When music director James Holloway asked me to consider composing a piece for the fifteenth anniversary of The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, he had only one request.
“I’d prefer it not be a requiem,” he commented.
I knew what he meant. This was the summer of 1995. HIV had shadowed the nation through all of that decade and most of the one before: and some of the country’s most eloquent composers—notably John Corigliano, whose Of Rage and Remembrance had been given its first recording only that year, by Washington’s Choral Arts Society and the National Symphony Orchestra—had already voiced the grief and anger the plague left daily in its wake.
What can I add that won’t be mere postscript? I thought. And yet, in this city, for this group in particular, how can I ignore the time we’re living in: a time indisputably defined by AIDS?
I found a text almost immediately, in John L. Mood’s translation of Rilke’s Love and Other Difficulties—a miscellany, really, of essays, letters, and the occasional poem—which contained the following emblazoning lines:
Rilke, in 1921, had sung the kind of determined gratitude I was seeing all about me these days: the will to stay spirited amidst the most dispiriting events. And he’d already limned it in beautiful, proto-choral form.
As The Poet Speaks of Praising begins, the sopranos and altos, in rangy declamation, hurl accusatory questions at the tenors and basses. The men makes no attempt to match the vehemence of the women. They simply sing “I praise” in quiet chant. The female chorus bridles. How can its complex challenges be answered by so simple, so seemingly illogical, a response? Louder, severer, grow its questions. The male chorus, undisturbed, repeats its mantra. Incensed, the female chorus bullies the male chorus into silent waiting (“How, poet, do you still invoke them?”) until, spent by the fury of its accusations, (“What do you do? Poet?”) it falls silent enough to listen.
Now the male chorus, as if instructing, unfolds for the first time the chaconne of which its responses were but one gesture. Its tonic is B, but its scale is imaginary, pausing on major triads built on C, E-flat, and F before returning to the home chord. Its gestures are invariably tranquil, priestly, moderate. Three lines materialize—low or soaring, exposed or interwoven, whispered or trumpeted—and it’s only when the female chorus joins the vocal procession that two more lines enrich the texture. At last, their rôles reversed, the male chorus asks only one question of the larger group: “I praise,” responds the chorus, united at last,as the piece concludes.
For their belief in the work and their disciplined, passionate rehearsal, I thank James Holloway, The Capital Club, and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington. For his assiduous work on the original manuscript, I thank Kent Ashcraft: and, for a thousand reasons, not least for his astute and imaginative commentary on this score, I thank John Corigliano.
Rainer Maria Rilke
Tr. John L. Mood
Oh, speak, poet, what do you do?
But the monstrosities and the murderous days,
How do you endure them, how do you take them?
But the anonymous, the nameless grays,
How, poet, do you still invoke them?
What right have you, in all displays,
In very mask to be genuine, poet?
And that the stillness and the turbulent sprays,
Know you like star and storm?