Reimagining a Requiem: Using the text/musical structure interface in vocal music

In 2017, I was delighted to be commissioned to write a setting of The Requiem Mass for The Westminster Williamson Voices by Dr James Jordan. The commission was for a large-scale work for choir and crotales (a pitched percussion instrument) to be premiered in a concert setting, with the premiere to take place in April 2018 in Princeton Abbey Chapel, Princeton (USA).


Both the full text and individual sections of the Requiem Mass have been regularly set to music for many centuries and continue to be set today.[1] What could my setting of The Requiem Mass add to this body of work? To begin setting the text, I turned to a model of practice I had developed for setting texts to music.


A Model of Practice


As part of my ongoing research into the interface between text and musical structure (understood as an abstract form derived from the text’s themes and secondary research into those themes, from which harmony, motive and timbral progression have been derived), I devised a methodological model to approach setting text to music.


The model consists of a cycle of six distinct stages: stages 1, 2 and 3 are concerned with research-led practice whereas 4, 5 and 6 relate to practice-led research. The cycle can move forwards or backwards: the themes identified, for example, can influence choice of text - or the writing of music can influence the way musical structure is applied to the text.[2] It ‘accommodates practice-led research and research-led practice’, creative work and secondary research.[3]


In each of the stages, artistic freedom is of fundamental importance ­– including in the selection of text, themes, secondary research and musical ideas. This selection process is often intuitive and, in some cases, arbitrary. There are, for instance, many excellent texts and secondary research which were not chosen or used. It is the process of developing compositional ideas that is at the heart of this methodology. I have outlined below how each of these stages influenced the writing of Requiem.


Figure 1. The model of practice developed to approach setting texts to music.

Identify text to set


The Requiem Mass is for the repose of the souls of the dead. Whilst many of the individual texts of the Requiem Mass (such as the Requiem Aeternam and Dies Irae) have been used for centuries or even millennia, the structure and use of these texts has been under constant revision. The most recent, from 1970, is the text which has been used as the basis for writing Requiem.[4]


Identifying themes within that text


When examining the text, the themes which stood out to me were immediate; grief (for the loss of a loved one), ritual and hope for redemption. I decided to base my secondary research around these general themes.


Conduct secondary research into those themes


In the Autumn of 2017, I saw the painting ‘The Magdalen Weeping’ by an anonymous Netherlandish Artist of the mid-sixteenth century.[5] What struck me in viewing the painting was the juxtaposition of visible grief with religious ritual. The painting displays the Magdalen wearing an early depiction of the rosary necklace, a string of beads which are used to count the component prayers of a prayer ritual known as the Rosary, whilst weeping.[6] This depiction of emotion and ritual together led me to reconsider how I could approach setting the text of the Requiem to music. Applying a musical structure to the text that uses a contemporary ritual of grieving could recontextualise and reimagine the text.

Figure 2. The Magdalen Weeping

After reading numerous articles on responses to grief, including scientific, psychological and personal accounts, I came across a process of grief observed by Rodebaugh, Schwindt and Valentine, published in the journal Nursing, written in 1999.[7] Rodebaugh outlines four stages that those grieving endure: ‘reeling’, from the shock of loss; ‘feeling’, an outpouring of emotion, sometimes including anger and sorrow; ‘dealing’, going through the processes of coming to terms with the loss; and ‘healing’, where ‘anguish softens’.[8]


Use that secondary research to inspire the creation of musical structures


I found these subheadings very compelling; they gave the process of grieving an almost ritualistic quality. The musical structure of Requiem was therefore based around these four stages, creating a single work with four distinct movements.


Apply that musical structure to the original text


Once I had decided on my musical structure, I then applied it to the original text. I was able to apply the text to these four movements because of the concert (rather than liturgical) setting in which the piece was to be performed. The text mapped on to this structure well; the ordering of texts has therefore not been changed; following the normal structure found in the liturgy.

Figure 3. Rodebaugh, Schwindt and Valentine’s four stages of grief, musical structure and organisation of the text.

