A Vietnamese Requiem: What and Why

Photo by Anvi Hoàng

Photo by Anvi Hoàng

—– Đọc bài tiếng Việt —–

Requiem is a large scale musical composition typically lasting from about thirty minutes to over an hour. In Western music history requiem is the most important musical genre used to honor, to celebrate or mourn a death or deaths of many people in the public. This genre typically utilizes a certain Christian liturgical text and an instrumental force. A requiem is designed to be performed on stage, meant to be celebratory in tone or preaching about the significance of the Judgment Day, and open to the public in a concert event.

In Vietnam, the musical tradition that deals with death is considered a family affair. A Buddhist family normally invite monks to do the chanting at their home, and a Christian one would have a priest and fellow Christians over to prayer for and with them. Non-religious families, on the other hand, hire a funeral band who would play music almost all day long. There are several components of music traditions involved in the mourning process for family members: a viewing musical gala, a funeral march, a burial ceremony, and a post funeral prayer. As time passes, if they want to communicate with the deceased, family members might do so by going through a musical trance/ballad called “Hát Chầu Văn.”

Thinking about the Vietnamese musical scene, P.Q. Phan, Associate Professor of music, and composer and librettist of the recently world premiered opera The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, said that it has long been his wish to create a requiem using a Buddhist liturgical text in Vietnamese language. And he was determined to make this dream come true. He recently finished A Vietnamese Requiem including the process of researching and writing the international phonetic transcription for the Vietnamese text. A Vietnamese Requiem utilizes Theravada Buddhist text in Vietnamese. It is scored for four vocal soloists—soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, bass-baritone; eight-part chorus; and chamber orchestra. The requiem lasts approximately 35 minutes. It will be premiered at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in April 24, 2015 by NOTUS: IU Contemporary Vocal Ensemble directed by Assistant Professor and Conductor Dominick DiOrio.

This new creation will undoubtedly be an invaluable addition not only to the Vietnamese musical repertoire but also to the Western requiem genre. There are many first things about this requiem. A Vietnamese Requiem is the first requiem comparable to the Western standard ever written by an Asian-decent composer, the first requiem to use a Buddhist text and also the first of its kind to use Vietnamese.

Here is P.Q. Phan sharing about the creation of A Vietnamese Requiem.

Why A Vietnamese Requiem?

The whole idea started because I kept thinking about the fact that victims of war have always been mentioned, discussed, honored in any part of the world. People often talk about deaths caused by war in a way to honor them and not just to mourn them, in order to let the left behind families know that their loved ones’ deaths are not in vain.

Vietnam is a country that goes through destruction and turmoil of wars in the 20th century more than any other country in the world but nobody seems to know about this fact and talk about it. When they do, people talk about it in a pitiful or patronizing way, not with a sense of respect. Worst of all, Vietnamese people don’t even talk about their own deaths in the most memorable and respectable way. So we cannot ask others or the world to commemorate or respect our deaths. To encourage a change in this attitude, I created A Vietnamese Requiem.

Why did you say Vietnamese people don’t talk about death in a respectable way?

Vietnamese people don’t talk about victim deaths to honor them. I think there are two main reasons for that. One, life moves forward too quickly for Vietnamese people. Two, they don’t embrace the fact that the death of others could have been their own. I don’t think they see that. They see others’ deaths as isolated, and thus has nothing to do with them. In fact they are related because we are all the same as people. On top of that, the culture brainwashed people in a way that makes them feel ashamed to talk about their own deaths.

You can see that in Western culture people are not embarrassed to say that “My father had cancer for a long time and finally gave up.” Because of this attitude people get-together and try to do whatever it takes to cure the disease. In the meantime, a lot of Vietnamese people think that disease is a shame and they often hide the cause of their own deaths. They should not be ashamed of something they have no control over. If they acknowledge that they can find a way to conquer disease.

Why do you think Vietnamese people are ashamed to talk about death that way?

