Memento Mori: An AIDS Requiem



Where to bgin? The road to this recording has been a longish, winding one. It began in 1994 when Jeffrey McIntyre, then director of the Atlanta Gay Men's Chorus, first talked about and then commissioned me to compose this work. I had lost so many colleagues, friends, loved ones to this disease that I simply had to do something. And my way was going to be a musical way.

I did not set out to compose something diverse or unusual. It was my initial intention to create a work that could be emotionally gut-wrenching, quasi-theatrical (not quite so theatrical as Verdi's opus), and religious in a spiritual sense. Jeffrey and I both shared the vision that while my Requiem should use as its model the Roman Catholic “Mass for the Dead,” it should also feature some special twists and turns.

What's a nice Jewish boy doing by setting a catholic and Catholic liturgy? I wanted to put a personal stamp, where possible, on this well-known and well-worn format. It was essential for me to incorporate the gay perspective into this - the work was, after all, comissioned by a large and energetic gay men's chorus. Many of Jeffrey's colleagues, with whom I shared news of this impending project, were not very enthusiastic. Why? Its length, for one thing: a 60-minute-plus work is never an “easy sell” (my pen ultimately yielded a 75-minute-plus evening without intermission or bathroom break!). Publisher Walter Gould's counsel to me at the outset was to consider the attention span of the average concert-gor. Ultimately, Lawson-Gould did courageously take this large work into its publishing family. Another issue was the subject: a colleague advised me that the gay choruses didn't want any “sad songs.” This was 1994 - before the prospect of combination therapies and hope and longer life. Despite this, I began to collect texts and compose the Requiem. Looking back, I now understand that the community most acutely stricken with AIDS was reluctant at that time to deal with this epidemic through artistic expression. Furthermore, the word “requiem” has dark, onerous tones attached. But it was clear to me that it is important to mark this affliction and its calamitous effect on us all.

Requiem aeternum (track 1) begins the Requiem Mass, and I wanted to evoke and ethereal and other-worldly sound here. Weird violin harmonics? Ghosts? Yes, indeed. And in the middle of the text I inserted the poem “Now I am Dead” (track 2) by QuentinCrisp. My late, good friend of over 20 years, Quentin was sometimes thought of as exotic and freakish. Perhaps. I knew him from my London days as an exquisite wit and inveterate partygoer. I knew him from my (and his) New York days as a stylist of words. Fabulous and deeply-felt words. I wanted my “mother earth” figure, the mezzo-soprano, to sing this. She is, after all, wishing her children rest eternal. And what mother would not utter such words on the occasion of losing her child? The movement concludes with a return to the requiem text (track 3).

The Dies irae (track 4) still terrorizes me. It shifts moods abruptly. Mors stupebit (track 5) may be hair-raising for both listeners and performers - it is antiphonal and sung in two keys. I meant it to have an out-of-body sound at its core. The Judex ergo (track 6) fugue was lots of fun to write. Not! That was about the time my own hair started turning less-brown (all right, grey). My partner Scott and I were losing a close, dear friend to AIDS. I was determined to put some of David's wrath and anger and “why?” into this movement. And David wanted me to do so.

Yitzko (Rememberance) (track 7) replaces the Latin Recordare. Here I wanted something personal from my own heritage. Employing the ancient ahava-raba prayer mode, I hoped to bring some of the old liturgy to a new audience. The baritone soloist sings the Hebrew while the men's chorus sings my adapted English text underneath him. The intimate scoring here - flute, piano and double bass - is meant to bring out the immediacy of the text. I must add that it was important for the listener to hear every word of this prayer. Noted Jewish music scholar Joshua Jacobson, along with a rabbi and cantor or two, encouraged my adaptation of some of the Yitzkor (and accompanying El Malei Rachamim) text: “Friends and lovers” and “friends of our souls” do not exactly represent “textbook” translation - I am grateful for Josh's assistance. And I am thrilled that this recording includes the artistry and vocal passion of baritone Steve Huffines, whom I first met at the Requiem's 1996 Atlanta premiere and who reprised his role in New York at Merkin Hall with Maestro Somary conducting.

