A Great and Terrible Beauty – Bethany Hensel

Is it really weird that one of the happiest times I've ever been at Heinz Hall watching the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra perform would be during a funeral mass?

The word, I believe, is called ironic.

See, I've been going to see the PSO perform since about…probably…the fourth grade. I graduated from high school almost seven years ago. You do the math. And yes, while there have been truly exceptional performances that I have had the privilege to go to, I must confess that Sunday's performance of Mozart's Requiem really was just a cut above the rest. Maybe it was because Manfred Honeck seemed particularly exuberant in his conducting. Maybe because Mark Rohr's and Robert Moir's program notes were so well-written, I felt like I was reading a great short-story. Maybe it was because of the Mendelssohn choir, the Saint Vincent Schola Gregoriana, or actor John Lithgow reading poetry works, bible verses, and historical letters by Mozart himself. I really couldn't narrow down why Sunday's performance was so exceptional. There was just a great energy in the air. People were genuinely excited to see this performance.

I arrived five minutes before two-thirty, and the front lobby was still packed with people all eager to get in. I was pleasantly surprised that this matinee, a matinee that I would have had pegged that only the older set would come to, was bursting with the seams with young twenty and thirty somethings. It was great. I loved it. My seat was perfection, no one reeked of perfume, and the entire afternoon was music to my ears. Sorry, I guess that last line was kind of corny.

Mozart, according to the brilliant program notes, never finished his Requiem mass. He wrote the Lacrimossa but did not write anything after that. (The Lacrimossa, by the way, is about ¾ of the composition.) Apparently, his pupil and friend Franz Xaver Sussmayr, finished the last of it. Another confession: if I was not told that Mozart never finished, I would not have known it by listening to the piece. There was no clear delineation in style or execution when Sussmayr took over. I thought the last half of the Mass was just as stunning as the first.

Now, without making this piece go on and on – I could talk about the concert for days, so many things excited me and was wonderful about it – I would like to say one last thing. Again, going back to the program notes, Mozart was commissioned to write the Requiem Mass as he was writing an opera for the coronation of Emperor Leopold II, rehearsing the Magic Flute, writing the Clarinet Concerto and tackling other pieces. As a writer, I can't even begin to wrap my head around the kind of brilliance and genius that it must have taken for Mozart to juggle all of those things. I can barely stand to work on more than two projects at once. To write a full scale opera, and rehearse another and do all the other things I mentioned…it's just baffling. And amazing. And a full reminder why Mozart's name has stood the test of time. The Requiem Mass was a thing of great and terrible beauty. I was equal parts entranced and absorbed and quite terrified of all the emotion that was packed within each note. Your heart races. Your head spins. This kind of music changes you, at least for the amount of time you listen to it.

One Response to “A Great and Terrible Beauty – Bethany Hensel”

  1. Doug Bauman says:

    > ‘The Requiem Mass was a thing of great and terrible beauty.’
    It was and is a thing of great beauty. I’ve heard the Requiem before, but I have to say, that this time somehow I heard it with much more clarity. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Mendelssohn Choir and Heinz Hall account for much of that. And now, with this first experience with a live concert of the Requiem, I find that much of it was simply brilliant musically, it was pleasing to my ear, and I found it eminently joyous, with little hint of sadness. It was only those haunting notes near the end that seemed to allude to the kind of emotion perhaps associated with death and loss. The genius of Mozart is the overwhelming sense of emotion that is invoked by such simple musical phrasing, and an enormous wealth of classical development.

Leave a Reply

Dec 8