I think it has a lot to do with a long-standing culture of self blaming, to the point Vietnamese people don’t recognize that not all the things they do are entirely their fault. They should understand that if they are open to talking about their disease, people can work together to find a cure for it.

Going to a larger picture, it is shameful that during the course of the 20th century, the number of Vietnamese people who died because of war put together is nearly ten million. And there is not a book to talk about it.

Many people do write about the ‘Vietnam War.’

But books about the ‘Vietnam War’ has nothing much to do with honoring and/or celebrating death of innocent people. I think it is important to commemorate those people’s deaths. At the same time we can use it as a lesson or example or simply a way to try to avoid war destruction in the future. Sometimes so many Vietnamese got killed, so many, it is genocide. Like the three million that died due to starvation during the Japanese occupation [1945-46], it is genocide, but we don’t talk about that. We don’t talk much about peasants during the ‘Vietnam War’ who were in the middle of the battlefield between North Vietnam force and South Vietnam its ally. The farmers were there and they died as civilian casualties.

I just think about all that and want to do a requiem.

What do you want to achieve with the requiem?

Largely to honor to the nearly ten million Vietnamese victims of wars in the 20th century, people who died during the French domination [1858-1954], the Japanese occupation [1940-45], the ‘Vietnam War’ [1955-75], the border [1979] and sea [on and off since 1974] wars with China, the boat trips across the ocean after the war ended in 1975, and everyone else whose life is taken because of war or consequence of war.

How do you expect your message to get across?

I use the highest musical art form of Western civilization to honor death and transfer that to Vietnamese culture. Because in Vietnamese culture, all they have is cầu siêu which is translated as ‘requiem’ and which is wrong. [Cầu siêu is a Mahayana Buddhist chant conducted by monks mainly to help the dead go to Pure Land.] There is no need to cầu siêu for those people because there is nothing wrong with them. Cầu siêu is a way of saying these people are in a bad place and they need help to go somewhere else. Therefore we need to free their soul. I think this is condescending. Those dead are already victims, they don’t need to be victimized again. If you don’t want to honor them, don’t victimize them again. It is a controversial way of thinking but it is what it is. Maybe it takes one with a Western thinking to say things like that.

The Vietnamese war victims need to be honored and remembered through celebration. They don’t need to be pitied. They don’t need to be patronized. That is the whole point.

The text is important for a requiem. Could you talk about that?

The text is important. Most of the time the word requiem itself automatically involves using a Christian text about the glory of God, and Revelation which is what happens after death. For me, even though I am Christian but because the major religion in Vietnam is Buddhism, it makes more sense to use a Buddhist text. Because somehow the teaching of Buddhism is closer to Vietnamese people’s heart than a Christian text. Not to mention that a lot of Vietnamese Christians somewhat practice a bit of Buddhism themselves.

What does the text mean to the composer?

The composer should believe in the meaning of the text in order to set the music. If the text does not speak to the composer, they cannot create a marriage between the music and the text.

What would a requiem add to Vietnamese culture?

Vietnam needs a requiem as a way to view death in a different perspective. Death can be celebrated and not to be mourned. I think that is a new concept for Vietnamese culture. You face death with a more positive thinking—it should be honored, then it is not in vain.

In Western culture, people have a fresh way of looking at death, that any death is heroic not just a King’s or a Queen’s. In Vietnamese culture, we accept that death of a King or a Queen or a General is honorable, in the meantime victims’ deaths are not considered heroic. I think dead victims should be exemplified and viewed as heroic in some certain way. By celebrating them, we say their death is heroic as well.

Why did you title your piece A Vietnamese Requiem?

Normally, composers just use the word ‘requiem.’ As far as the title is concerned, I took the initiative from Brahms who wrote A German Requiem using German language. So I call mine A Vietnamese Requiem because in a way it is about death, it is sung in Vietnamese to celebrate death in general but also specifically the nearly ten million Vietnamese deaths caused by wars inflicted on Vietnam land.

–> Read the Vietnamese version

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