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In 1968 when I had just left school, I drove my father André to Italy; he was a painter, and used to travel there to sketch material which would form the basis of his paintings.

Early one morning we were on a bus travelling to Lake Albano, where we were to have a picnic lunch and he would sketch. There were about a dozen nuns on the bus in black robes, some chattering, some praying quietly. Suddenly, as we were arriving at Castel Gandolfo, we had a view right across the lake towards sun. The sight of the sun glittering on the water, and the sound and presence of the nuns etched itself vividly into my memory, and it evoked in a split second the intense excitement and anticipation the early Christians must have felt when they set off in their boats across the Mediterranean, risking their lives to tell people about an extraordinary man and his dangerous, challenging ideas.

I find that sometimes the inspiration for a piece will stay buried for years, only surfacing occasionally to be considered, and every so often this image and its meaning would come to mind, seeking expression. In 1979 Margaret Heffernan commissioned me to write some music for a television series she was producing about the French Revolution for the BBC, and this partly entailed setting some texts from the Requiem Mass. I found this fascinating and musically inspiring, and realised that it related somehow to this earlier experience, and the vital nature of personal revelation which underlies all spiritual sense, and which is to a great extent buried or extinguished by the countless strata of explanation, rules, words and dogma which accumulate in all religions.

Some of this music was performed at funerals in subsequent years, and many people asked me how they could hear the whole piece; one of these was Andrew Parrott, who urged me to develop the settings into a full Requiem. Over time I had understood that Requiems are (or should be) written for the living, to explain or metabolise the death of someone you loved, and that many settings sound as if they were taken from an opera or an oratorio; they express a generalised lament or anguish rather than the search for understanding, the power of memory and love to perpetuate the human spirit.

In researching early Christian memorial texts (particularly those from the catacombs in Rome, Greece, Alexandria and all around the Mediterranean) I was struck by the tone of the epitaphs – many written for people of no civic status or importance – the positive imagery, the loving tone of the inscriptions, and particularly by the absence of warnings about hell fire and torment, even the absence of the crucifix. In studying the evolution of the Requiem Mass for the Dead, it became clear that more and more fear and damnation entered the text as the centuries passed (notably the 28 verses of the Dies Irae (a 13th Century addition). These epitaphs have a wonderfully matter-of-fact character; they are tender and optimistic, more about renewal than sin, and celebrate people from all walks of life. They are the simple and heartfelt words which people use to make their own ritual, and remind us of what underlies the monumental structure of the text we take for granted, of the human lives it is meant to serve. 

You can buy the CD of Beslan/ Requiem HERE on Amazon UK.

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