Thursday, November 19, 2009

Survey: Which Requiem Mass is the Greatest?

Dear John Rutter,

Of course today, I say your requiem is best, for I have heard live at my own church.

But there are so many wonderful Requiems out there, and I have rattled on about them many times.

My surveys don't usually gather many participants (sadly), so this time I decided to join with a survey that someone else is successfully conducting and simply report their results here.

To vote for your favorite requiem mass, go here. Vote in the little yellow and blue box on the left. Someone who is interested can learn lots about requiems at that site, including yours, Mr. Rutter.

What I enjoyed about hearing the requiem in church was that it wasn't a show. We followed the piece through the service of worship. That is what it is about, and I would enjoy worshiping this way every single week, though I understand why choirs might resist. Even one full mass per year demands an inordinate amount of rehearsal.

But oh, it is so worth it. My favorite moment was when I found myself on my knees waiting to be served the Eucharist. It is such a beggarly moment each week, acceding to reality. And that was when your Agnus Dei broke upon my heart.

After the service, I chatted with one of the sopranos about the difficulty of singing this piece because the time signature keep changing from 4/4 to 2/4 to 3/4.

But it was not that brought me to tears, on my knees, as I received the body and blood of Jesus Christ. (Listen round about minute 3:20 and following.) It was not the drum, drum, drum, drum of the typany. It was not the critical blare of the brass. Or yes, yes it was that of course, partly. But more, it was the truth of those words:

"Whom may I seek for succour, whom may I seek for succour, whom? Agnus Dei, qui tollis pecatta mundi. Yes, in the midst of life, we are in death, but you are the resurrection and the life."

So, John, I don't really know who has written the best of the requiem masses, but I do know this: My soul is touched by this music that celebrates not death, but the life that rises from the death we experience in this life.


Friday, November 06, 2009

Grimshaw's History

Dear William Grimshaw,

Dear me, what a find and what an unutterable delight the other day I experienced browsing in the $2.00 book section of the used book room at the public library. There this was on the shelf, tucked near several copies of Harnett Kane's New Orleans Woman.

I find it remarkable that this tome has been around since before the Civil War. In fact it is so worn that I imagine it was carried in the pack of some erstwhile schoolboy who hoped to hide from the savagery of his current situation in your discursives of the savageries of the past.

The History of England, from the first invasion by Julius C├Žsar, to the accession of William the Fourth, in eighteen hundred and thirty: Philadelphia, Grigg & Elliot, 318 p. This is the book from which school children learned of Julius Caesar and Richard the Lion Hearted in the middle years of the 19th century.

And though I could, through the marvels of Google, click through a volume online, I am thrilled to be able, carefully, to page through my own copy complete with pencil markings that have already brought me no end of great joy. I certainly agree with the reader who penciled the parenthesis below. Did she create the line as a mark of incredulity? Nonetheless, it is appropriate to draw our attention to the amazing longevity of men of Yorkshire and Killingsworth.

Grimshaw, your renown* is well deserved. It seems that you wrote and wrote, history upon history, factoid upon factoid. And if your research was less than demanding and meticulous than, perhaps, it should have been, it still gives us an accounting of stuff from the perspective of bygone days and bygone eyes.

But, it isn't really the history that I care about so much. I love the pages of text, mildewed and yellowed. I love the way the leafs of paper have become freckled, and wonder whether melanin in the pages increased from exposure to sun as some avid reader lay on the sand and paged through the perils of the Saxon Heptarchy that threw the Britains back to ancient barbarity.

I love to imagine that your histories, in this very book, in this very volume, touched and passed from pillar to post, from shelf to shelf over the years, starting from the Grigg and Elliot warehouse in 1843, somehow connect me with a string of actual people, actual readers over the years, from pupils to bibliophiles.

Am I related with this little tome, held between my fingers to someone in a Boston school rooms in 1858 or to a student in a farmhouse in New Jersey in the 1872? I imagine I can hear the breathing of a girl, stealing out to the orchards and climbing to a low branch to read of Ethelbald, Ethelbert, Ethelred, Ethelwolf, and Alfred. She wondered perhaps, what it was that made Ethelbald a profligate prince, and Alfred virtuous.

And though your book concludes with a list of eminent folk who died, including Lord Byron, in the reign of King George the Fourth, who himself died in June of 1930, my enjoyment doesn't rest on death, but on the lives of those whose minds and eyes fed their curiosity on the antiquities you preserved.

Bless you. Bless them.


*Appleton's Cyclopaedia of American Biography2, published in 1888. The following citation was provided:
GRIMSHAW, William, author, b. in Greencastle, Ireland, in 1782; d. in Philadelphia, Pa., in 1852. He emigrated to the United States in 1815, and lived many years in Philadelphia. Among his works were an "Etymological Dictionary" (Philadelphia, 1821); "Gentleman's Lexicon," and "Ladies Lexicon" (1829), "Merchants' Law Book," "Form Book," "American Chesterfield," "Life of Napoleon," and school histories in England, France, Greece, the United States, Rome, South America, and Mexico, with questions and keys. He also published revised editions of Goldsmith's histories of Rome and Greece, of Ramsay's "Life of Washington," and of Baine's "History of the Wars Growing Out of the French Revolution."