Gabriel Faure, Requiem, Opus 48

A number of my entries covering my teenage days have focused on my crisis of faith, which intensified when I went off to college and started reading books on philosophy. Paradoxically, while losing my faith in the early 1970s, I became more and more fascinated with religious music like Gregorian chants. Today, I’m going to tell you about what really pushed me over the edge.

In my sophomore year, I took a course in ancient Greek philosophy, which immersed me in Plato and Aristotle, on whose writings the fathers of the Catholic church had developed their doctrines. In these dialogs and tracts I found interesting and elegant logical arguments which the authors could use to prove just about anything. While that was intellectually stimulating, it was, after all, just speculation. The author who had the most impact on me, however, was the pre-Socratic, Heraclitus. His ideas somehow resonated with me more than anything, and since he was a contemporary of Lao Tse, that explains why I eventually became interested in Taoism and Buddhism.

Heraclitus spoke in paradoxes that resemble Zen Koans. For example, he said: “All things come into being through opposition, and all are in flux like a river.” Like the eastern yin-yang symbol called the bagwan, the light has a bit of darkness in it and darkness has a bit of light. The goal in life is to find a balance and not deny the one for the other.

Another of my favorites is: “you cannot step into the same river twice.” That is, many things that we think of as permanent are illusory, but at the same time, what lasts is always being renewed. So a while back when I heard scientists start to rave about the fashionable new theory of the world called “chaos” theory, I basically thought, “what took you so long?”

Going back to my old textbook, I find the few fragments that are all that is left of Heraclitus’s works substantial enough to build an entire world view. He said “If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it; for it is hard to find and difficult.” This has become the basis of my optimistic outlook on life. People have the potential to do bad and good things. Despite the horrors of the world around us; despite the nasty ways that people can behave; despite McDonalds; if you just keep your eyes and ears open and expect something good, it will eventually happen. It’s like the Geoffrey Rush, the actor who played theatre manager in the movie “Shakespeare in Love” keeps saying: “Somehow everything works out in the end. It’s just a miracle.”

Well, this is what I believe now and it has become second nature to me, but in 1974, this new way of thinking was displacing my old guilt and original sin fear-based world view but for a while it caused me some anguish. Oddly enough, however, I received a divine sign informing me when it was time to leave the Catholic church.

Near the dorm I lived in during my sophomore year sat a church where I went every Sunday. As the semester wore on, however, and as more and more questions and doubts beset me, it became harder and harder to sit through the sermons and recite prayers that I no longer believed in. One Saturday, I decided to go confession before the evening Mass and talk to the priest about some of my doubts. When I got to church, a line of people had already formed outside the confessional. I sat in the pew reviewing what to say to the priest. The line inched forward, and I went to join it. Then I hesitated and went to sit back down again. The church was starting to fill up for the start of Mass. I looked at the line and just then the priest opened the door to see how many people remained in line. After he went back in, I decided to go up and go through with it. I stood in line and when it was my turn slipped into the confessional, knelt down, and awaited my chance to spill my soul to the priest.

Nothing happened. The sound of rustling came from the priest’s box, and then I heard his door open and shut. He had left!  He had counted how many people were in line before I joined it, heard that many confessions and then left. I chose to take that as a pretty clear message that it was a mutually agreed-upon separation, and that is how I left the Catholic church.

Oh, I still love churches and love works of art inspired and commissioned by the Catholic church. One of my favorite works are the three huge tableaux painted by Caravaggio on the life of St. Matthew which hang in the church, San Luigi Dei Francesi, in Rome. And I still love great big works of religious classical music, like today’sRequiem Mass by Gabriel Faure.

Now, images of cavorting horses or sunny brooks do not usually spring to mind when you think of a requiem, which of course is a mass or a hymn to the dead. One need only think of the requiems of Mozart, Verdi or Brahms to realize these are usually pretty somber pieces, though often beautiful and quite moving. Faure’s Requiem therefore is unique because he wrote it purely for the “pleasure of it.” Of it he also remarked that “Art has every reason to be voluptuous,” and the music in Faure’s Requiem certainly attains that goal. In an interesting footnote, Faure reportedly said he wanted sopranos “who had known love” to sing in the Requiem not “old goats who have never known love.”

From start to finish, this mass conveys not a sense of loss or the pain and suffering associated with death. Rather, Faure tries to convey a sense of release, relief and peace. It is odd that the texts he chose for the music focus on the last judgement, which of course, is when God throws the sinners into the everlasting lake of burning fire. Here I find a perfect, Zen-like balance between the depiction of the fate of the damned and the sacred music.

The last movement, called In Paradisum sung by a boy’s choir, accompanied by a twittering organ, is such an ethereal work, that it almost gives you chills. They sing: “May the angels receive thee in paradise.” Were one to believe in heaven and hell, one could imagine this music being a fitting reward for a life well lived and playing non-stop on the 24-hour classics radio station in heaven.

Paradox. That for me is what life is all about and what makes it so interesting. In my lifetime, I’ve seen increasingly insane evil:  high school shootings in Colorado, the World Trade Center, Abu Ghraib, serial killers and cannibalism.  The paradox of human nature constantly stares us in the face.  For example, while highly unbalanced boys at Columbine High, so out of touch with reality laughed with glee as they shot their fellow students, another was comforting a young girl, near hysterics out of fear for her life. This latter boy, when interview as to how he coped said “I just had to focus on keeping together so that I could comfort her, so she wouldn’t totally lose it.” Now that is a person who has found the key to life.

Buy CD or Download MP3s of Faure’s Requiem at Amazon

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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