On February 13, 1945, Dresden – nicknamed the Jewel Box because of its Baroque beauty – was reduced to rubble by allied bombing. Since 1951 when Rudolf Kempe conducted the Verdi Requiem, the annual day of remembrance for the destruction and loss of life has been marked by a concert. This year, a work was commissioned from the composer-in-residence of the Dresden Staatskapelle, Lera Auerbach, whose Requiem (Dresden: Ode to Peace) was premiered on February 11 in the reconstructed Frauenkirche under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski.
The Baroque splendours of the Zwinger, the Semperoper and the Frauenkirche have risen from the ashes, and the rebirth of the city’s historic centre is a vibrant example of respect for the past, and hope for the future. This complements Auerbach’s message to ‘honour the dead and address the living’ in her work dedicated to the victims of nationalistic movements around the world.
Auerbach is a renaissance woman, excelling as pianist, composer, artist and poet. Her texts have a universal dimension, rejecting religious dogma in favour of global spirituality. The Kyrie is seen as a universal cry for help, expressed in 14 different languages, and the final Amen incorporates texts from Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Judaism, ‘finding a way for these five religions to coexist harmoniously’. Auerbach was born on the Siberian border of Russia before moving to the US, and remembers with a smile that her Polish nanny frequently took her as a baby to the cemetery – ‘so it’s hardly surprising that I became interested in death at an early age! My first song, written when I was four, was about death…The requiem is the most honest of musical forms, when an artist is confronted by the abyss.’
Musically, Auerbach is also at ease with the past and the present, rejecting the dogmatic modernism of the 1960s and ‘70s, combining tonality with a contemporary language. The composer’s Russian background informs the score with a tonal texture that owes something to Shostakovich and even Britten’s War Requiem in the moving 'Lacrimosa', while placing the work in context by adapting the 'Dresden amen' written by Johann Gottlieb Naumann in the 18th century and quoted by local boy Wagner in Parsifal.
For this day of remembrance, it was important for Auerbach to employ international forces. The composer used the soaring purity of boys’ voices to the exclusion of female voices – ‘there is always something moving about boys’ voices and if they sing requiems instead of carrying rifles, there is hope’. The choristers from St Thomas, New York, and St Paul’s Cathedral, London, with soloists Richard Pittsinger and Jack Keller, joined with baritone Mark Stone and countertenor Maarten Engeltjes, and the men’s chorus and orchestra of the Staatskapelle under Jurowski. No applause is allowed in the Frauenkirche and a moving minute’s silence followed the conclusion of the Requiem which, like Dresden, bore an optimistic message for the future.