memento mori

Click image for some extracts

Instrumentation: SATB, partly split into up to 8 voices SSAATTBB
Duration: 13 minutes
First performance: Vokalensemble Chorioso, 21st May 2011

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Recording of the first performance with Vokalensemble Chorioso, conductor: Matthias von Schierstaedt

The idea to write a piece of music on the basis of the medieval text memento mori has preoccupied me for several years, before I finally started to work on it in spring 2010. It is less the content of the text but rather the very special language – a mix of old and middle high German in a very certain dialect – that fascinates me.

It is a penitential sermon which tells about the corruptness that leads man to sin and to go into hell when he dies. On the other hand it also shows that everyone can withstand these temptations and thus reach paradise.

Two aspects make it difficult to use the text for a composition that uses words in a traditional way as I did: Firstly it does not have a continuous meter or a real rhyme structure. Although the text is a series of couplets these are only seldom perfect, often two words that are supposed to rhyme are only very loosely related. This gives the whole text a very prosaic feel. Secondly the text does not have a continuous form. Instead it changes randomly between the promises of heaven and the threats of hell, repeats ideas with nearly the same words, and no development can be found.

I tried to find a musical language and form that corresponds to the prosaic text by being very narrative, following the sequentiality without losing a form that works. I decided not to develop motifs, melodies or any musical ideas in the music. Although repetitions of whole passages or parts of these can be found in the piece, they do not undergo a development, are merely adjusted to the needs of the words, thus picking up the narrative form of the text. As the text, the music can be seen as being rephrased in theses sections.

In order to find an entire form I split the text into two parts, the first having a larger emphasis on the corruptness of the world, the second concentrating more on man’s chances to reach paradise and his or her legitimate hopes of success in the course to do so. This fragmentation gave me the possibility to make a clear cut within the piece without losing coherence, and by building links between the two parts – e.g. through repetitions of musical motifs and ideas – I was still able to create a composition in which both parts belong together and do not appear as separate pieces.