We were at a deeply moving event last night – the world premiere of the Titanic Requiem composed by Robin and R.J.Gibb. The audience gathered at Central Hall in Westminster – a historic venue which hosted the first meeting of the UN General Assembly in 1946. Through its tall windows we could see the now shining white and illuminated Westminster Abbey, with Big Ben and the London Eye beyond.
I had no idea how Robin and his son RJ were going to approach a requiem, but from the moment it began, the event it was designed to commemorate sprang vividly into view: elements from the Tridentine Latin Mass combined with melodies reminiscent of sea shanties and sounds that conveyed the hustle and bustle of building such a huge vessel in the Belfast docks. Hard to sense how this could work on reading the programme – but it did and you were immediately ‘there’ at this great event that would end in such tragedy.
The combination of elements from a traditional requiem – with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and a full choir (The RSVP Voices) – and more contemporary influences, worked extremely well, and we were led through The Immigrant Song and Maiden Voyage, to experience the beginning of the journey to America (New York Suite in C Major). After celebrating under the starry sky (Sub Astris) the tone changes as the ship moves into fog, and we hear the Kyrie (Kyrie Eleison means ‘Lord have mercy on us.”)
As the Titanic hits the iceberg we hear the SOS woven into the music. The distress call had only just been introduced in this form and the Titanic became the first ship to ever use it.
In perfect synchrony, once the ship has been hit and the tragedy begins, the scenario for the music is no longer predictable. Suddenly, for example, we are treated to a haunting piano solo (Reflections) as time seems to stand still and everyone on board becomes aware of what is happening. We then hear three songs – Daybreak, Christmas Day and Don’t Cry Alone – evoking the feelings of three passengers: a man on the ship singing of his love, a child in a lifeboat, and a husband taken by the sea reassuring his wife that she will never cry alone.
After this very human experience of connecting to the tragedy through individual stories (an element we can miss in a traditional requiem) we are back to the traditional format: a stunning finale with full orchestra and all voices that evokes the welcome of the angels to the souls of those who have drowned. They are led into Paradise and blessed.
There was such a powerful atmosphere in the Hall that there were two standing ovations – one after the orchestra and choir stood down as a recording of Don’t Cry Alone was played, with Robin Gibb singing. The other, at the end of the requiem.
The evening was poignant not only because it commemorated the centenary of that event, but because the performance had begun with Robin’s son RJ taking the stage to introduce the work, and to announce that his father could not be at the performance since he was in hospital.
You can hear samples of the work via this website (and on itunes etc) http://www.robingibb.com/titanicrequiem