There have been many musical settings of the traditional Catholic Requiem mass from a variety of composers ranging from Mozart to Benjamin Britten, but here I am referring to the Andrew Lloyd-Webber Requiem, which is generally billed mononymously and treated as though it were a theater piece. To be honest, as much as I love Lloyd-Webber, it’s not a particularly good example of the form. It doesn’t lack for passion…Webber wrote it as a way to cope with both the death of his father and the horrors he saw in the newspapers every day, and it reflects that spiritual anguish…but all the passion in the world can’t make up for the piece’s compositional problems.
The themes themselves, apart from the grating melody used for the Dies Irae, are interesting, haunting and at times gorgeously lyrical, but because Webber never develops or varies them, each section essentially consists of a single melodic fragment repeated endlessly, which gets old pretty fast. The only completely successful passages are the haunting opening theme (which returns periodically, making a particularly memorable appearance at the very end), the jovially bombastic Hosanna, and the famous Pie Jesu, which became a breakaway pop hit and one of the most popular Classical pieces of its era. And yes, it is indeed ravishing, especially in its rendition by the original cast…the show certainly was blessed with fine performers, with Placido Domingo and Sarah Brightman originating the tenor and soprano roles, and they each get a wonderful chance to shine in the Hosanna and Pie Jesu sections.
Ultimately, though, this work is really more interesting for its place in Webber’s career than as a composition…it was the place where he evolved his previous pop influences into a more Classical sound, and as such served as a dry run for his next few shows, particularly Phantom. That said, this piece has not really helped Webber in establishing himself as a credible composer, and many of his detractors like to point to it when espousing his failings. If you’re a Webber fanatic like myself, you need to hear this just to understand the arc of his career, since it was such a pivotal moment in developing his style, but if you’re lukewarm on Webber, you might want to just listen to the Pie Jesu on the radio or a compilation album, and leave the rest of this fascinating mess to those of us who have a personal stake in it.