We are entering a season of Remembrance, book-ended by All Souls’ Day and Remembrance Sunday. There is barely a choir in Cambridge that isn’t currently preparing one of Fauré, Duruflé or Victoria’s Requiems; and organists are busily setting registrations for what is, in the case of many of our College choirs, the first truly public-facing performance of the year.

All Souls’ is the quintessential College occasion, if one considers why colleges were established in the first place. For education, certainly; but also to care for the souls of those members who have passed on. Those foundations created before the Reformation were designed in part to fulfil the obligations on the living implicit in the theology of Purgatory: the responsibility to pray for those who are passing through Purgatory to the Paradise beyond. And it is perhaps no surprise that the earliest polyphonic settings of the Requiem mass come from a time – the late 15th century – when Colleges and religious guilds were being founded or expanded with the help of significant endowments. 

Today, All Souls’, or All Hallows’ is recast in a secular form, with Hallowe’en dominating the messaging at large. At my own College, St Catharine’s, we invite to the All Souls’ service the relatives of recently deceased College members: a reminder of the fact that College membership begins as a fresher or ‘matriculand’, and concludes only at death. It is a sobering and moving testament to the continuity of religious traditions under the surface of an apparently all-pervasive secularism.  

When I interviewed for my current job, almost twenty years ago, I was asked by the then chaplain what music I might programme for this type of service. Full of enthusiasm at that time for the penitential motets of the Renaissance master Orlandus Lassus, I described in zealous detail the exquisite despair of Lassus’s Readings from the Book of Job (Lectiones ex Prophetae Job). The music is sublime; but if any Biblical texts should warrant a trigger warning, it might be these. The set concludes with the poet resigned to a life in ‘a land that is dark and covered with the mist of death: a land of misery and darkness, where the shadow of death, and no order, but everlasting horror dwelleth.’ 

The interview panel were, it seems, looking for reportorial suggestions which were somewhat more consolatory in tone; and – quite rightly, the focus for the programme at the St Catharine’s All Souls’ event is more uplifting. But the Requiem mass itself articulates a theology which, taken as it was originally intended, is deliberately disturbing. Fauré and Duruflé dramatically evoke the ‘pains of Hell’ and ‘the Lion’s mouth’ as the Day of Judgement comes upon us. It is not for me to say how our congregations interpret these lines; though at a time when the presence of death is so much more real and vivid, we might recast that ancient sensibility as an expression of the fear of loss and the anguish of bereavement. What is evident is that, however you wish to interpret it, there is no doubting the sense of consolation bestowed by this transcendent music.

This year I have selected Victoria’s sumptuous Requiem for St Catharine’s: to be sung jointly by the Girls’ Choir and College Choir – do listen in on the St Catharine’s College Youtube Channel.

Dr Edward Wickham
Artistic Director, Cambridge Choral Academy

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