Requiem by Karl Jenkins

First published in Modern Haiku 38:1, Autumn 2007. Listen to the complete Requiem on YouTube.
See also the
YouTube interview with Karl Jenkins, including representative selections of the requiem (shown below). +

Requiem by Karl Jenkins. Performed by West Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra. 2005. Compact disc. EMI 7243 5 57966 2 2.

Haiku aficionados are likely to find haiku in unexpected places, and Requiem by preeminent Welsh classical composer Karl Jenkins may at first seem an unlikely place. However, it is surprising that it has apparently not occurred to any prior composer to integrate Japanese death poems (jisei) with the requiem musical form—a mass for the dead. Yet this is just what Jenkins has done, with much success. In a stirring, melodic, and at times energetic requiem, Jenkins presents five death haiku in rich musical settings, interspersed with traditional Latin movements. The Latin text is predominantly sung by male voices; the haiku are sung, in Japanese, by females. This voicing makes it easy to identify the haiku during the piece, and also emphasizes what may be considered to be a contemplative feminine quality in the poems themselves. Each poem is sung multiple times, with variations, sometimes drone-like, often with a shakuhachi countermelody. The haiku settings make up 18 of the requiem’s 55 minutes, and are generally among the composition’s quieter sections. The five haiku are attributed to Gozan, Issho, Hokusai, Kaga-no-Chiyo, and Banzan, and the printed English translations appear to be taken, sometimes with only minor differences, from Yoel Hoffmann’s Japanese Death Poems (Boston: Tuttle, 1986). Hoffmann, however, is uncredited for the translations. Here is Gozan’s poem as a sampling from the requiem’s haiku:

Hana to mishi The snow of yesterday

Yuki wa kinouzo that fell like cherry blossoms

Moto no mizu. is water once again.

The requiem includes use of shakuhachi (Japanese flute), taiko drums, harp (especially beautiful in “In Paradisum” to close the requiem), and, as Jenkins says in the liner notes, “even a hip-hop rhythm in the Dies Irae!” But make no mistake; this is a classical recording, very much in the Western tradition rather than sounding Japanese (for example, Jenkins’ Dies Irae has been favorably compared with the famous “O Fortuna” from Orff’s Carmina Burana). The fine performance by the West Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Marat Bisengaliev, marks the first recording of any Kazakhstan orchestra on a Western recording label. Also included on the disc is In These Stones Horizons Sing, a pleasing 16-minute composition that dramatizes the poetry of four contemporary Welsh poets.

Karl Jenkins initially made his musical mark through jazz and the 1970s progressive rock and jazz fusion band Soft Machine. He is best known, however, as a prolific and widely decorated classical composer and musician. In 2005 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for his services to British music.

For any haiku poet who is also a fan of current classical music, Karl Jenkins’ noble, varied, and fulfilling Requiem comes highly recommended.