Music News & Reviews

Emotion behind Civil War 'Requiem' continues to resonate with composer

Composer Joseph Baber listened to a playback of his An American Requiem, which the Lexington Singers commissioned and will perform a third time.
Composer Joseph Baber listened to a playback of his An American Requiem, which the Lexington Singers commissioned and will perform a third time. Mark Cornelison

An American Requiem was an emotional struggle for Joseph Baber to write, so he knew it would be an emotional experience for his audience.

"The experience that you have when you write a piece is the same experience that the audience will have," Baber says. "If you write a piece detached, they're going to feel detached. If I am deeply involved in a piece, the emotion I am feeling seems to be the emotion the audience gets out of it."

And there was a lot of emotion in the source materials for Baber's Civil War work, largely based on letters and other documents from soldiers who served in the War Between the States. There were moments such as a soldier writing to his wife as if they might be the last words he wrote to her, and indeed, they were.

"The problem I have with the piece is that it's so painful," Baber says from his home. "I wrote it, and at the first performance, it was really hard to listen to."

That first performance was in 1999 by the Lexington Singers; it was the first piece the organization ever commissioned. It has since been performed one other time in Lexington, by the Lexington Philharmonic, with the Singers again serving as the chorus, in 2003. It also has had several performances around the country, and Baber says he has heard from a half-dozen organizations interested in presenting his Requiem as the nation marks the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

But Singers director Jefferson Johnson says interest in Baber's work never abated from the first time it was presented 14 years ago.

"We immediately had people saying, 'When can we do it again?'" Johnson says.

He says the singers were enthusiastic about the piece in part because it was by a hometown composer whom they wanted to support. But he says the singers also had a genuine emotional reaction to the work, which, with the use of the original letters and other texts, seemed to somewhat echo Ken Burns' PBS series The Civil War.

Baber says he didn't see The Civil War until after writing An American Requiem.

"I did see it and I remember thinking it was tremendous," Baber says. "I could hear my music in there. I remember thinking, 'What he needs is a good soundtrack,'" Baber says with a laugh.

Both works testify to the hold the Civil War has on public consciousness, the latest example being Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, which opens next week.

"This is something mythical," Baber says. "It has every element. It's also the most literary of all the wars. A historian was telling me it had such a strong literary element because all the officers were so well-educated, and they all kept diaries, so there are so many documents that have survived."

But the thing we don't have is literal documentation, such as film and audio recordings. Baber wonders if that's why a war he actually remembers, World War II, has not been a muse for him the way the Civil War has been.

"You just don't quite have the room to interpret it the way you do with the Civil War when there isn't that kind of memory of it," Baber says.

But there are those letters and diaries, which haunt him every time he hears An American Requiem.

"There's no way to write a piece with those texts and those words and just do it as an exercise," Baber says. "You just have to get involved."