Recording the ‘Requiem’ That Never Rests
Opera singer-turned-priest is tenor on new rendition of Mozart’s famous work.
Although “requiem” means “rest” in Latin, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem does not seem to get much repose. It has been performed numerous times throughout the years, including at the funerals or memorials of other famous composers. Additionally, a number of new versions of the work have been produced since 1970.
The original “Süssmayr version” was recorded at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago earlier this year. The lively depiction of the last chapters in the drama of salvation (death, judgment, heaven and hell) are presented by the St. Cecilia Choir and an orchestra comprised largely of musicians from Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Father Michael Magiera, of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, is the tenor on the album, a part he has sung many times in his career as an opera and concert singer. From 1976 to 1996, Father Magiera sang across the United States and Europe. It wasn’t until the traditional Latin Mass had started a comeback that he himself came back to the Church.
Father Magiera was ordained for the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter in 2005 and is currently at St. John the Baptist in North Little Rock, Arkansas. However, he will soon be stationed at St. Joseph in Rockdale, Illinois.
Before leaving for his new post, Father Magiera spoke of the new album, the holy souls in purgatory and his music-filled vocation story as the Nov. 22 feast day of St. Cecilia, patroness of musicians, and the 225th anniversary of Mozart’s own death, on Dec. 5, approached.
How did the new Requiem CD come about?
Mozart’s Requiem was performed at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago last year on All Souls’ Day. A Catholic who hadn’t been practicing was in attendance and was so moved by the performance that he offered to underwrite a recording of it, and he started coming to church regularly. That’s what great art can do: draw people back to God and inspire them to share good things with others.
Father Scott Haynes, the music director for St. John Cantius, asked me to be the tenor on the album. Because he is dedicated to making high-quality music, I was happy to accept his invitation. I flew to Chicago earlier this year — it was the beginning of Lent — and we recorded the album. Then came the rest of Lent, then Holy Week, Easter and Pentecost — busy times for any priest. Add the multifaceted music schedule at St. John Cantius to the mix, and the album was released about a month ago.
That’s just in time for the month of November, dedicated to the holy souls in purgatory.
Yes, I’ve often told people that, while we should have an active concern for the holy souls, we should not be depressed over their condition. November should be a time of solemn reflection and sacrifice, but always with an eye toward the final goal. The only exit door from purgatory is the entrance door to heaven, and we can help the souls get there by our prayers, Masses and good works.
Finding peace and rest after death has long been seen as a mystical, grace-filled pursuit, full of promise for poetry and prayer. Composers have been inspired by death to create music that remembers the faithful departed and their journey beyond the grave.
Some requiem Masses and other musical works related to death were composed, not for church, but for a concert hall. Gioachino Rossini’s Stabat Mater has an emotionally outlandish character rather than a mournful, penitential one. Yet works like this influenced sacred music, making it more secular in character and less worthy of worship.
This prompted Pope St. Pius X to pen a motu proprio called Tra le Sollecitudini (Sacred Music). The Holy Father wanted to prevent music from being the focal point of the liturgy and an object of entertainment, so he banned certain instruments from church and held up Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony as being appropriate for the Roman liturgy.
Mozart’s Requiem was not intended to be entertainment, but it is not a work your average parish could easily put together. It takes a number of skilled musicians and a lot of time and effort, so the fact is, most people will only be able to hear it recorded. Thus the benefit of the album recorded at St. John Cantius.
What is your vocation story?
I was born in 1951, a time that was very different from the one we live in today. We would never even consider missing Sunday Mass, and there was more of a “domestic church feel” in the average Catholic household in the United States. We just seemed to breathe Catholicism.
I enjoyed attending Mass at St. William Church in Lawndale, Pennsylvania. I remember being in the first grade and, despite not really understanding what the priests were doing up at the altar, thinking, “That is the neatest thing in the world. I want to do what they’re doing when I grow up.”
Well, I grew up, but some strange things started happening at Mass in the mid-1960s. The changes weren’t too major at first, but they became so. For example, we had First Friday “Rock Masses,” with all kinds of awful music. We sang Leaving on a Jet Plane for the Ascension, and at our high-school baccalaureate Mass, The Sound of Silence was the entrance hymn. The priests processed up the aisle to the words “Hello darkness, my old friend ...”
It all became so loony that by the time I left college, I had also left the Church. I just didn’t have that same sense of wonder as when I was in first grade. Music had become an awkward appendage to worship, rather than an essential element of it. All the renditions of Hey Jude at Mass, not to mention the non-music novelties, left me thinking my time would be better spent somewhere else.
Where did that end up being?
I always enjoyed music and was encouraged to do something in that field. I became an opera singer and worked in cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore and San Diego. I also spent five years in Europe, singing throughout Germany, Switzerland [and] a bit in France and Austria.
When I came back to the U.S. in the late 1980s, I sang for an Anglo-Catholic parish in Philadelphia. They were Protestants, properly speaking, but they had a great respect for sacred music, using works from Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Tomas Luis da Victoria and William Byrd. That made for a reverent liturgy, which served as a sharp contrast to the music used by American Catholics.
We Americans tend to be very hardworking at our jobs, but we often treat things outside our jobs in a very utilitarian and casual way. We [overall] don’t see the benefit of making a meal from scratch; it’s much easier to throw a frozen dinner in the microwave after a long day at the office. Music doesn’t escape this mindset; we like music easy to sing and readily available. The higher forms of song, such as Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony, just take too much effort.
How did you get back to the Catholic Church?
I read about Pope St. John Paul II’s 1988 motu proprio Ecclesia Dei (Church of God), in which he encouraged wider use of the traditional Latin Mass. Even though I had left the Church long before that, the Church — as I encountered it in my youth — never really left me. When I finally had a place to exercise Catholicism as I had known it, I was happy to do so.
Now that priests were doing what they did at Mass when I was a child, I wanted to be a part of that. I applied to the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest in the late 1990s, but was denied entry. I was in my mid 40s at the time, so the rejection wasn’t too surprising. Then I applied to the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter and, thanks be to God, was accepted.
What do you think of your new shot at the priesthood?
I love being a priest. Even though being ordained in my 20s would have been the ideal, the experiences leading to ordination in my 50s have been a help in ministry. If I hadn’t been an opera singer, I wouldn’t have been able to sing The Star-Spangled Banner before an NFL game, an experience which was an opportunity for evangelization.
That was at an Indianapolis Colts’ game at Lucas Oil Stadium in December 2009. I walked onto the field wearing my cassock in front of 67,000 people and sang the national anthem. That went fine, but, humorously, the ensuing game turned out to be the only home loss for the Colts that season. I don’t know if that had anything to do with not being invited back to sing. However, I am certain of one thing: I am fortunate that God gives second chances.
Because of my artistic background, I’m able to see the value of sacred art and how the Mass, while primarily a work of worship, is also a work of art. The whole point of sacred art is to use sense-perceptible things to point toward higher things beyond our senses. Our minds and hearts are lifted up to the angels and saints and, of course, Christ himself, who, as the living icon of the Father, is our only route to heaven.
One of the beautiful things about being lifted up to Christ is that we can, as members of his body, do things we could not on our own — things which are done at the service of others. The composition of Mozart’s Requiem can be seen as analogous to this. He was commissioned for it and started writing it, but was unable to finish it. His student Franz Xaver Sussmayr is credited with its completion.
This parallels the faith lives of many Catholics. They have good intentions and do generally well, but, at the moment of death, are not completely sanctified or “finished.” Then it’s up to the rest of the Church — the body of Christ — to guide them home to heaven for eternal rest.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle, Washington.
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- trent beattie