Old Beatle and Who’s who say farewell to Fido with a pet requiem
It could only be in England: Star-studded congregation at London church finds a fitting way to honour four-legged friends
If there is one thing guaranteed to get buttoned-up Brits to take the brake off their carefully controlled emotions, it is their pets. What they bottle up elsewhere, they pour out on them – in my case, a soppy cocker spaniel.
Witness the social media storm that erupted last week after viewers of ITV’s Britain’s Favourite Dogs voted the Staffordshire bull terrier their number one breed. It caused outrage, incomprehension and trauma among Alsatian- and Labrador-lovers, who took the poll’s findings as a personal affront to their pets.
There were tears of a different kind on a chilly night in central London last week at the world premiere of Animal Requiem, created by dog-lover and composer Rachel Fuller, with a little help from Sir Paul McCartney. It is thought to be the first musical setting yet for goodbyes to our faithful, four-legged friends.
Hollywood stars (Dougray Scott from the Mission Impossible franchise and his actor wife, Claire Forlani) filled the front pews of Christopher Wren’s St James’s Church, Piccadilly, alongside Twiggy, Sadie Frost and events promoter Harvey Goldsmith. Fuller’s husband, The Who’s guitarist Pete Townshend, was up on his feet, camera in hand, capturing the moment. “He has just got into vlogging,” Fuller joked.
Mixing with the star names were members of the pet-loving public. Many of them had brought photographs of late, lamented cats, dogs and, in one case, chameleons, called Picard and Beverly (after Star Trek), to place on a large noticeboard in the entrance to the church. Some had attached elaborate epitaphs: “Hamish, truly the Most Loved Cat Ever” and “Lucky, Suki, Looby-Loo, my beautiful cats who brought so much joy to my life”.
Up on the altar, doubling as a stage for the night, tenor Alfie Boe and soprano Katy Batho joined the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra and the Chamber Choir of London to give the first performance of Fuller’s soaring, 36-minute requiem. It combined her take on the Kyrie eleison, Sanctus and Pie Jesu found in more familiar requiems, with a setting of Psalm 142 sung by Boe.
Animal Requiem ends on a thoroughly modern and secular note, with a reworked version of Paul McCartney’s 1968 song Blackbird. The former Beatle was not at the premiere, but by the end of the evening, as candles were distributed so everyone could take one home to light in memory of their dead pets, Macca’s absence hardly mattered at all. It was his music that had touched a nerve.
Originally a tribute to the civil rights movement in the US, Blackbird had been reimagined by Fuller as a plea for better treatment of animals – with enthusiastic backing from McCartney, whose late wife, Linda, was well known as a passionate animal rights campaigner.
And that was the other strong emotion at the premiere. Prominent on the memorial board, among all the pictures of mourned pets, was a card making an eloquent plea for the welfare of all creatures. It had been pinned there by Ray and Marion, a couple from Ealing, west London. They wanted to grieve all the animals held in captivity, they said, from chickens on battery farms to elephants being slaughtered by poachers for their ivory. As well as, they added, the many pets with whom they had shared their lives.
“As they come to the end, and we know they are passing, I always put on my best clothes,” Marion confided. “It is my own ritual.”
In Fuller’s requiem, which had moved them profoundly, they hoped that animal lovers everywhere would now have access to a musical ceremony to allow them to say a “proper” goodbye. It was a thought echoed by another in the audience, National Trust worker Bernadette Gillow. “We have buried three of our pets in our garden,” she said, as she pointed out pictures on the noticeboard of Toby, her lurcher, and Portia and Phoebe, her cats. “They were all rescue. When they died, there was no ritual we knew of to use. My husband is ex-army, so he played the Last Post. But now we have this requiem. I think it will be widely used.”
Which will be music to Fuller’s ears, confirming her belief that, with by some estimates half of the UK population having a pet, there is a huge untapped need out there.
A recording of Animal Requiem, featuring both Paul McCartney and Alfie Boe, has been made available to download, with a CD to follow in March.
Tall, straight-backed, with her long dark hair coiled on the back of her head, and elegantly dressed in a black jacket and long white skirt ensemble that reflected her wish that the event be “more memorial than funeral”, Fuller had, in her early days, worked as an organist in a crematorium, before building a successful career as an orchestrator, composer, broadcaster and recording artist. After meeting Townshend in 1996, she collaborated with him on a classical adaptation of The Who’s Quadrophenia.
“I have always grown up with animals,” she said. “At the age of two, I was obsessed by the pigs when we visited my grandparents in Suffolk.” It was what she refers to as her “addiction” to dogs that led her to create Animal Requiem, prompted in particular by the grief she felt after losing (to old age) six dogs in five years, including two in one week.
At the home she and Townshend share in Richmond, southwest London, she has built a small shrine for the six caskets containing the ashes of their dogs. “I prefer cremation to burying them in the garden, because what happens if we move house? We can’t just leave them behind.”
She wants people to have choices, and that is why she is making her new work available to grieving pet owners. “I’ve kept the score simple so that mid-level musicians can perform it, so I am hoping that it can used in churches, schools and community centres.”
This is more crusade than commercial venture. Any profits from the CD will be distributed to animal welfare charities. The campaigning edge was there, too, among other well-known faces taking part. Actor Peter Egan, best known for his roles in Downton Abbey and Ever Decreasing Circles, combined the role of narrator with offering a few lines from a favourite reflection, entitled Just a Dog. It brought an audible echo of recognition in the pews.
“From time to time,” began the anonymous but popular piece, “people tell me: ‘Lighten up, it’s just a dog’, or ‘That’s a lot of money for just a dog ... ’” It seemed to crystallise a universal feeling in the church, sometimes dismissed as sentimental by society at large: “Just a dog brings into my life the very essence of friendship, trust and pure and unbridled joy. Just a dog brings out the compassion and patience that makes me a better person.”
It had me hurrying home afterwards to our now ageing family pet, hoping that the candle I had been handed at the requiem would not be required any time soon.
Download Animal Requiem from istnin.co/animalrequiem
– © The Daily Telegraph