Many over-60s remember vividly the horrific day when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot, though probably a substantially smaller subset can recall the televised memorial service that took place two months later at Boston’s Holy Cross Cathedral in which Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony, together with a large chorus and distinguished soloists, presented Mozart’s Requiem in the context of a Solemn Pontifical Mass celebrated by Richard Cardinal Cushing. That historic moment [available on CD here] was recalled 50 years later to the day in a performance Sunday at Holy Cross by the Schiller Institute Chorus and freelance orchestra under John Sigerson.
According to lore, Cushing and Leinsdorf agreed on the Mozart Requiem partly for aptness, a work written by a composer who died young commemorating a president also struck down too early. It was a departure for Roman Catholic Church music at the time. According to Thomas Day, “The Requiem Mass in Boston was indeed shocking to many American Catholics; it represented the beginning of a new era. After that singing of the Mozart Requiem in Holy Cross Cathedral, I never heard ‘Mother, at Your Feet Is Kneeling’ in a Catholic church again (although I am told that it is not dead yet). Of course I never heard Mozart’s Requiem again either.”
The performance Sunday was not presented within the context of a Mass. Rather, it was offered with introductory talks and interpolated speeches of JFK. Before Master of Ceremonies Mathew Ogden closed with excerpts from Cushing’s eulogy, “…the Geniuses of Art and Leadership were joined at this event,” we heard over 35 minutes of salutes and lofty sentiments from Ambassador Ray Flynn, Helga Zepp LaRouche, and, by letter, from City Councilor Steven Murphy and the president of the Irish Republic, Michael D. Higgins. No one can argue with the exhortations to eliminate poverty and disease, or to free the artist to follow his calling.
Before the music began, we heard several minutes of JFK oratory. His voice spoke to us again before and after the Offertory, offering a surprising number of paeans to technology—space exploration and nuclear technology chiefly—but the importance of American exceptionalism was also a message in the familiar words.
When the orchestra (mostly NEC students and Boston freelancers, with a smattering of Schiller Institute members) opened with the moving Introit, the well-executed walking bass and soaring clarinet reassured us that we would be hearing a polished traditional performance, no doctrinaire early-music approach. The playing was legato and sumptuous, filling the mammoth space with satisfying sonorities. The cleancut chorus entered with a fine wall of sound—suitably terrifying in the Dies irae. Throughout, their articulation coped with the reverberation: dynamics and accents were defined, and entrances were clean even in the fast fugal sections.
The Tuba mirum opened with a Joshua-like solo from the unnamed trombonist, leading to baritone Ron Williams’s mellifluous waking of the dead. In the low-lying portions, he was not helped by the Schiller Institute’s campaign to lower modern pitch to 432 Hz in accord with Verdi’s dictum. But later in the vocal quartets, the work of the very lyric tenor William Ferguson and soaring soprano Nataly Wickham may have been eased by the quartertone drop, although the effect upon the moving mezzo Heather Gallagher seemed negligible. One would have to ask the choristers if they noticed any changes in their levels of comfort.
The version of the requiem we heard was Franz Xaver Herr Doktor Seussmayr’s. Since, according to our advisor, Robert Levin, “We have nothing in Mozart’s handwriting for the Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and Lux aeterna,” we can thank Süssmayr for those pleasing sections. What Robert Levin has done to complete Mozart’s work is estimable and convincing, but it was probably appropriate to reenact only the version used in the 1964 performance.
The unusual event provided the large and patient audience a satisfying and appropriate tribute to the 35th President.
Afterward we asked Music Director John Sigerson about the sponsoring group [Wiki article here], which was new to us.
BMInt: Is the Schiller Institute some kind of cult? Can we expect more events like this one?
John Sigerson: Not at all. We are all inspired by that great American Lyndon LaRouche, and by his identity in helping the arts thrive. His wife, Helga Zepp LaRouche, founder of the Schiller Institute, is also a music scholar with an additional interest in Nicholas of Cusa [1401-1464] and the [1439-1445] Council of Florence. We have more events planned, but I shouldn’t tell you about them.