Composer John Harbison on Grief, Time and Recording His Requiem with the Nashville Symphony

May 11, 2017

One of the most staggering aspects of the experience of grief is the unrelenting march of time. Your life seems to come to a screeching halt, but the outside world will continue to spin, the sun will rise and your neighbors will take out their garbage on trash day. This “inexorability of the passage of time” is an experience that preoccupied John Harbison as he worked on a requiem, the centuries-old sacred music tradition associated with loss and mourning.

On Friday and Saturday, the Nashville Symphony and Chorus will perform — and make the premiere recording of — Harbison’s Requiem. We spoke with Harbison — who has received both the Pulitzer Prize for Music and a MacArthur Fellowship for his work — about creating his musical expressions of loss and the upcoming performances with the Nashville Symphony.

On The Moments That Fueled The Requiem

While Requiem was completed in 2002, Harbison had been working on it in fits and starts for nearly two decades prior, feeling moved to compose when grief entered his life.

“I spontaneously composed the first movement after the death of a close friend,” Harbison explains, going on to cite more of the chance moments that inspired him to continue his work. In 1995, Harbison was asked by the Stuttgart Bachakademie to be one of 13 international composers to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII. Each composer was responsible for writing a single movement that, when joined, created the collective Requiem of Reconciliation. Harbison's movement now lives inside his own piece. 

Because of moments like these, half of Requiem was complete when Harbison received a commission to finish the work from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was the first week of September, 2001. Days later, the attacks of 9/11 would shake the country to its core. Harbison says his purpose in composing a requiem became clearer, citing his desire to express the “commonality of love and loss.”

"[Requiems have] a quality of ritual that is very moving, even if listeners don't understand Latin," he says, emphasizing how musical language can transcend words to express a core human emotion like grief. 

At the same time that Harbison recognizes the long tradition of communal mourning through requiems, he also shies away from assertions that his requiem is about 9/11, instead affirming the personal nature of grief. While he didn’t personally know anyone who died in the attacks, he thought of his many friends who were closely affected by it. Composing Requiem, he says, has “always been about the loss of the voice that you know.”

On Expressing Grief And Time Through Music

Because requiems have such a long history, it’s hard for critics, performers and even Harbison himself to avoid comparisons between this work and some of the great requiems of the past. Program notes and reviews tend to mention that Harbison’s piece starts in D minor, the same as Mozart’s famed requiem. Unlike Britten’s War Requiem, Harbison made the choice to forgo adding additional poetry, sticking solely with the Latin texts. He points out that he and Fauré are among the few composers who chose to end their works with the non-canonical movement “In Paradisum.”

Composer Gabriel Fauré

“He leaves all the darker parts out,” Harbison says in reference to Fauré and his romantic, largely consonant piece. When pressed on what he means, Harbison explains that the musical treatment of a requiem has a lot to do with the composer’s personal approach to grief: “the emphasis,” he says, “is chosen according to beliefs.”

Harbison’s own experience of grief, and in turn his musical choices, have a lot to do with time.  He brings up a common phrase, usually uttered by well-meaning bystanders of suffering: “now the healing can begin.”

“In my experience, the healing never happens.” Harbison says. “As time passes, you just learn to live with it.” And as that time carries on, the pain of loss can flare up again as if it were new, only to subside again for a time.

How do you express the complex, emotional ebb-and-flow of grief in music? For Harbison, “it all has to do with clearly defined role of dissonance and consonance in the music.”

When choral director Tucker Biddlecombe and members of the Nashville Symphony Chorus visited Live in Studio C to share excerpts from Requiem, Biddlecombe pointed out many of the purposeful uses of consonance vs. dissonance, whether it be through the alternation of dense chords with perfect intervals, or by underscoring a consonant triad with a dissonant bass note. “I wanted to make sure that the resolution to consonance was available,” Harbison adds, “but not the whole story.”

On His Collaboration With The Nashville Symphony And Chorus

When Harbison completed his requiem, he was familiar with the skill of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus — the musicians who would perform the piece’s world premiere. “The piece is difficult,” Harbison asserts, “and I think we all had a sense when it premiered that it probably wouldn’t be performed again for a very long time.”

Now, Harbison is thrilled to have the Nashville Symphony and Chorus perform and record the piece, fourteen years later. “My hat is off to these musicians. They have a wonderful mix of skill and heart that will bring something very special to the piece,” he says. It’s an enthusiasm that the composer has enjoyed while sitting in on rehearsals this week: “It’s a wonderful feeling to walk into a rehearsal hall and see the musicians enjoying themselves. It doesn’t always happen,” he adds with a chuckle, “but when it does, it’s wonderful.”

Tags: