Mozart’s “Requiem” and Prayer’s For the Dead

Requiem – Mozart by Gardiner – YouTube.

Over the last few weeks, my girlfriend and I have found ourselves in the presence of some of the most glorious music ever written, including symphonies by Beethoven and cantata’s by Bach.  And while experiencing the fourth movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony is sublime, the work that I am most interested in addressing is Mozart’s Requiem which we saw performed at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston.  I claim no musical expertise.  I play no instruments, my sense of rhythm is shoddy, and my voice is an insult to shower singers everywhere.  Unlike literature and film, in which I have a certain working knowledge, my understanding of music theory and even basic terminology is limited.  I do believe, however, that I can recognize great music when I hear it, and like everyone, I love great music.

That the Requiem was Mozart’s final work (and what a finalé to an astonishing oeuvre!) is unquestioned, but what has become a rather well known piece of music lore maintains that while writing it (at the behest of a generous benefactor) the great composer was well aware of his impending death and focused all of his passion and energies into completing what he might well have considered his own funeral music.  Whether this is true or not (I tend to think so) is up for debate, but the music speaks for itself, and like Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, it sings out with the fervor of a dying man’s final plea for mercy on the souls of dying men.  Kyrie Eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.  Lord, have mercy on us.  Christ, have mercy on us.  Lord, have mercy on us.

The Requiem’s merits as a work of art and music have been well established, probably from its very first performance, but what of its merits as a work of theology?  I find it very difficult to separate the two, because the very tone, substance, and spirit of the music is derived from its theological intent, namely an extended prayer for the dead: a Mass set to music.  The often grim texture of the music reflects the grimness of its subject matter: death and the hope of posthumous salvation.  As far as I can tell, the idea that the living can, through prayer, influence the souls of the dead–specifically, those souls in Purgatory–is exclusive to Catholic theology (and ancient Orthodox Judaism).  The Eastern mystic might claim that there is no such thing as death, only the transference of one energy into another, thus there is no sense in praying for those who have merely altered states; for the Protestant it might seem like little more than a quaint anachronism, instead claiming that one’s eternal destination is determined in life and cannot be altered afterwards; and to the atheist, the very notion of praying for the dead might seem like borderline lunacy, for death has to it a grave finality.  Yet to the Catholic, it is an essential part of the Christian life dating back to the early, primitive Church, and to St. Paul, and inherited from Orthodox Judaism from before the era of the Maccabees.  There are prayers, services, and Masses devoted to those who have passed away, and none more beautiful than the Requiem Mass.

But beyond the historical evidence which confirms that the public practice dates back a good deal further than many of its opponents would suggest, praying for the dead is inseparably linked to the doctrine known as “the communion of the saints” which holds that what St. Paul metaphorically referred to as the “body of Christ” (i.e. the Church) is composed not only of the living followers of Christ, but of the departed–the Saints in Heaven and those souls in Purgatory.  Salvation, therefore, it would seem, is not a purely individual effort, but one in which the entire body of Christ takes part and is held accountable for.  Unlike Cain who denied responsibility for his brother (in order to hide his crime), we–both the living and the dead–are in part responsible for each others well being, for the body need all of its parts in order to function fully.  Far from being either morbid or sentimental (as it has alternately been accused), the communion of saints and consequently, public prayers for the dead, is a doctrine of compassion and brotherhood in which the intercessor and those for whom he/she prays are bound together in hope and love.

I can be quite certain that the Christian doctrine of the communion of the saints is true and be equally certain that Mozart was in no way trying to prove it by writing the Requiem.  It is not an apologetic work, nor an argument, nor is it particularly cerebral (unless, I suppose, you happen to be a music theorist); it is a work of art–and a great one at that–but beyond that, or perhaps because of it, it is also a work of charity and love in which a great artist utilized his considerable talents for the benefit and spiritual enrichment of those whom he had never met, and provided for all time a voice for the voiceless and a song for those who, like myself, might otherwise never hear that eternal melody.  Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.  Grant them eternal rest, Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them.  Amen.