Morning is Coming

By Darren Nisly

There are times in my life when a musical work and an idea of truth become intertwined within me. I cannot hear the piece of music without the associated idea entering into my mind. Neither can I ponder the idea without the piece of music providing a soundscape for my meditation. This phenomenon demonstrates what I believe to be one of the reasons that God has given us the gift of art: it allows us to experience his eternal truths in ways that we cannot through intellectual exploration alone.

When we engage with art in this way, we honor the source of all beauty and goodness. The art in itself may not be true in an exhaustive sense; a beautiful work of art would never serve as the basis on which we’d construct a comprehensive philosophy. That said, art does serve to reveal facets of reality that we may not encounter otherwise. Just as light passing through a prism reveals different aspects of the light, so also does the prism of art reveal aspects of the light of truth.

Requiem for the Living

As I consider the long list of these perspective-shaping works of art, one that stands out in my own life is Dan Forrest’s Requiem for the Living. Written in 2013, it is a powerful example of beautiful art being used to portray deep truths in unique and powerful ways to each new generation.

A requiem, as a traditional liturgical text, functions as a funeral hymn, asking God to grant rest to the faithful who have died. Many composers in many different centuries have set this text to music. Requiem for the Living offers an alternative take on the concept of this prayer for rest. It repurposes ideas from within the traditional text, and redirects the prayer from those who have died toward those who are longing for rest in this life. Thematically, this distinguishes it from other requiems that have been composed.

Last fall, I learned, rehearsed, and performed this piece with my community choir. As singers, we understood the story we wanted to tell: a narrative of a journey from darkness to light, a journey that many of us had experienced in our own lives. We wanted to lead our listeners through this journey, showing them the hope of Christ as the answer to all darkness. As we traveled through past pains and future unknowns; music and text gave voice to the prayers and longings of our souls.

A Deeper Dive

From this point onward, I will be embarking on a more in-depth exploration of the text, music, and themes of this piece of music. Consider this a guided tour through this piece, from the perspective of someone who has repeatedly sung through it, has been touched by various aspects of its message, and is excited to share about his experiences with this wonderful piece of art. Some of my observations are technical, but my intent in drawing attention to these technicalities is to accentuate their underlying support for the meaning and symbolism of the piece.

As I refer to specific moments within the piece, I will sometimes include links to those moments within our choir’s performance. This will allow you to hear the specific thing that is being described. Even with that added convenience, there’s nothing better than listening to the entirety of the work and letting it speak on its own. Much as a book review can never convey the full experience of reading that book, reading an essay about a piece of music cannot replace the experience of listening to the music itself.

Overarching Themes

It’s impossible to come to a full appreciation of this piece without taking note of some of the themes that flow throughout the whole.

Darkness to Light

The Requiem for the Living’s primary narrative is a journey from darkness to light, a reimagining of the overarching story of the redemption of the world. Hope emerging with the dawn, the source of our redemption.

The Presence of Three

Throughout this story, the main character is the one who is suffering. However, there is another constant presence throughout: the number three. Representative of the eternal presence of the Trinity, this symbolism is contained within the musical ideas, the structure of the piece itself, and in the text. Several examples of this:

  1. The primary musical motif of the piece is a three-note phrase, descending a minor third.
  2. Each movement is divided into three distinct sections.
  3. The majority (roughly 80%) of key changes in the piece move a third away from their starting key.

There is immense beauty in this Trinitarian symbolism. This constant presence, more obvious in some moments than others, provides an anchor and a context for the entirety of the work. Even at its darkest moments, the symbolism of that everlasting hope is still present.

I.  Introit-Kyrie

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,
Et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Exaudi orationem meam,
Ad te omnis caro veniet
Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison.
Kyrie eleison.

Grant rest eternal to them, O Lord,
And let perpetual light shine upon them.
Hear my prayer, for unto Thee all flesh shall come.
Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy;
Lord have mercy.

The first example of the aforementioned Trinitarian symbolism occurs at the very outset of the piece. Three organ notes, gently descending a minor third, provide the foundation for the musical ideas found throughout the rest of the work. At this earliest stage, the theme is unsettled and dissonant, reminiscent of the uncertainty and uneasiness that we each confront throughout our lives. This instrumental musical motif is restated by the choir on the first word they sing, “Re-qui-em” (2:34). This simple motif evolves and is expanded upon throughout the rest of the work. Appearing in some form within every movement. This requiem (rest) theme comes to represent our deepest longings for peace and rest.

