes knees to ache and feet to throb. That is why I said at the start that you have to be a masochist to participate in such a work, especially if you have a bit of wear and tear on your body. Singing is a physical activity, and the young, especially college students, are best suited to deal with its demands. I do not know how long I will be able to stand its challenges myself, but the rewards of creating and hearing beautiful music from the center of its creation is still worth the pains it creates.


For those who are unfamiliar with the Verdi Requiem, please go to YouTube and enter it. You will see hundreds of performances that have been loaded to the web. Try it, and if you have an ear for romantic music, you will fall under Verdi’s spell as I have.


This post was first loaded to my blog at



Katharine Otto Added Nov 13, 2017 - 2:10pm
My admiration for you, your commitment, and stamina is soaring.  This article, and the group effort that inspired it, does give me hope for humanity.  I hope God (in all guises) was listening and heeds the prayers.
Dave Volek Added Nov 13, 2017 - 8:38pm
We must choose our pastimes and hobbies carefully. There are important skills and attitudes with choral singing (not just singing) that indirectly help the world become a little better than it was before. 
Even A Broken Clock Added Nov 14, 2017 - 9:55am
Thanks, Katharine. I must admit that I was not able to stand for the entire performance. My knees just won't take that.
Dave, I agree. One of the attributes is the ability to willingly take a subordinate role and be just one of many who are aligned towards a common goal. Many people (insert your favorite politician here) would do better if they had the experience of just being one of many instead of being the conductor all the time.
mark henry smith Added Nov 14, 2017 - 3:39pm
EABC, I've sung in church choruses my entire life, on and off and I have to agree that having the power of all that sound, all that beauty coursing through your body from the tactile efforts of other bodies is incomparable.
I pity these kids today who when you say coral music, grimace, who only have an ear for rock and rap. They have no idea about the emotional energy captured in the coral music of Verdi, and Mozart, and Byrd, and on and on, music that invites weeping. Oh what a gift to weep when in the throws of sounds that pull your heartstrings. I cannot ever listen to Mozart's requiem without crying at some point.
When I was singing two years ago, having not sung so seriously in decades, I had to go into training to get in shape so I could have sufficient breath control. I was asked to sing tenor, which I'd never done, I'm a baritone, or counter tenor, and it was one of the hardest lessons of my life. I'm one of those people who almost always picks things up without a glitch, but it took me six months before I even felt decent. I have perfect pitch, so seeing the note was never a problem, but finding it was.
Thank you so much for this exploration of the craft and your wonderful writing. Today, on my first smartphone, I listened to King's College choir performing Allegries? Miserere. Stunning.      
Even A Broken Clock Added Nov 14, 2017 - 4:56pm
Thanks, Mark. Your comment on having to sing tenor rang true with me. When I went to college (as an engineering student), I tried out for the university's Madrigal group, which was the group for freshmen. I had sung bass / baritone growing up, but I did make the group, as a tenor. Talk about intimidation. I was walking into an elite choral group and had to learn a totally different part of the chord - instead of the root, I was now in the middle. And I was a non-music major in a group where probably 2/3 were music majors. But I did persevere, and have sung in churches, in musicals, and in choral groups for all of my life.
I agree with your comments about kids today. I wonder what memories the latest generations will have of the songs of their youth. And I also agree with the Mozart requiem. We did that one a couple of years ago and it was magic.
Phil Greenough Added Nov 15, 2017 - 8:35am
Why do we do it? What motivates us to invest the time and energy and money in order to support our singing habit?
Like anything you do for free, you do it because you enjoy it. 
Even A Broken Clock Added Nov 15, 2017 - 10:09am
It's more than just doing it for free. We pay for the privilege - our chorus is essentially self-funded, and we have dues as well as paying for music and other ancillary costs. But yes, we do it because we enjoy it and choose to spend the money on it.
Phil Greenough Added Nov 15, 2017 - 10:33am
I don’t think you followed my response, things we pay to do we do for ourselves, otherwise we would avoid the expense. 
wsucram15 Added Nov 16, 2017 - 3:05am
ITs like anything we love and believe motivates us, no matter what.
Keep up the great work.  :)
Even A Broken Clock Added Nov 16, 2017 - 10:04am
Jeanne, you are one I thought of as I was writing. Your love of music shows through in your posts and clearly is something that motivates you. A Keep ut the great work to you as well.
Katharine Otto Added Nov 16, 2017 - 11:25am
Clock, Mark Henry, and Jeanne,
I wish I had your training, talent, and experience, but the best I can do is sing along with the radio in the car.  I tell other people to do it, too, as singing is such a great stress-reliever.  It's amazing how shy some people are about singing, including me. 
This thread encourages me to sing more and to talk it up as a health exercise, even for the tone-deaf.