Context is everything/nothing

There’s a urban-choral myth that the Howells Requiem was written in response to the sudden death of Howells’ nine-year-old son, Michael, in 1935. In fact, the requiem was actually commissioned by Kings College, Cambridge three years earlier, in 1932–the year Al Capone was sent to prison, Amelia Earhart embarked on her attempt to cross the Atlantic solo, and the third modern-day winter olympics took place in Lake Placid. Howells did in fact finish the piece, but never forwarded the completed manuscript to Cambridge. So it remained an unpublished “secret” for nearly fifty years until, in his very old age, his publisher convinced him to release it in 1980–the same year I was entering kindergarten, the Phillies won the world series, and the game PacMan was released.

The “truthy centers” to this myth are that 1) Michael Howells did indeed pass away at the tragic age of nine, during the same period in Howells’ life that the requiem was composed and 2) following Michael’s death, Howells reworked large swaths of the Requiem, re-imagining and re-combining them, added an orchestration, and created what many argue is his greatest work, the Hymnus Paradisi. Parenthetically, I am not one of those who thinks this is his greatest work–at least it’s certainly not “better” than the Requiem. I’m not convinced it improves anything already accomplished in the original work, to be honest. However, the link above will take you to the the first and fifth (of six) movements of this piece, much of which will be hauntingly familiar to anyone who has sung the Requiem. (Cal State, Fullerton professor Robert Istad’s dissertation centers on both debunking the myth, above, and methodically illustrating how the a cappella Requiem became the choral-orchestral masterwork, Hymnus Paradisi. The whole dissertation is in PDF format, proof that Tim Berners-Lee was onto something back in 1989…)

But here’s the real crux of this post: My first experience with the Requiem was as an undergraduate music education major, and I was taught the myth as well. And, honestly, when I found out the truth years later, I was more than a little uncomfortable with my–dare I say with my disappointment? Was so much of the meaning that I attributed to this piece really so tied up in the context, which turned out in the end to be a fabrication? How would I respond to a new hearing of the piece, and would this new perspective negatively affect my conducting? Would it ultimately be less impactful on me or the ensemble?

Turns out, of course, that the Requiem is a masterpiece viewed through ANY contextual prism–the fact of which honestly has deepened my already considerable appreciation of this work.

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