Write the music


Each movement is characterised by the description of that stage as described by Rodebaugh, Schwindt and Valentine. [9] A harmonic refrain and chant of ‘Requiem Aeternam’, then signals the transition to the next stage of the grieving process (and the next movement).


The opening movement is used in part as an exposition of important musical elements of Requiem. Rodebaugh suggests that at this stage a person exhibiting grief is not able to coalesce one’s ideas - thus a ‘cloud’ of melodies seemed appropriate.[10] In order to reinforce this, melodies in this cloud come from a number of sources, including the Gregorian plainchant setting of The Requiem Mass as well as my own invention. The movement also introduces the idea of ‘ritual’ being an important part of the piece, with the crotales chiming twenty times (one for each decade of the Rosary) once every seven bars (the number of prayers in each decade) to allude to the Rosary ritual.


The second movement begins with a transition to an outpouring of emotion, characterised by an increasing tempo and glissandi (a continuous pitch slide), in which declamatory writing is contrasted with simpler and more restrained ‘sorrowful’ textures and harmonies. In this stage, ‘feelings’ can be manifested in anger and sorrow, so the movement has a three-part structure, with a ‘sorrowful’ central section featuring musical writing akin to Anglican chant in between the opening and closing declamatory statements of ‘Dies Irae’ and ‘Tuba Mirum’.

Figure 4. Transition to an outpouring of emotion - characterised by glissandi and increasing tempo in the second movement of ‘Requiem’ (bars 92-99)

The final movement seeks to complete the grieving process with ‘healing’, making reference to melodic, textural and harmonic material already made, before moving to a polyphonic setting of the word ‘alleluia’ and drifting off with two solo sopranos repeating the word ‘requiem’ as they slowly leave the performance area.


Requiem was published by GIA Publications, Chicago in 2018 and a CD featuring the piece will be released by The Same Stream Choir.[11]



Peter Relph is a composer from the North West of England. His music, strongly influenced by medieval chant and the folk music of his home in the Lake District (UK), has been performed across Europe and North America by a number of ensembles. These include Scottish Opera (Glasgow, UK), The Westminster Williamson Voices (Princeton, USA), The Same Stream Choir (Philadelphia, USA), and Magdalene College Chapel Choir (Cambridge, UK). He is founder and musical director of the vocal group Anchorae. His music is published by GIA Publications (Chicago).


Keywords: music, musical structure, model of practice, Requiem, mass, ritual, grief


References: [1] Requiem Survey. (2018). Requiem Numbers. [online] Available at: http://requiemsurvey.org/requiems.php. [Accessed 16 May 2021]. [2] This dynamic approach resonates with the ‘iterative, cyclic web’ model of practice-led research proposed by Smith and Dean and the Geneplore model which characterises the creative process as ‘generate-explore-select-generate’. Smith, H. and Dean, R. (2010). ‘Introduction’, in Smith, H. and Dean, R. (eds.) Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice in the Creative Arts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pp. 1-38. p.21. Freyd, J. and Pantzer, T. Static. (1995). ‘Patterns moving in the mind’, in Smith, S., Ward, T. and Finke, A. (eds.) The Cognitive Approach. Cambridge: MIT Press. pp.181-204. p. 181. [3] Smith and Dean, (2010). p. 21. [4] The Catholic Diocese of Richmond. (2013). Office of Worship. [online] Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20130311083420/http://www2.richmonddiocese.org/worship/liturgies/funeral.htm. [Accessed 16 May 2021]. [5] The National Gallery. (2017). The Magdalen Weeping. [online] Available at: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/workshop-of-master-of-the-magdalen-legend-the-magdalen-weeping. [Accessed 16 May 2021]. [6] This is one of the earliest depictions of the rosary necklace in art. The National Gallery. (2017). [7] Rodebaugh, L. Schwindt, R. and Valentine, F. (1999). ‘How to handle grief with wisdom’, Nursing, (29)10, pp. 52-53. p. 52. [8] Ibid., p. 52. [9] Ibid., p. 52. [10] Ibid., p. 52. [11] Relph, P. (2018). Requiem. Chicago: GIA Publications.

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