Yesterday I attended a superb performance of Brahms's German Requiem at one of our large downtown churches. This has been the setting for 9/11 memorial concerts since the "Rolling Requiem" of 2002, when Mozart's Requiem was sung worldwide at 8.46 a.m. local time. Yesterday's concert was at 4, the tail end of a sultry day. I had hesitated at the thought of a church choir and pick up orchestra tackling a work I was used to hearing on recordings from Vienna, Prague or Boston. But this was snobbishness on my part. Two church choirs and a small orchestra performed splendidly. They sang in English, in a translation very close to the old and new testament texts. When I was younger, I remember thinking that Brahms didn't get it. I wanted thunder and lighting. I wanted the heavens to roll and open up. I wanted Verdi. Maybe Mahler. I didn't want the huge, comforting and enveloping sound that is Brahms. I'm glad I got older.
There are no Latin texts. Brahms chose biblical passages-auf Deutsche of course-that resonated most with him.
My mind has gone back to a recording of Mozart's Requiem that's over forty years old. We all remember where we were on 9/11/01. Some of us remember November 22, 1963. I was in second grade in Massachusetts, and I remember the day very well. Parents were waiting to take the kids home from school that afternoon. Unusual, since most of us walked to school (you could do that safely in 1963, even if you were six years old. We all did.) Now, I grew up on the periphery of Irish Boston, in the waning but glorious days of no show jobs and pictures of the Sacred Heart (bleeding) on bedroom walls. When I got home from school that Friday afternoon I remember my mother in front of the old black and white TV (nobody, but nobody, had color) with rabbit ear antennae aimed at the ceiling. Mother had her rosary beads going full blast and had a highball going, too: "Jesus! Mary! and Joseph!" The phone rang with aunts and uncles and sixth cousins from East Boston checking in. We only saw them at wakes, and well...Everything from "His poor mother and father!" to "Oh, my God, those kids!" to the most repeated phrase (I remember this clearly) "Look at Jackie, God love her. She didn't change her dress, poor soul".
In 1963, Marilyn was a dead actress, JFK loved only his wife, Chappaquiddick was real estate and the sight of John-John saluting sent all of my people to a bottle of Four Roses and the Sorrowful Mysteries. The Kennedys were royalty in Boston.
I went rummaging for the recording of Mozart's Requiem, as performed by the Boston Symphony and the Chorus Pro Musica with the Harvard-Radcliffe Choirs and the Seminarians of St. John's. I found it, on two battered and nearly uplayable LPS (I had to dig out my turntable, too.) This was recorded in Boston's Holy Cross Cathedral on January 19, 1964. The full requiem mass was celebrated by Cardinal Cushing, with Mozart's music performed in context. Erich Leinsdorf conducted.
The Kennedy family attended. This was televised, too, and you can bet we all went to 7 a.m. mass that morning to be home in time. The eyes at home that day were less on Jackie than on Mrs. Kennedy. Let's make this clear: Back then, "Mrs. Kennedy" meant the family matriarch ("Our President's Mother") as Dominic Dunne called her recently, "The queen of Irish society." Not the daughters in law (God!) and not even the former first lady, as proud as everyone was of her. A few years later, there was RFK's televised funeral. Mother and the girls got out the beads again and poured the drinks. "Would you believe they put a camera right on Mrs. Kennedy right during the mass? And she turned and She Gave Them Such a Look they took that camera right offa her."
Group mourning is comforting, and music is the quickest way to get to the souls and minds of people. My recording of the 1964 Boston based Kennedy memorial Mozart requiem is barely playable. Years ago I put it on tape, and now I can't find the tapes. I remember the performance was large, overwhelming, and slow and stately enough to drive Historically Informed Performance Practice Mavens to distraction. It fit the occasion. My community honored us this past weekend with a splendid performance of the German Requiem of Brahms. All volunteer with little rehearsal. The poignancy of this performance given on 9/11/05 as a fundraiser for hurricane Katrina victims was profound. We gave our money, admired the singing and playing of our neighbors and forty one years after the Mozart Requiem in Boston, we still had the music.