The Wounded (track 8) is my own fourth movement offering, replacing the Latin “Ingemisco.” Quentin Crisp's words spoke so beautifully, when he first handed this to me at a lunch with my visiting Mother and me. They were a “must” for me to set. The pain and suffering a parent feels in losing a child were paramount in my decision to use this poem here. I believe a mother's loss - something universal - needed to be addressed in an inclusive Requiem. This movement is scored for mezzo-soprano (again, my own “most earth”) and men's chorale. Here the soloist pleads “there are no words that we can give to those who fought and died.” Is not AIDS about fighting? Living? Dying? This movement is also about survivors' guilt. Perhaps a simple concept, but gut-wrenching, too. Victoria Livengood's emphasis on that low G-flat in my setting of the lyric “rage” is sung with glorious radiant warmth. This would have made Quentin proud.

An attacca form the previous movement leads straight away into the Lacrymosa (track 9). The Latin text first, as a straightforward chorale or hymn. The second part (track 10) of this moevement employs the words of the late Philip Justin Smith. This section was anguishing for me, personally and professionally. I was committed to using this spoken narrative, written in the AIDS Project Los Angeles Writers' Workshop. Through it I met Philip's mother. Virginia Smith shared much of her son's life with me, with both laughter and tears. I promised her I would find a way to set is exquisite words and help keep Philip's name and spirit alive. But - and there's quite a bit to that “but” - this movement has caused irritation and ignited much emotion. One young conductor told me that, as a straight man, he would not be able to conduct it. Would I cut it? One publisher and also an editor advised me to remove it as well: it might “offend.” I asked them how I would tell Philip's mother that I was cutting this text from my work? I was “offended” that Philip had died, and I was not going to add further offense by censoring his work.

The “David” in this passage (no relation to our late friend David) has departed. The next movement takes place in heaven. The high soprano, our angel, blesses her children on very high notes. This Sanctus°Holy°Kadosh (track 11) mixes three languages, religions, traditions. It is perhaps the most joy-filled moment in the work. Why not joy? The Requiem is, after all, a celebration of life lost and life itself. That is why I use the title “Memento” - Remembrance. A celebration of like (like many AIDS memorials) may still be a part of these proceedings. The soprano sings of choirs of angels, guiding souls to their rest. Is this a completion of The Wounded and Lacrymosa movements?

The eternal rest theme returns in Pie Jesu (track 12). I wanted something loving, healing, to be heard here, sung by our mezzo-soprano. It is presented in conjunction with a stern Lamb of God (track 13) by the men - loudly at first, with brass punctuating. They then return as an underscore (with the same English words) to the soloist's peaceful reprise of Pie Jesu. The chorus here is distant - they are those who are gone. The mezzo wishes them peace. Our friend David and some friends had joined us to listen to several movements from my Requiem, and the Pie Jesu touched David especially. The musical score has a dedication atop this movement: “For David - gifted friend and gentle confidant.” This is for all the Davids we all knew and loved.

A tenor solo introduces the Lux aeterna (track 14): Latin, Ethereal. Could this voice be a soul from the austere Lamb of God passage, who has found its way to eternal light? This leads into the glorious words of Denish Stokes, a courageous and beautiful young woman whose literary voice I wanted to spotlight (track 15). Her story is simple. It was written as a recollection of the 1992 AIDS Candlelight Vigil and March in Washington, D.C. As denise and I first phone-visited, I sensed an old soul within a young body. Simple musical solution: her words, accompanied by an alto flute. Youth and age meet - along with a few other plaintive sounds from the orchestra. Jane Dutton, our soloist here, sings the narrative text with clarity and deep emotion.

Bill Weaver and his partner Doug Johnson have celebrated many happy years together. The brutal facts of AIDS are not unknown to Bill and Doug: they have offered much love and support to people with AIDS within the Atlanta community. Bill expresses these emotions in his poignant Survival (track 16) with the hope that “we will continue to affirm life.” The soprano then returns, almost as the officiant, to conclude the work. She prays for choirs of angels to sing those who have died to their rest, to rest forever in peace. The Requiem ends as it began, with the chorus singing the Requiem aeternam. Now our angelic soprano blesses them from on high - very “on high.” The lovely Máire O'Brien floats her “amen” on B-flats up to D-flat while the chorus sings low tones. And the scoring emphasizes high and low pitches. No middle? Correct. I intend that vacuum to be felt. And heard. Is the middle - this earth - somehow strangely missing? I cannot answer that. Grant them rest eternal.

