If you ever saw the film or play Amadeus, you may recall that Mozart was feverishly composing the Requiem while he himself was dying. Other composers had to complete the piece, so there is a certain amount of intrigue and controversy about which parts are truly “his.”
In case you didn’t know, a requiem is a funeral mass. The music is set to sacred texts asking God to grant eternal rest to the souls of the departed. Lore has it that Mozart’s requiem was commissioned by a mysterious, anonymous messenger, who the composer came to believe was a portent of his own imminent death. He even told his wife that he was composing the requiem for his own funeral. He wasn’t far off.
Now, I’m not a religious person, per se. But when I am singing with a choir, I think I come close to understanding what religious faith might feel like. My one small voice blends with the others, becoming part of something larger than myself. I do my very best to sing well, but there will inevitably be moments when I do not. I can’t always control that. Nor can I control what the other singers do. But if I falter, another voice will fill in the gap, just as my voice may fill in if the singer next to me falters.
When each of us is absorbed in our own part, we are often unable to perceive the intricate beauty of the whole. We can’t always hear exactly how the parts intersect and intertwine. Every now and then, though, moments of awareness do seep through, thrilling us.
If I stopped singing in the middle of a performance, nobody would notice. Yet the sound would be irrevocably altered, no matter how imperceptible the change might be. In short, when I sing in the choir, my one small voice suddenly means something. And I think it means something precisely because it doesn’t really matter at all.
When we perform this piece, my hope is that a wave of beautiful sound will wash over our audience, sweeping them up, allowing them to be moved in whatever way such things move them – musically, spiritually, or otherwise. (I also hope that we don’t miss an important entrance, causing one of those horrifying onstage trainwrecks that occur from time to time. But this is beside the point).
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that we will all be wearing black at this performance. We do so not because it’s a requiem, but because we are a choir. Some choirs have uniforms. Others, like mine, allow members to wear their own clothes within a certain dress code. All black is an easy dress code.
Now, of course, the real reason we all dress the same is because a large group of people onstage in different colors and patterns would be jarring to the eye. We don’t want the audience to be distracted from the music. But I like to think that our outfits reflect our larger mission. Just as our voices blend together, so does our appearance. We are not 40-50 separate individuals. We are one body, one voice.
When you look at us up close, you can see that we are not the same. The women, in particular, have very different interpretations of “all black, long skirt or slacks.” Some dress very elegantly, in the same kind of gown you might wear for a black tie function (no sequins or cleavage, though). Others wear what I think of as the classic catering outfit: plain black trousers and button-down blouse.
Me, I choose an all black skirt and top combination that is very, very simple:
I like to think that this outfit isn’t frumpy, but I may be kidding myself. I know it’s very, very humble. (I also know that the black tones don’t match — a fact that I am choosing to ignore). I wear it because I just happened to own these pieces when I joined my first chorus 5 years ago. I wear it because the comfortable, lightweight fabrics breathe. (Under those hot lights, sweat happens). I also wear it because I don’t want to shell out more money for something I only need twice a year.
This time, though, with this particular piece, I’d like to think my outfit carries deeper meaning. When we perform the requiem, it will not be about me. It will not be about fashion. These things will not exist. Nuns wear habits, monks wear robes, and many individuals – from a variety of faiths – choose clothes that symbolize the suppression of the self, showing humility before God. Why shouldn’t I give myself up to the glory of the music by stripping away superficial exteriors?
True, such ideas were not part of my secular, post ‘60s upbringing. My youth was bookended by Free to Be You and Me and Express Yourself. Suppression of the self before God was not implanted in my rule book. But when I become part of the chorus, singing this hauntingly sad and beautiful piece, reminded that the impermanence of this life is the one thing we all share — well, I almost get it.
Requiem æternam dona eis,
Domine et lux perpetua luceat eis
Grant them eternal rest,
O Lord and may everlasting light shine upon them
So, returning to earth now, here’s my dilemma. Jewelry, or no jewelry? We’re permitted to wear it, but it’s not supposed to be flashy or distracting. Most wear very simple, classy, tasteful gold or silver jewelry. I, of course, own nothing of the sort. I own chunky, funky beads and ropes and chains made out of wood, ceramics, turquoise and/or recycled glass.
I have two main options for jewelry. First, there’s this necklace:
Or, I could try this one:
which has a slightly Old World feel about it – evoking a vaguely Gothic-cathedral vibe without looking too much like an actual cross (which would make me feel dishonest).
If I’m feeling a little more radical, I suppose I could throw caution to the winds and go for this funky recycled glass pendant:
but that seems like more of a longshot.
If I wore one of these necklaces, it might bring a little light to my face. It would break up the expanse of pale white skin. It might take the edge off all that black. After all, even though a requiem is a funeral mass, I don’t want to look as though I’ve already died!
At the same time, I am seriously thinking about going without. Completely. I kind of like the idea of just showing up, as I am, unadorned. (Well, except for makeup. I know my limits). I could offer my humble, simply dressed self to the group, just as I offer my humble (yet still important) voice. The group would envelop and absorb me. Clothes and jewelry would cease to matter.
Should I try it? What would you do?
(And by the way, if you’d like to hear the opening section of the Mozart’s Requiem, click this link. You can actually find the whole piece here! But if your time is limited, this will give you a taste. It’s especially lovely between 3:10 and 4:20).