The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis

An unusual week is coming up for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO). There will be two concerts in two vastly different venues with different acoustics and very different programs. The only common denominator is the orchestra, the chorus (at least for the first one), and of course, Music Director Stéphane Denève.

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Program number one (the topic of this article) takes place on Wednesday, February 28, at 8 pm at the Cathedral Basilica on Lindell in the Central West End. Technically it’s not a St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert but rather part of the current Cathedral Concerts season, so tickets (which are selling quickly) are available only at the Cathedral Concerts website.

The featured work in this all-French evening is the "Requiem," Op. 48, for chorus, soloists, and orchestra by Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924). The inspiration for the work is not clear, and given that it took over two decades to reach its final form, probably not that important in any case. What is important is how it contrasts so strongly with the requiem masses created by other composers.

Unlike the requiems of, say, Mozart or Verdi, there’s not much in the way of large-scale drama in this music. Judgment Day is absent along with its attendant theatrics. The “Dies Irae” is here, but only as a small part of the larger “Libera me.” And the last of the seven sections—the beautifully tranquil “In Paradisum”—is rarely included in musical settings of the requiem.  

“It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death,” said the composer in a 1902 interview with French musicologist Louis Aguettant. “But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience.”

This means that Fauré’s “Requiem” is of modest proportions, usually running under 40 minutes. Preceding it will be four short works consistent with the theme of comfort and consolation: Faure’s “Pavane”; “Choral sur le nom de Fauré” by Charles Koechlin (1867–1950), Faure’s student at the Paris Conservatoire; the “Pie Jesu” by the brilliant but short-lived Lili Boulanger (1893–1918); and the popular “Pavane pour une infante défunte” by another Fauré student, Maurice Ravel (1875–1937).

The title of that last work is usually translated as “Pavane for a dead princess,” which has the unfortunate tendency to suggest mourning. Ravel had something else in mind, however, describing it as “an evocation of a pavane that a little princess might, in former, times, have danced at the Spanish court." Some things just get lost in translation, alas.

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus along with soprano Brenda Rae and bass-baritone Davóne Tines in Fauré’s “Requiem.” The program also includes works by Ravel, Lili Boulanger, and Charles Koechlin and takes place on Wednesday, February 28, at 8 pm at the Cathedral Basilica on Lindell in the Central West End.

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