James Adler

New York City, May 2001

Memento Mori: An AIDS Requiem

I.Requiem aeternum(track 1)

(Traditional Latin text)

Grant them eternal rest, O Lord,

and let the perpetual light shine on them.

Hymns are sung to you, O God in Zion,

and to you vows are made in Jerusalem.

Hear My prayer,

to you all flesh shall come.

Lord, have mercy on us.

Grant them eternal rest, O Lord,

and let the perpetual light shine on them.

“Now I am Dead” (Poetry by Quentin Crisp)(track 2)

Now I am dead; the cold, square house is shut.

Where once I used to live and wonder why,

and every dark, uncurtained eye,

though bleak before, is now a shade more bleak.

Upon the blue-green lawns the starlings strut

where once I stood and hoped that I might die;

they strut and lance with sudden beak

the blue-green blades that no one comes to cut.

And on the pathways, tended now no more,

the raindrops, gathered on the underside

of leafless boughs, drip as they dripped before,

and here I walk and wonder why I died.

Requiem aeternum(track 3)

Grant them eternal rest...

II.Dies Irae(track 4)

(Traditional Latin text)

Day of wrath, that day,

the world will dissolve in ashes,

[the sinful will be judged]

as David attested with the Sybil.

What trembling there will be,

when the Judge comes,

and all is strictly examined.

The wondrous trumpet's call sounds

in tombs throughout the world,

sending everyone to the throne.

More stupebit(track 5)

Death and nature are stupefied,

with resurrected humanity,

To answer to their judgement.

A book will be proffered

in which everything is contained

under which the world will be judged.

Judex ergo(track 6)

Thus, when the Judge is seated,

that which was hidden will appear:

nothing will remain unpunished.

What shall I say then?

What patron shall I entreat

when the just are scarcely secure?

King of tremendous majesty,

who freely saves the redeemed,

save me, fount of mercy.

III.Yitzkor (Remembrance)(track 7)

(Traditional Hebrew text adapted by James Adler)

May God remember

the souls of

[my beloved friends and lovers],

who have gone to their world.

In this merit, may their soul

be bound in the Bond of Life,

with the souls of

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;

Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah;

and with the other righteous men and women

in the Garden of Eden (Paradise).

Now let us say: Amen.

Almight, full of mercy,

who dwells on high,

grant proper rest

on the wings of the Divine Presence, in the

exalted spheres of the holy and pure who

shine like the glow of the firmament,

for the

[Friends of my soul]

who have gone to their world.

May the Garden of Eden (Paradise)

be their resting place.

Therefore, may the Merciful One shelter

them in the shelter of His wings for eternity;

and bind

their souls in the Bond of Life.

May the Lord be their heritage,

and may they rest in their repose in peace.

Now let us say:


IV.The Wounded(track 8)

(Poetry by Quentin Crisp)

What shall we say, who cringed and live,

to those who fought and died,

and what excuses shall we give?

Where can we hide?

If there's a heaven, there they live.

Our hell is at their side.

Whether they blame or, worse, forgive,

where can we hide?

What can we do that will assuage,

for those who live, their pain,

their blindness, lameness and their rage

that it was vain?

There are no words that we can give

to those who fought and died,

to beg for pardon that we live.

Where can we hide?

V.Lacrymosa (track 9)

(Traditional Latin text)

That day of weeping,

when will rise from the embers

the sinful to be judged.

Therefore spare them, O God;

merciful Lord Jesus,

grant them rest. Amen.

An Excerpt from Chosen Family(track 10)

(An unfinished play by Philip Justin Smith, written in the AIDS project Los Angeles Writers' Workshop)

I awoke that morning having slept for maybe two hours. I heard that sound. David was lying in bed with his mouth open and his eyes rolled back. The sound rose out of him like a dried gourd slowly shaking. I knew today I was saying goodbye.

I checked the condom catheter we used because he wouldn't walk to the bathroom. It was full of blood. It has backlogged and when I tried to remove it, both David and I were covered in blood. Baptized.

I held him in my lap, cradled him. That man who meant everything to me. And I sand “Hush, little baby, don't you cry...” And I prayed. Time passed without being noticed. The room became thick with bands of silver and gold light. It was as if all the people who had passed before had come to help my lover die. Breath like a cry and all the world adjusted itself to life without David.

