The University Chapel, photographed through an arch at Firestone Library in 2021.
Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite

They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not, 
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d, 
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d, 
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d. 
 —Walt Whitman, 
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, 1865

It is that rough, gritty time of year in Princeton when we come traditionally to letting go and moving forward. This is typified by the changeover in leadership (I almost said “management,” but that at times may be optimistic) of many student organizations from the seniors to the juniors; of the refocusing of academic departments toward junior generals, senior comps, and dissertations, plus planning for the transition of faculty — often highly honored and valued — to emeritus status come July; of the various strained kabuki dances performed by the incipient graduates and their incipient employers. 

As for the alumni, we attempt a return to campus, a locale physically uninspiring (or worse) at the end of February, because of the great depth of meaning embodied with our attachment to George Washington. Sure. Actually, as we’ve noted before, Alumni Day has morphed into a nostalgic occasion where we honor fellow alums and exceptional current students, which I fear too often reminds us others of what we might have accomplished if we had actually studied, or reinforces the suspicion we were confused by admissions with the offspring of Meg Whitman ’77 or Bill Bradley ’65 or somebody, and greenlit by typo. Since such a pity party really has little practical upside come the dawn on March 1, increasingly the import of Alumni Day has appropriately turned to the afternoon Service of Remembrance in honor of all those in the community who have died during the year prior. Extraordinary effort is taken to track down any classmate or building superintendent or lab assistant who has passed on, to get their name and spelling precisely formatted, to invite their families, and to include them as equal contributors to the challenging work, not of being another fine university, but of being better than that whenever remotely possible.

The service is our own version of a requiem Mass (pause for the old Scots Presbyterians in the Princeton Cemetery to rotate a few times), a religious and ultimately — through composers and lyricists — a profoundly literary memorial concept. It is a service that ideally channels our respect for those who have died, and our sense of loss in their absence, in ways that help us feel comforted in our reflection, perhaps even inspired. This notably means very different things to different people, and so has led to a musical genre which is peculiarly quirky. In real life, this unique musical form seems to engender two main peculiarities. First, it is overwhelmingly one per customer. Great operatic composers and great symphonic composers and great concerto composers and great Broadway composers generally write a number of operas, symphonies, or whatever. In the religious world, that holds for oratorios and Masses as well. But it’s essentially limited to one in the requiem universe; over the 500 years or so they have been around, composers with more than one well-known requiem can be counted on one hand; there are essentially none in the last two centuries. Second, the content of a requiem can vary dramatically, according to the composer’s (notably not the commissioner or church’s) personal attitudes, and they recently have been more at home in concert halls than churches. The astonishing and semi-hallucinatory Requiem of Hector Berlioz in 1837 specified over 400 performers. Meanwhile, a huge range of different elements has been added and deleted from the prescribed Catholic texts in various approaches. Berlioz’s thunderous Dies Irae doesn’t appear at all in many later requiems, including the groundbreaking jewel of Gilbert Fauré in 1887, which instead of the fearsome day of judgement substitutes the quiet couplet Pie Jesu and a final apotheosis In paradisum. One of the most powerful variations incorporates the World War I poetry of young Wilfred Owen in Benjamin Britten’s 1962 War Requiem

Which brings us, in the same era, to Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem from 1947, by far his most renowned composition. There aren’t many alternatives; a compulsive perfectionist, he published but 14 major pieces in his 84 years. The provenance of the mystical composition is even stranger: Not a spontaneous reaction to the death of a loved one, or the perilous state of the world, or the feeble condition of man, it was just commissioned as part of a feel-good program by the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy government of France in 1941. Duruflé’s obsessed pickiness led to a six-year gestation period, outlasting Vichy completely; but he bluntly insisted on payment by the post-war loyalist government anyway. It recalls in structure and echoes of Gregorian chant the delicacy and emotion of the Fauré from 60 years before. One of France’s preeminent organists and a well-known teacher while he wasn’t ceaselessly revising his compositions, following his second marriage in 1953 Duruflé took to touring with his wife Marie-Madeleine, a highly talented organist in her own right. Their fifth and final tour of the United States covered much of 1971, with a performance of the Requiem with Marie-Madeleine at the organ and including the Princeton High School Choir at the Trenton Episcopal Cathedral. 

Dissolve to the 21st century. The highly talented Mariana Corichi Gómez ’21 went through what must have been purgatorio (to inject a little Dante into the afterlife discussion) to put together her junior conducting project in the music department, a full performance of the very same Duruflé Requiem, complete with chamber orchestra. Thanks to COVID, it blew up. But 18 months later, with Gómez graduated and now working at the music department and as associate conductor of the Glee Club, everybody involved took on the burden of reviving it, with scattered rehearsals around campus to comply with COVID regulations, and a masked performance in the Chapel, about as evocative a location for any requiem as can be imagined. 

And then there was the news about Daniel Granberg ’19. A dynamo from Colorado who earned a math degree while singing in no fewer than five singing groups as an undergrad (including both the Glee Club and Chapel Choir), following graduation he built a remote position for himself with the Department of Energy, and proceeded to fill it while touring first the U.S., then increasingly other parts of the world, while mountain climbing. After two months of climbing in the imposing Andes of Bolivia, he was on a difficult slog across Illimani, the second-highest peak in the country. On Sept. 3, on the trail at 20,000 feet he sat down, his lungs refused to respond, and he died. Pulmonary distress, officially, raising as many questions as answers. His many friends around the world, including the music community at Princeton, were devastated. The now-50th anniversary Duruflé Requiem on Nov. 22 became a memorial to Daniel, with his mom, Jean, in attendance from Colorado. Between the emotion and the unremitting strain of the pandemic on the fabric of the community, there is a tension to the strong performance rare to the piece, well worth listening to here

And there is more. Afterward, the entire community was invited forward to sing the closing Dona nobis pacem from Bach’s B-minor Mass, Daniel’s favorite performance at Princeton. A flowing coda to the massive work, it is in many ways a complete requiem on its own. As it happens, it’s a piece I hum from time to time when I need to drift off to sleep; the effect on me was somewhere between a sledgehammer and an angel’s wing. 

Which recalls in turn the Service of Remembrance, which itself can have the effect of either or both. Although the preponderance of those honored are old fogeys in my age bracket, there are always listed in the program 24-year-olds such as Daniel — and everyone in between — who point up the ephemeral nature of the human experiment and motivate our own urgency in our chosen work. In doing this we observe our own common rituals — read again the Prayer for Princeton in the program — our own requiem, really. But in the end, we are each left directly addressing our departed friends, and considering the effects arising from our mutual care for Princeton. 

Dei sub numine viget.