Pie Jesu…Blessed Jesus

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Faure’, John Rutter, Mama, Doc and me…

I can hardly believe that it’s been almost 30 years since British composer John Rutter was on campus at Carson-Newman for a choral workshop to introduce his English-language edition of Gabriel Faure’s Requiem.  I was a junior, my junior voice recital was that same week, and I had the distinct honor of singing the soprano solo for the performance of the Requiem, under Rutter’s baton.

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I was in such a twitch in the weeks prior to the workshop and my recital, I don’t think I fully grasped the magnitude of the event at the time.  One of my professors told me later that she couldn’t believe I got through that week still standing.  Looking back, I realize it was by the grace of God and lots of caffeine!

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(Me singing the soprano solo in the Requiem, John Rutter conducting, February, 1985.)

That week was not my first experience with the Faure’ Requiem.  I had performed it in high school with Knoxville’s All-City High School Chorus.  The soloists were adults Dr. Gerald Ballard, the director, had brought in for the concert.  Dr. Ballard had been my Mama’s high school chorus teacher at the old South High School some 25 years earlier, so I knew him at first only through Mama’s recollections of him.  I later borrowed his Requiem score so I could have the Pie Jesu for scholarship auditions.  I misplaced it and then forgot about it until it surfaced some years later. I value it as a prized possession now, and pray that my inadvertent theft can be forgiven.

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The workshop/performance at Carson-Newman was a highlight of my musical life.  Singing a solo with John Rutter conducting was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will always remember.  “Doc” Eric Thorson had just the year before taken the reins of A Cappella Choir at school, and it was his responsibility to prepare us for Rutter’s arrival.  He told us that Rutter, being an Englishman, might be a more reserved conductor than we were used to, and to pay close attention to what could be very subtle cues from him.  As it turned out, John Rutter was a whirling dervish of a conductor, with flailing arms and an outgoing manner.

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(Rehearsal with John Rutter–I am the shortest one on the front row.  Some things never change.)

Flash forward to February, 1998, when once again I had the privilege of singing the soprano solo in the Faure’ Requiem, this time under Doc’s direction with Knoxville Choral Society.  My sweet-and-spicy Mama had died just a couple of months before, and looking back, I don’t remember what I was thinking auditioning for the solo that time except that I might not be in any shape to sing it.  Little did I know the gift God was about to give me.

Almost 13 years exactly from the time I sang it at school, I sang it once more.  The music itself was the same…but my understanding and experience of it were completely different.  Still very much in grief throes from Mama’s death, the text of the whole mass spoke to me afresh, particularly the words of the soprano solo movement, Pie Jesu.

“Pie Jesu, Domine,

dona eis requiem,

dona Domine, dona eis requiem,

sempiternam requiem.”

Blessed Jesus, Lord God,

grant them rest.

Grant them, Lord God, rest,

eternal rest.

At the end of Mama’s illness, she had suffered so much and was so tired. I told her that if she was ready and needed to go on, it was OK.  In my family experience and work with hospice, I’ve learned that it is important to give the patient permission to go; it can give them peace at the end of life.  My spiritual life during the end of Mama’s sickness was a bleak period when prayers didn’t happen so much as just anguished groans of my heart.  Had I been able to actually pray, it would have been for her suffering to end, for peace…for rest.

She died, and her rest finally came.  Standing on that stage at The Tennessee Theatre singing Pie Jesu once again, Faure’s music spoke peace to me as I took another step in my grief journey.  This is the power of Music…the power to heal, comfort, and transform our pain into something of beauty.

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