VI.Sanctus˚Holy˚Kadosh(track 11)

(Traditional Latin, english and Hebrew texts adapted by James Adler)

Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus,

Dominus Deus Sabaoth.

Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua.

Hosanna in excelsis.

Holy, holy, holy

Lord God of Hosts.

Heaven and earth are filled with your glory.

Hosanna in the highest.

Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh

adonay tz'va-ot,

m'lo choi ha'aretz k'vodo.

(Traditional Latin text)

Choirs of angels sing you to your rest,

and with Lazarus once a humble man,

may you for evermore rest in peace.

VII.Pie Jesu(track 12)

(Traditional Latin text adapted by James Adler)

Merciful Lord Jesus, grant them rest.

Merciful Lord Jesus, grant them rest


[O] Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world(track 13)

grant them rest eternal.

VIII.Lux aeterna(track 14)

(Traditional Latin text)

Let the eternal light shine on them,

with your saints in eternity,

for You are merciful.

An Excerpt from “The Park Flickers”(track 15)

(Words by Denise Stokes; A Recollection of the AIDS Candelight Vigil and March, Washington, D.C., October 1992)

Today I went to the park. I molded with the crowd and lit my candle and began a journey.

Blindly at first, I marched down Pennsylvania avenue. Each step of my foot covering a moment in my mind.

One foot forward and there was that little girls I used to know. Another short step and I knew that the shining armor and white horse were dreams of dust. One more foot and the last box of childhood joys was neatly packed away.

Ahead, a flicker broke my reverie. It was then that I knew this was not a strange journey. I was strong then. For they knew where they were going... and they had already gone.

Beside me there were flickers. It was then that I was angry. Angry at the injustice of it all. Somebody stole yesterday, cried rain on today and hid tomorrow's sun.

All the malice that I must accept from you who watch my journey and pretend it's not yours too. Rage kept my feet one in front of the other.

On I marched until I could feel the heat of so many flickers I was sure we were blazing.

Behind me there were flickers. It was then that I was sad. Sad because fear has frozen your tongues and makes you answer your children's questions with still lips. And all those who are stricken by self-righteousness have barred the doors to the House of God as if to deny us Heaven.

Then, I turned and was drowned by that sea of flickers. Those that had followed. Those who marched too. I pondered those lives... all those lives. It was then that I knew what I must do.

I carried my small flicker away from the others. Back out into the darkness. To those that were blinded by ignorance. To unbar the church door. To answer the children. To embrace my sister. To carry my brother. To hope that my flicker could help them to see, to know, to feel.

Now there are many windy days. They try to silence me in a wisp of smoke. But nothing short of my last breath can do that.

IX.Survival(track 16)

(Poetry by Bill Weaver; “The Survivor” from Plague Songs)

I am weary of waking every day to the facts of AIDS.

My spirit wilts, yet I must keep busy to cope.

If holding him and pampering him could make it go away,

then he'd be well.

But well is a relative thing. Better, yes; well, no.

This horrific virus can kill our bodies but not our souls.

We will affirm life every day that we have left.

I hate being a “short-time companion,” I want a very long time for us.

A glance over the edge terrifies me

I can't give him up; I'm not ready.

Ready or not, here we go. Bless us God, we need help.

Make me stronger that I feel.

(Traditional Latin text)

Choirs of angels sing you to your rest,

and with Lazarus once a humble man,

may you for evermore rest in peace.

Grant them eternal rest, O Lord,

grant them rest. Amen.

Composer/conductor/pianist James Adler has been hailed as a composer who “writes for both chorus and orchestra with uncommon imagination” (Derrick Henry in The Atlanta Journal Constitution). His extensive list of compositions is highlighted by Memento mori: An AIDS Requiem. Following its April 2000 New York premiere, conducted at Merkin Concert Hall by Johannes Somary, Bill Zakariasen acclaimed this “very ecumenical and consoling” work, which “gets straight to the heart.”

Memento mori features a “range of expression [that] is expansive” and “a variety of utterance [that] is nearly boundless” (American Record Guide); it was hailed by Corydon J. Carlson in the Choral Journal as “a powerful and wrenching work.” Three movements are available as separate octavos through Warner Bros. Publications, which also represents the entire work.

