Everyone knows Fauré’s Requiem; Eric Whitacre’s ‘Lux aurumque’ is less familiar – at least in this country. The pairing of these two pieces at the Southport Bach Choir‘s Come and Sing on Saturday gave us an opportunity to practise and sing through them both. I was interested to see how well they worked together musically, but it was the words that intrigued me.
We sang the Whitacre in Latin – of course – because that is the underlay. But, the composer’s note tells us, the poem was written in English by Edward Esch, and Whitacre had it translated into Latin by Charles Anthony Silvestri. I have never heard of Edward Esch and when I googled him, all that came up was Eric Whitacre and ‘Lux aurumque’. Oh, and another blog asking, ‘Who is this man’?! My suspicion, therefore, is that Edward Esch and Eric Whitacre are one and the same.
Be that as it may, the words in English are rather lovely:
warm and heavy as pure gold
and the angels sing softly
to the new-born baby.
The concentrated minimalist imagery reminds me of the imagist poetry of, for instance, Ezra Pound, and the Japanese haiku. Personally, I would prefer ‘babe’ rather than ‘baby’ as the final word, because it would give a more definite ending, but that is an unimportant consideration, since the final word in Latin is ‘natum’, and that is a good word to end on; the birth of the Christ-child is what this poem is about.
As we rehearsed the pieces it was, however, the word ‘lux’ that caught my attention particularly. That is the first word the choir sings in the Whitacre, and it is emphasised through repetition and by a solo soprano voice soaring high above the last two repetitions of the choir, piercing through the texture of the music like a shaft of light.
‘Lux’ is an important word in the Fauré too. The opening of the requiem is:
Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine:
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
The concept of perpetual light shining down on the dead is crucial in the liturgy of the requiem mass, and was obviously important for Fauré, since he repeats these opening lines, unlike Verdi for instance, who moves fairly swiftly on to the ‘Te decet‘ section. When, at the end of the Agnus Dei, there is a return to the idea of light – ‘Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine’ – Fauré does something very similar to what I noticed in the Whitacre. The tenors sing their lovely melody in F major (‘Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem’) but finish it by repeating the leading note/tonic sequence of B natural to C, pushing the music into the new key of C major. The sopranos then come in, unaccompanied, singing ‘Lux’ on a quiet C, an octave above middle C. It is a moment of excruciating beauty. But it is a moment that is difficult to bring off. As our conductor, Ian Crawford, rehearsed the sopranos, he said: ‘It must come through like a shaft of light’. At that moment the sun came shining through the church window and over the sopranos. I tried to capture the scene.
Two pieces of music, then, imbued with the idea of light. Fauré’s Requiem: a prayer for light at the end of life. Whitacre’s ‘Lux aurumque’: an expression of wonder at the refulgent light accompanying the birth of Christ. We, the Southport Bach Choir, will be singing the Whitacre in our Christmas concert at Holy Trinity, Southport on Saturday 7 December, and I shall be writing more about this piece next week.