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  • Requiem for the Fall
  • Carol D. Marsh (bio)

If I were a composer, I’d create a Requiem Mass and entitle it Requiem for the Fall.

I’d compose Requiem for the Fall because I want not to forget.

I want not to forget because I believe in prayers for mercy.

A Requiem is a funeral Mass, from the Latin Missa pro defunctis, “mass for the dead.” Since high school, I’ve sung soprano in requiems composed by Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giuseppe Verdi, Johannes Brahms, John Rutter, and Gabriel Fauré, often wailing as much as singing, throat a living passage for the hopeful, angry, frightened, beseeching grief that is the voice of we who are left behind.

A Requiem typically begins with the Introit, which sets the tonality of the piece and often indicates themes to come. [End Page 121]

These are the colors of a candle flame: blue at the bottom; orangey-brown in the middle; yellow from there to the top of the flame, just below where grey smoke lifts and curls.

These are the colors of an atom bomb: white; then yellow; then orange-red that becomes violet. Finally, the grey mushroom cloud rising, enormous.

These are the colors of a documentary I saw about Hiroshima in 1972 when I was seventeen: black and white and grey.

Originally written in Latin—the language of the Catholic Church until the mid-1960s—the Mass was chanted by the priest. Later, composers used the structure, words, and settings and set them to music. For centuries, composers stayed with Latin. More recently, requiems have been written in English—Rutter’s, for example. Brahms’ is in German.

I was once a teenager who learned about the bombing of Hiroshima and then went home to dinner. Before we ate, my mother, in a longtime tradition, lit a candle. A taper in a bottle. The six of us, four kids seated on the longer sides of the rectangular wood table, my parents opposite each other at the ends, in the blue kitchen with my sister’s framed embroidery on the wall: No matter where I serve my guests, it seems they like my kitchen best. We called them romantic drippings, the way the wax flowed warmly down the bottle before cooling into formations simultaneously random and gentle. [End Page 122]

Robert Oppenheimer named the first atom-bomb test site Trinity, though later he couldn’t recall why. The men—scientists who’d lived and worked at Los Alamos building the world’s latest and most efficient weapon of mass destruction—assembled twenty miles away from Trinity on a July early morning, 1945, in the New Mexico desert. Martin J. Sherwin and Kai Bird described the scene in American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer: “All of a sudden, the night turned into day and it was tremendously bright, the chill turned into warmth; the fireball gradually turned from white to yellow to red as it grew in size and climbed into the sky; after about five seconds the darkness returned but with the sky and the air filled with a purple glow, just as though we were surrounded by an aurora borealis.” Then, an “unearthly hovering cloud.”

I watched the Hiroshima documentary in my high school social studies class, sitting in one of the martial rows of student desks facing the front of the room and the teacher’s desk. Seeing the film gave me a stiff neck, though whether that was because I had to turn my head to watch the screen set up in the right-front corner of the classroom, or because I had frozen with horror, I don’t know.

Though composers often choose to omit sections and reprise certain phrases, the structure of the Requiem Mass is fixed: the Introit, then the Kyrie, then the Dies irae. Then the Offertorium, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Lux Aeterna, Libera Me. Verdi followed this structure—that of the Latin Requiem Mass—exactly, while Fauré omitted whole sections, and Brahms threw in a section or two of his own invention. [End Page 123]

My parents had precise and detailed instructions about manners. Elbows off the table. Don...


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