choir picture

Singing the Brahms Requiem

Pak-Wing Fok, PhD ’06
Bass and Treasurer for MIT Concert Choir

This trip to Lausanne in Switzerland was definitely one of the highlights of my four years here at MIT as a graduate student. Why was this trip so great? I can think of two main reasons. First, we had the chance to sing the Brahms Requiem jointly with another choir, in a great acoustic. Second, I got to know other members of the choir a lot better because of this trip.

This will sound corny, but I’ve always had a special fondness for Brahms’ Requiem. The first time I was exposed to it was when I was in high school in England, and at that time, our performance was a tribute to the victims of the 1996 Dunblane massacre, in Scotland. For those of you who are not familiar with this atrocity, this incident is similar to the 1999 Columbine shooting, but the main perpetrator in this case was a disenchanted shopkeeper, and not a pair of students. At that time, I was playing the bassoon in the school orchestra, and my favorite part was the opening funeral march of the second movement where the bassoon plays ominous, repeating patterns of perfect fourths and fifths to provide the backdrop for the flutes, brass and the harp. I guess that at the age of 17, I was still not musically mature enough to appreciate the Requiem as a whole: my favorite sections were restricted to being local in time and orchestration. Nevertheless, at the time I remember thinking that the piece was incredibly moving. The text used for Requiems traditionally consists of a series of prayers for the dead. When Brahms wrote Ein Deutsches Requiem, he handpicked certain passages from the Lutheran Bible because he wanted his Requiem to console those in mourning who were still alive. To me, the fact that the main purpose of this Requiem is to comfort the living just makes it all the more sad, and all the more beautiful.

Fast forward to the present day, over 10 years later. Having performed the Requiem three times this semester, once in Kresge and twice in the Cathedral of Lausanne, I feel I have a better appreciation of this piece than before. My favorite part of the Requiem is now the whole of the 6th movement. For the piece in general, I think I know how the Bass passages are embedded within the other choral parts. For some of the movements, I am evenly vaguely aware of how the choral parts dovetail with the orchestra. Still, there is more to be discovered in this great work, and I guess, that is what makes this piece a masterpiece. I think that if I ever get another chance to perform this piece in the future, either as a chorus member, or as part of an orchestra (or even as a soloist - god forbid!), I will see the piece in a different light still. It would be interesting to study how one’s perspective of the same piece varies as one grows older, and more musically mature.

A common complaint about Concert Choir at MIT is that there are not enough opportunities for the members to socialize with each other: students come to rehearsal, they sing, they rush back home to finish their problem sets. Although we, as Concert Choir Officers, have tried to remedy this problem by organizing short socials during the rehearsal, I have always found that the most that I could ever do in these breaks was to introduce myself and make small talk with a small subset of the other members. I feel that this trip has benefited the team spirit of the Concert Choir immensely. Singing with your friends is much more fun than singing with a bunch of a mere acquaintances, and hanging out with Concert Choir people after the evening rehearsals in Lausanne was one of the most fun parts of this trip. Probably this was not done intentionally, but it almost seemed as if the rehearsals were made to last for a really long time so that we would get hungry and go en-masse to sample local Swiss fondue afterwards. My modest suggestion for improving social activity within Concert Choir: hold more joint concerts! Even short-distance exchanges (like the one we did with Brown University in 2003) will do more for Choir camaraderie than a semester’s worth of 10 minute socials. Having Bill as our Choral Director already motivates many of us to do our best; I know that he is respected and well-liked by a large proportion of the Choir. However, I think we could sing even better if we liked each other as much as we liked Bill!

After the second concert in Lausanne, a large group of Concert Choir members decided to go clubbing at a place called ‘Bleu Lezard’ (‘Blue Lizard’). Probably the owner of this club did not suspect that on that night, his club would suddenly be taken over by a rowdy bunch of nerds looking to release pre-concert tension. Actually, many students had flown to Switzerland literally hours after taking their finals in Cambridge, and really did have a lot of tension to release. With my own eyes, I could literally see the tension (and any remaining vestiges of sobriety) ebbing away to the sounds of “YMCA” and “Greased Lightning”. And I thought that most MIT Undergraduates were introverted types, who felt more at home in libraries than in clubs. I’m happy to report that I’m completely wrong on this point. I just felt a bit sorry for Laurent, the Swiss student who showed us around CERN the next morning, who may have been a bit puzzled as to why his tour group seemed so...sleepy.

Anyway, this trip was extremely fun for me, and I think many other Concert Choir members had a good time also. Many thanks should go to Vanessa Gardner and Thomas Maxisch for making this trip possible, and to Bill Cutter and Jean-Christophe Aubert (who is Bill’s Swiss counterpart) for their hard work. Finally, thanks to everyone in Concert Choir for making this trip so enjoyable!