The first expansion of this musical theme occurs when complimenting eighth note countermelodies are added (4:32). These cascading lines add a sense of urgency to the prayers that are being offered. The text, translated “Hear my prayer” conveys this urgency. Without the belief and assurance that our prayers are heard, all hope is immediately lost.

Darkness surrounds us, and we are afraid. However, a key change (5:05) conveys the hopefulness that is welling up within us. We recognize God’s presence, and the fact that we are not alone.

Suddenly, we have another realization, represented by yet another key change (7:01). In recognizing God’s presence, we come to realize our own vulnerability. We are unable to drive out this darkness on our own, and this brings us to our knees. “Kyrie eleison!” (Lord have mercy) becomes our cry.

This cry for mercy becomes entwined with our more hopeful longings for peace. Lines from earlier in the piece create beautiful countermelodies (7:38) within this powerful Kyrie section, offering us a multi-faceted image of how we, the created, so often relate to the Creator. Only in recognizing our dependency and need for God, are we able to fully express our deepest longings.

II.  Vanitas Vanitatum

Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas!
Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem.
Et locutus est, pereat dies in qua natus sum.

Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!
Merciful Lord Jesus, grant them rest.
Full of tears,
He said, let the day perish wherein I was born

The second movement, Vanitas Vanitatum (10:24), marks an abrupt shift in our response to our suffering. We move from a prayerful longing for relief to a visceral, angry expression of the pain that we feel. The movement’s primary text is the declaration from the book of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” We are later introduced to a less aggressive but no less poignant textual embodiment of despair. A quotation of Job, uttered in his hour of greatest darkness: “Let the day perish wherein I was born.”

The shift in tone from the first movement is abrupt and jarring. This same shifting often occurs in our own lives, when trust and hope abruptly give way to feelings of anger and despair. It is in these moments, that we can see nothing beyond the darkness. We enter into a state where “all is vanity” becomes the oft-repeating refrain of our hearts and minds. Musically, the dissonance; biting “v”, “t”, and “s” consonants; and driving eighth note rhythms convey this vicious sense of inevitability. All seems lost, and it seems that all we can do is hang on for the ride.

Out of these rhythmic, biting phrases, there emerges a soaring prayer (11:43): “Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem.” (Merciful Lord Jesus, grant them rest) This phrase, a prayer raised on behalf of those in the midst of suffering, floats above the driving rhythms of the rest of the choir, interceding on their behalf. The sopranos are the first to introduce this line, which is repeated by the rest of the choir at various points throughout the rest of the movement. This contrasting line serves as an artistic expression of the impact of the faithful work of followers of Christ, who intentionally reach out to those in darkness with continual prayer and a deep care for their well-being. As followers of Christ, we are called to do this. Even in the times where the prayers we offer seem to be completely drowned out by the innumerable cries of the hurting and oppressed.

As the perspective shifts back to the one journeying in darkness, we come to a moment of quiet (12:45); an unsettled, uncertain quiet. The angry, gut-level response of the first half of this movement has been replaced with a deeper crisis of faith. We’ve moved from looking outward, lamenting what we see and experience in the world around us, to an inward lament, despairing at our very existence. The music becomes hushed and introspective, with minimal instrumentation. The sopranos and altos begin this section on their own, and we are introduced to the internal thought “let the day perish when I was born.” As the rest of the choir joins in (14:04), the internal becomes external. Our internal depression and despair, now verbalized.

Almost out of nowhere, our minds suddenly shift back to despair-driven anger (14:39). Anger and despair, emerging from deeper within our being than it ever has before. This is the climax of this movement, and sets the scene for a battle. A battle between the soaring legato lines of the “pie Jesu” theme and the biting staccato of the vanitas theme. Back and forth, fighting for prominence in the mind of the one in the midst of despair.

I find the imagery of this movement to be some of the most compelling of the whole work. Throughout the course of rehearsing, there were times where I’d relate to the “vanitas vanitatum” sections, and the prayers of “pie jesu” from the rest of the choir felt as if they were specifically directed at me. At other times, I’d hear the voices of friends and family emanating from the same section of music, longing for relief. This too led to the “pie jesu” taking on a depth of meaning that would otherwise be absent. In either case, there was an intentionality to the prayers being offered.

