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Ross Township resident composing requiem Mass

| Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, 9:21 p.m.
McKnight Journal
Doug Starr of Ross Township, who is writing a requiem Mass to honor his deceased parents, directs the choir at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon. Submitted
McKnight Journal
Doug Starr of Ross Township is writing a requiem Mass to honor his deceased parents. Submitted

The requiem Mass that Doug Starr, adjunct instructor in music at the Penn State New Kensington campus, will compose will be a work of the soul as he honors his deceased parents.

His father died 20 years ago; his mother, almost 10 years ago.

The Rev. Halton D. and Mardella Morehouse Starr are the inspirations for this composition. Starr, 60, and a Ross Township resident, began this musical reflection — now half completed — in the summer of 2011.

He acknowledged that the idea to remember his father and mother in this way is uncommon. As organist and choirmaster at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon, he hopes to debut the composition at his church in about two years with his church choir and that of Washington & Jefferson College. While he performs, Susan Medley of McCandless, his friend and director of choral activities at the Washington, Pa., college, will conduct the piece.

“I feel that I am now at a level of musical understanding where I can write a requiem setting and not embarrass myself,” he said.

A performance of Mozart's “Requiem” was his impetus to begin thinking of this memorial work, but it took the words of a daily devotional to move him on his way.

“It said, ‘Don't wait for inspiration; get going,'” he remembered.

And so he began.

“I sit at the piano and write music on staff paper,” he explained.

“Then, I make another copy with edits and commit it to music-notation software. It's not a fast process.”

Even so, he has completed four movements of the requiem: the Introit, Recordare, Lacrimosa and Offertory. The remaining movements to be set are the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, standard movements in Mass settings. In addition, he likely will compose texts that conclude the piece, the Pie Jesu and In Paradisum.

What will set his requiem apart is that while each verse is sung in Latin, Starr will superimpose words of his mother's poetry or his father's ministerial writings over them.

He already has matched a verse from his mother's burial card to the music of the Pie Jesu.

The words are: “Remember, Merciful Jesus, that I am the cause of your sojourn.”

“Her poem was written from a child's perspective. The child had died and encountered Jesus, ” Starr explained

He needed only to blend the meaning of the poetry with that of the movement.

In most Masses, he said, the choir is in the foreground, with soloists taking that position only in some movements. His requiem will feature the soloists singing in English, while the choir honors the original verses in Latin in the background. The singers will alternate positions.

He plans to use a few of his father's quotes that were remembered by some of his seminary students. Starr's mother had compiled a memorial book after her husband's death. Starr has chosen one for the Agnus Dei.

“‘He drank my cup,'” his father had written in a lesson. “‘God is the host, and I am his guest.'”

Starr's requiem will be a stand-alone piece that might be performed at anyone's funeral. Yet, he anticipates Episcopalians might hear a movement or two during All Saints Day or Palm Sunday services.

This summer, he said, his work accelerated.

“It came. It flooded. I edited the Offertory in a lull.”

It was in this movement that he felt another spark of inspiration.

“In the midst, suddenly, there was a melodic idea,” he said.

“The idea came back and became a core part of the piece. It's the prettiest part, sweet sounding and expressive.”

Little accidents like these add to the creative process, he said.

Medley, also conductor of the Pittsburgh Concert Chorale, said she is eager to learn the work when it is completed.

“I am honored to conduct,” said Medley, having directed her chamber choir through Starr's arrangement of the song “The Water is Wide.”

“It was beautiful,” she said of the arrangement.

She said she is looking forward to playing through the requiem and working with the composer himself. Her choir will learn the piece following all of Starr's notations. Then, she'll call him in to listen.

“It's exciting to hear the work come to life for the first time,” Medley said.

“Writing a requiem is a huge undertaking. It's exciting to be involved with the first performance of a work.”

The talents of Annette Tierney, Starr's wife, in composition and performance also have contributed to the couple's music ministry in the church and at www.tierneystarrmusic.com.

“My wife listens in and says I need help,” Starr said.

But Tierney is available for constructive support whenever Starr might need it.

“The requiem Mass is all about love,” said Starr, continuing with something from his father's notes: “The wisdom of love is a balance. We are enabled to love because of his (God's) love.”

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or ddreeland@tribweb.com.

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