Requiem For The Lost Souls Of The Titanic
There were many moments at the premier in St Anne's Catheral of Philip Hammond's Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic on Saturday night - not least of all the fact that, amid MTV and big star concerts, it all felt very right and fitting that a Belfast composer raised in the shadow of the shipyards, paid testimony to the men, women and children who died in the freezing cold waters of a Newfoundland coast 100 years ago to the night.
I had met with Philip back in late Feburary and he played extracts from the work on his piano at home, but I didn't really know what to expect. A work for mezzo soprano, choirs and brass , it sets words from the original Latin Requiem Mass, so you get six sections, including an extract from Dies Irae (a reduced fire and brimstone one according to Hammond in the programme notes), followed by Domine, Jesu Christe, the words poignantly apt in the context of the night "deliver the souls of all the faithful departed/From the pains of hell and the watery depths" to Lux Aeterna "May ever lasting light shine."
It began at 9pm, and there was a sense of the clock ticking to 1140pm, the moment when the Titianic struck the iceberg in 1912.
We were there, all 800 of us, to witness something. It felt more than a premier of a new work. It was an event. Even the way the performers were placed in the cathedral was thought out, with one half of the choral and brass section of the Belfast Philharmonic Society and Downshire Brass at the front door of the church, the audience in the middle facing each other and the other half of the choral and brass section at the altar, with Anuna walking on in dramatic fashion with candles as the lights were dimmed singing a plainchant Sanctus and Benedictus. Belfast-born, now New York-based, mezzo soprano Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek provided a single voice of haunting clarity and beauty, while the Fidelio Piano Trio (Darragh Morgan, Mary Dullea and Robin Micheal) eerily echoed the Titanic band, the lost souls of those musicians playing on and writer Glenn Patterson took to the pulpit to read a series of literary meditations. His take on the two wireless operators sending out distress messages packed an emotional punch that took me by surprise. He told me afterwards that he had avoided all the Titanic material, for fear of being swamped, but had been struck by the depth the Titanic had sunk to. Two and a half miles. It only made sense to him when he saw two and a half miles on a road sign into the city centre and as he walked it he felt the depth.
But amidst all of this, what struck me the most was the feeling we were all sitting in the hull of a ship because of the placing of the performers. Wih the audience in the middle, it felt like we were in a great ship, as the dimensions and scale of the Cathedral mimicked the overwhelming presence of the Titanic. I was told there were 800 audience members, and swelled by the choirs, brass sections, and various musicians and conductors, our physical presence had eerie parallels with the 1,500 people drowned.
And if the event wasn't special enough, Irish Pages, the local literary magazine run by poet Chris Agee, had printed 1,000 special editions of the programme, including transcipts of the Requiem and short essays. As Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said to me afterwards, it was a line by poet Michael Longley that summed up the night for him. "We are blessed to have in Philip Hammond a splendid Irish composer who will listen to the sea and bring back to us the voices of the drowned".
You can hear Philip Hammond's Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic on the BBC iPlayer until Saturday the 21st of April. You should listen. It is a remarkable moment of history in which Belfast listened to the dead and let them speak.