This ability of this particular text to connect personal experience and music is what contributes to the ability of a choir to sing with sincerity and conviction. Throughout the entirety of the Requiem, at any given moment, members of the choir and orchestra are using their own experiences in times of suffering to bring life and meaning to the music and text being presented.

III.  Agnus Dei

Agnus Dei,
Qui tollis peccata mundi,
Miserere nobis, dona eis requiem.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
Dona nobis pacem, miserere nobis,
Dona eis requiem

Lamb of God,
Who takes away the sins of the world,
Have mercy on us; grant us rest.
Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world,
Grant us peace; have mercy on us;
Grant us rest.

We’ve walked through the darkness of despair, recognizing our need for mercy. We’ve grappled with deep anger, directed at the Creator, lamenting our very existence, despairing over the fact that we were ever born. We’ve poured out prayers for those who are suffering around us. Yet the darkness still seems to reign supreme.

It is at this moment that a dramatic shift (16:41) occurs. It is as if we’re catching the first glimmer of the light of the stars beyond the clouds. It’s still nighttime, but we are able to recognize the presence of beauty and goodness. All of the expressions of longing and despair have led to this moment: the arrival of the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”

The primary musical idea (17:20) of this movement (sung on the words “Agnus Dei”) adds a fourth note to three note requiem theme to which we’ve become accustomed. This fourth note, gives the music a sense of reaching a destination; a “rest” if you will.

The use of a soloist immediately following the volume and density of voices of the previous movement further accentuates the dramatic shift in our approach to God. We’ve moved beyond our desperation and anger, and into a calming realization that we are free to know the One who can bring us the peace we desire.

This is the pivotal movement of this work; both in terms of music and story. The arrival of the Lamb of God provides a point of origin from which we can come to know more about the peace which is offered to us.

IV.  Sanctus

Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus
Dominus Deus Sabaoth,
Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua
Hosanna in excelsis!

Holy, Holy, Holy,
Lord God of Hosts
Heaven and earth are full of thy glory.
Hosanna in the highest!

If Agnus Dei represents the quietness of a calming storm, and glimmers of light peeking through the clouds, Sanctus is the complete clearing of the storm clouds, the full glory of the night sky bursting forth. It’s still nighttime, and there are still shadows all around us, but the stars are shining brightly, and there is a faint glow of the rising sun on the horizon.

This shift, from lament to hopeful worship, is made abundantly apparent through the musical storytelling of the composer. The opening measures of this movement (23:26) are identical to the beginning of the entire work, a restatement of the requiem theme that has come to represent our sense of longing. Then suddenly, with the entrance of the harp and percussion, there is a shift. Rather than continuing on in D-minor as we did in the first movement, we now move into F-major. The identical openings with their different conclusions convey the impact that the Agnus Dei has on our perception of the world around us – there is still a momentum to the music, just as there was in Vanitas. However, rather than merely the inevitability of evil and pain, we are now aware of the certainty of the coming dawn.

We begin the movement looking at the universe in all of its vastness. The twinkling stars vividly represented by the harp and percussion, vast galaxies emerging from the strings and timpani. Text and music join together to provide us with a glimpse of the grandeur of our God, the One who created all things. We can’t comprehend the expansiveness of our universe. As such, the only response we’re left with is a reverent “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts.”

With the key change (26:22) we’ve moved from admiring the vastness of our universe, to an admiration of the physical world around us, created by God for mankind. This is the stage on which the story of redemption is playing out. “Heaven and earth are full of Thy Glory.” We look on, as if from far above as mankind comes to recognize God for who he is. Their praises burst forth from every corner of the Earth as distinct melodic lines emerge from each voice part. Finally, in an expression of united worship, they come together (27:43) with one voice, proclaiming the goodness and holiness of God throughout the world.

Finally, in one final shift of our perspective, we set our feet on Earth, among fellow image-bearers. Life and energy surround us, conveyed by the energetic arpeggiating strings (28:47). The words of our worship are still the same, but now we’re offering them up in the presence of those whom God has placed in our lives; our families, our churches, our communities. We’ve moved from the darkest of suffering into a light that will never cease its shining. In the end, what more is there to say besides, “Hosanna in the Highest!”