Mr. Adler is also the composer of Concerto in G for Piano and Orchestra and 3 Piano Transitions. A trio of his choral works was priased by Conan Castle in the Choral Journal as demonstrating “Adler's skillful and imaginative musical craft”: Carols of Splendor, “a cheerful, splashy tour de force, skillfully constructed and full of clever ideas,” the “rewarding” A Winter Triptych, and El Noi de La Mare (Catalan carol), “a gentle piece of great beauty.”

Other works by mr. Adler include It's Gotta Be America, commissioned and performed for the Centennial Celebration of the Statue of Liverty and Canticle For Peace, written and performed for the opening of the 43rd session of the United Nations General Assembly. He is the composer of the Classic Rag-time Suite, numerous solo, chamber, and additional choral works, and the award-winning film score for The Hat Act.

James Adler is also a busy performer and conductor. He made his performing debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and has appeared in recital on the Orcehstra's Allied Arts Piano Series. Other highlights include appearances on the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert Series at the Chicago Cultural Center; being guest soloist before an audience of 50,000 at Chicago's Grant Park Concerts; solo performances from Alice Tully Hall to the Paramount Theatre at Madison Square Garden to the Demetria Festival in Thessaloniki, Greece; conducting the premiere of his Suite Moderne for Strings with the Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia; and a London orchestral performance in 1983 at the Royal Albert Hall, which was boradcast by the BBC.

A native of Chicago, James Adler is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He is a member of the Fine Arts Department at St. Peter's College, where he has served as choral director. Mr. Adler has received grants from ASCA, Meet the Composer, and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts; he is also a laureate in Who's Who in American Music and the International Who's Who in Music. His multi-faceted career has led the Newhouse Newspapers to proclaim that “the name of James Adler is a triple threat, as his recognition as composer, conductor, and performer grows steadily.”

Mr. Adler offers special thanks to: Mark Blanchard, Virginia Brewer, Jean Lyman Goetz, David Grossberg, Scott Oaks, John Ostendorf, Sue Sinclair, Johannes Somary, Leon Van Dyke, Visual AIDS, Cindy Wallace, our fabulous soloists, choristers and orchestra, and his loving and supportive mother and family.

Chosen Family, by Philip Justin Smith, © 1992 by the AIDS Project Los Angeles Writers' Workshop. Used by permission.

“Now I Am Dead” © 1986 and “The Wounded” © 1989 by Quentin Crisp. Used by permission.

“The Park Flickers” © 1992 by Denise Stokes. Used by permission.

“The Survivor” © 1993 by Bill Weaver. Used by permission.


The subject at hand has some personal resonance - the loss of my own partner to a long illness, not AIDS, but terminal, premature, nonetheless, and many of James Adler's thoughts and his music are moving to me. My life-long collaboration with Johannes Somary continues happily with this CD and I was able to get a trio of my singer colleagues/friends Vickie, Jane and Máire on board as soloists. The entire recording process, while time-pressured (what recording project isn't) was particularly satisfying - a crew of New York's best professionals worked under the gun, exhibiting customary excellence, but also with something extra here, as both the musical and textual impact of Adler's work began to reveal themselves. All involved were, I think, inspired by the thing - and I hope this will communicate to the listener.

AmorArtis Chorale:

Johannes Somary, conductor

Cynthia Wallace Richards, contractor

Kevin Jones, rehearsal pianist

Tenors: James Bassi, Gregory Davidson, Neil Farrell, James Fredericks, Daniel Kirk-Foster, Douglas Purcell, Steve Raiford, Paul Solem.

Basses: Russell Ashley, Alan Rasmussen, Walter Richardson, Arthur Sjogren, Jon Szabo, Cliff Townsend, Mark Wagstrom, Lewis White.

AmorArtis Orchestra:

Johannes Somary, conductor

Virginia Brewer, contractor

Violins: Yuval Waldman, concertmaster; Linda Quan, Nancy Reed, Susana Heerema, Mitsuru Tsubota

Viola: Ann Roggen

Cello: Arthur Fiacco

Bass: Jack Kulowitch

Flute/Piccolo/Alto Flute: Zizi Mueller

Oboe/English Horn: Virginia Brewer

Clarinet: Paul Gallo

Bassoon: Andrew Schwartz

Horn: Sharon Moe

Trumpet: Oliver Gras

Trombone: Hugh Eddy

Harp: Bridget Kibbey

Percussion: James Neglia

Piano: James Adler

Organ: Eric Milnes