No composer lightly undertakes the writing of a requiem. Alexander Kastalsky, one of the leading voices of Russian sacred music, was devastated by the results of World War I. Within the first few months of the war, thousands of Russian soldiers were dead, along with tens of thousands of Allied forces, and Kastalasky began to conceive of a musical work that would honor these men, their countries, and their sacrifice.
Over one hundred years later, we finally hear this work, “Requiem for Fallen Brothers,” completed in 1917.
On Sunday, at the National WWI Museum and Memorial, Kastalsky’s Requiem (also known as “Memory Eternal to the Fallen Heroes”) received its world premiere performance, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice.
Kansas City Chorale, conducted by Charles Bruffy, joined with singers from the Clarion Chorus of New York and the Chamber Choir of St. Tikhon’s Monastery, from Pennsylvania, for a sold out concert in J.C. Nichols Auditorium. Kurt Knecht, on piano, grounded the group with assuredness and sensitivity.
Kastalsky, in honoring the Allied forces, used text and melodies from each country to construct the work, based on the structure of the requiem mass. He combined elements of the traditional Orthodox service with music based in both religious and folk influences from Russia, Serbia, England, Italy, France, Romania, America, Japan, and India, for a multi-lingual masterwork.
The original 14 movements of the piece were performed in January of 1917, but the war continued and, when more countries joined the Allied forces, Kastalsky added three more movements to honor them.
The work is monumental and profound. Kastalsky crafted powerful moments both robust and delicate, allowing a fierce energy to permeate the attitude of remembrance and repentance. He added unsettling chords sparingly, yet effectively, to familiar melodies and roused predictable cadences with subtle harmonic twists.
Two soloists performed with the chorus, bass-baritone Joseph Charles Beutel and soprano Anna Dennis.
Beutel, the lead voice during the opening moments, set the tone with a steady gaze and mellifluous prowess, and an especially effective performance during “What Sweetness in This World is Not Mixed with Grief.”
Dennis sang strongly, yet with pleading anguish in “Ingemisco,” and gave a convincing, somewhat joyous sounding “Beati mortui” (Blessed are the dead) against the fast-paced piano.
The American portion included the combination of the familiar “Rock of Ages” with phrases from Frederic Chopin’s Funeral March, while the Indian section, “Hymn to Indra,” was a gentle wordless chorus from the men.
Bruffy commanded both triumphal phrases and, at times, breathtaking stillness, the phrases lingering on nearly imperceptible pianissimos. The work’s incredible finish received a prolonged ovation.
In his opening remarks, Bruffy encouraged the audience to stop at the bridge entry to the museum after the concert. “Look at those poppies,” he said, of the 9,000 flowers below the glass bridge. “It is sobering. Each one of those represents 1,000 lives lost.”
“It looks like a beautiful bouquet, until you realize what it represents.”
Likewise Kastalsky’s Requiem: beautiful and powerful, but a timely and evergreen reminder what is irrevocable in war.
This concert is part of a national project to perform and record Kastalsky’s Requiem. On October 21, Kansas City Chorale performs with 90 more singers in the Washington National Cathedral in Washington D.C., where they join the Clarion Choir, St. Tikhon’s Chamber Choir, Cathedral Choral Society and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in the full orchestral debut, conducted by Leonard Slatkin.