V.  Lux Aeterna

Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine:
Cum sanctis tuis in aeternum: qui pius es.
Et lux perpetua luceat eis
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,
Et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Dona nobis pacem.

May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord,
In the company of Thy saints forever:
For Thou art merciful.
Let perpetual light shine on them.
Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord,
And let perpetual light shine upon them.
Grant us peace.

The final movement serves as a summation of the story that has been told. We have shifted from conveying a narrative of suffering to offering a prayer for any who are still experiencing the darkness from which we’ve emerged. As we take a reflective glance back over our shoulders at the road we’ve traveled, we revisit each of the truths we’ve come to realize along the way. We are at peace, the sun has risen, and the long-awaited dawn has arrived.

This is the first movement of the entire piece that begins in a major key, further accentuating the shift that has occurred. It opens with the now-familiar three-note requiem theme (31:23). The harp then brings in aspects of the celestial imagery (31:41) of the theme from Sanctus, musically portraying the stars that brought hope in the night, before they become engulfed by an even greater light.

In this moment (33:11), the text and music reach a point of arrival. With this arrival comes introspection. We’ve experienced suffering for ourselves, and have been shown a path through the darkness. From this vantage point, as we become more aware of the suffering of those around us in the world, our prayers become an expression of another longing: that all mankind would come to know the same peace that has been given to us. “Let perpetual light shine on them. Rest eternal grant them, O Lord.”

As this prayer concludes we hear a voice (34:35), the voice of God, emerging in its own key, (a third away from the starting key) and sung in English. This is the first and only section of English text throughout the entirety of the work. This is an intentional decision. In the score, the composer instructs that the solo is to be sung in the “audience’s primary language.” The intention is to directly and personally address each member of the audience with a clear message: this narrative, it’s true. There’s more to this story than notes, rhythms, and a compelling text. “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”

The end of the tenor solo provides us with a subtle, yet powerful moment. At the end of the phrase, “I will give you rest,” the choir rejoins (35:44) with a dramatic key change on the word “Requiem,” precisely aligned with the word “rest” at the end of the solo. The message is clear: the answer to the rest for which we’re longing for is freely available. It has already been given to us, we simply need to accept it.

It is with this transition that we reach the climactic moment of the final movement of this work. Every voice reaching heavenward, with hopefulness and understanding. A prayer, focused not on ourselves, but on those who are suffering. We’re raising this prayer from the perspective of one who has experienced these things for themselves, both the darkest of night and the glory of the dawn. Empathetic to the longings of those around us, we bring this prayer before God.

Even as followers of Christ, we will experience grief and pain, serving to remind us that the goodness of God is ever present, and is not subject to the effects of the storms around us.

As we come to the conclusion of this piece, we hear the choir’s final words: “Grant us peace.” This restatement, along with the instrumental restatements of the main musical themes from each of the movements, leads us to a final moment of reflection: on where we’ve come from, and where we’re going.

Morning is Coming

A final, powerful image. The last three notes of the work are simply a reordered requiem theme; first descending, now ascending. It still represents a longing, but now with a hopeful bend towards heaven. We know that beyond the clouds are millions of points of light, impervious to the clouds that seek to hide their existence from us. On the horizon there emerges a gentle glow, offering a hopeful taste of the dawn which is to come.

As we travel down the separate paths of our lives, we will face innumerable situations where we will be confronted with pain and darkness. Sometimes in our own hearts, and sometimes in the lives of those that we care about. In either situation, the right response is the same: look up. Morning is coming.

Thank you to Jacob Lash, my fantastic choir director, for the time and energy that you personally invested in studying and drawing attention to the wonderful themes and ideas throughout this work. Your observations, meditations, and insights were tremendously formative in my appreciation of this piece. This little essay wouldn’t have been possible without you.

Darren Nisly hails from northern Virginia; loves music in general, choral music in particular; has a deep appreciation for the power of art to shape ones understanding of truth; and desires that, through the lens of skillfully crafted art, everyone would come to recognize the source of all goodness and beauty.

Artwork: Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), View Of The Grindelwald

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