How to turn a requiem inside out


A miscellany of praise singers: Requiem for the Living touches on myriads of cultures and perspectives. Photograph courtesy of

“PLATO SAID TEACH your children music because that way they will learn all the patterns of existence,” says composer Rexleigh Bunyard, who not only sees music in different colours, but she dreams it too. “I don’t think there’s anything supernatural about this. I think this about your psyche rearranging patterns. We come into the world with archetypal patterns and we put them on the outside,” she tells My View about Requiem for the Living which enjoys its world debut in Gauteng this weekend.

“It’s like teasing out wool,” she explains how she uses germinal chords that have been irresistible to her, as a starting point. “I pull them apart, horizontally, vertically, and suddenly the whole composition opens up and it almost writes itself.”

Another part of this work, one movement of which was performed in Johannesburg in 2008, is “a very slowed down kwela, derived from the tortoises in Camille Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals. Those tortoises are dancing the can-can. It’s such a precious image, that tortoises would attempt to do something as incredibly feminine and extravagant as the can-can. So I decided to create the dance of the universe, of Shiva, with kwela, connecting us to the earth of Africa, but slowed down to such a degree that you don’t hear it necessarily as a kwela, although it has some of the rhythm.

“But it is the basis and it is the connection to a feeling that a lot of our history and our ancestors are somehow embedded in the African landscape … The journey in the requiem is a turning away from death to the life, but in order to be able to do this, you reach to the very depths. It’s a rebirthing.”

Bunyard, who was educated in Cape Town, Paris and Pretoria, has taught music part time at Roedean School for almost 20 years. She explains the work’s focus on the child, on regaining the child spirit, rediscovering the original wholeness of the self. It draws attention to the plight of children who suffer abuse, neglect and illness. It also supports the bereaved: children who have lost their parents, parents who search for their missing children, visit their graves, sit in their hospital rooms, and others who have no children, but long for one.

“Music was always there,” she recalls, thinking of her own childhood. “I remember watching from the crack in the door as a very small child. I was supposed to be in bed and my parents would have parties and they would play Benny Goodman and Bing Crosby music.

“I used to try out my sister’s piano pieces when she was at school. My dad picked up that I was musical. He would whistle to me – he had a beautiful whistle, like Roger Whittaker,” she says, speaking also of her father’s violin making skills.

“My first music lessons were spent with me playing with the teacher’s cat. And then they brought Hermann Becker to teach me. He was a little old Eastern Cape music teacher, who called himself ‘Professor’. He would play my pieces once for me – I would memorise them and practice them from there. I have an audiographic ear.”

Her musical path, however, was not a smooth one; after not playing for many years, she was teased back into musical relevance with an impromptu improvisation session with Francois Le Roux, the Ha! Man at the Theatre on the Square in Sandton, in 2008. “I thought I was just going there to listen to a ‘cellist. And Francois called people to be up on the stage. He was fantastic. He said, would somebody like to play with him. And I said, I’ll go. My family was shocked. I hadn’t performed since 1987, when I was a concert pianist. He played a note and something amazing happened.”

Never having nursed a dream to be a professional improviser, Bunyard adds “since I was about 11, I always wanted to compose. Teachers deterred this dream, saying that it wasn’t one for girls, as was conducting,” she grins mischievously. “So, I took conducting lessons … a conductor works from the outside in. A composer starts from nothing. We start from the inside and work outwards. It’s a different mechanism and a totally different kind of composition.

“I’m curious to see what somebody else does with this requiem,” she adds, praising Rick Muselaers, an expert choral conductor from the Netherlands, who will conduct it. “He may expose an earlier Rexleigh who wrote the work between 2002 and 2006 during a particularly dark time.”

“It’s very eclectic,” she explains how she has reworked the order of the traditional requiem. “It’s a mixture of Christian theology and my own perspectives. And praise singers in different languages: French, English, Afrikaans, isiXhosa, Sesotho, Hindi, Mandarin, Cantanese, Portuguese and Hebrew. I was inspired to bring in the notion of praise singing by Zolani Mkiva, who performed at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration. It was unbelievable. It’s a celebration of life.”

“It’s very layered,” she grins, acknowledging the multiple ideas the work touches. “I’ve told the conductor he can bring out the layers he wants to hear. The basic structure will still be there… it’s a bit like life. You can bring some things into focus, but not everything at once. It’s would be too intense. The work is a bit like a drawing by a small child who got hold of the whole box of crayons and has now used them ALL UP,” she says, fiercely. “I had a marvellous time with it!”

  • Requiem for the Living, has its world premiere on August 27 at 8pm at Johannesburg’s Linder Auditorium, and at Unisa’s ZK Matthews Hall, Pretoria on August 28 at 3pm. Conducted by Rick Muselaers, its soloists are Ryan Hoffmann, Claudia Pike, Olusegun Soyemi and James Venables and its choirs are Gauteng Opera and the Horizons Project. Visit and see an excerpt of the work from 2008:

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  2. Hello Robyn,
    I came across this blog today, where you mention that Hermann Becker was one of your music tutors. I believe that this was my great grandfather. He was a professional cellist from what I have been told, he became a professor of music at some point. I am trying to find our more on him – is there anything you would be able to share with me? Thank you,

    • Hi Michelle. Thank you for your message. It wasn’t my music teacher, but that of Rexleigh Bunyard, who is the focus of that story. Where can I reach you? I will put you in touch with Rexleigh.Warm regards, Robyn

      • Dear Robyn I finally saw Michelle’s query and responded – apologies for not seeing it before. Hope you are well – think of you often. Love, Rexleigh

    • Dear Michelle Brock
      Apologies for taking so long to reply, I only saw this now!! The title of Professeur/Professor in Europe means “teacher”. To my knowledge, Hermann Becker was not a University lecturer (some do acquire the title of Professor at Universities in SA) but he was a teacher. He used to come to the house even at 80 years old, and guided me through some of my earlier piano development. In those days I learnt mostly by ear, as he quickly figured out, but I regret to say he was not strict about my learning to read the notation, which I only tackled quite a bit later. he would play my pieces for me on the piano and I copied him. (!) However, he did instill in me a great love of the string orchestra, (I went to listen to his children’s orchestra in P.E.) which I remember, played a Mozart piece I still have in my memory.
      Until this day I adore all the strings, having later learnt the violin and taught violin and viola – wish he had taught me the cello!!! I remember him arriving for my lessons, ringing the doorbell, and the budgie Perky then used to trill crazily (imitating the doorbell/telephone, I think) with excitement. We had to put his cage out of the music room during my lessons because he was so eager to participate! When Hermann entered, he always demonstrated how fit he still was, by running on the spot and doing press-ups on the carpet in the lounge. His false teeth clattered a bit when he spoke, and he was a charming storyteller.
      Quite a delightful old gentleman, and I am so glad to have known him when I did, and been fortunate enough to absorb some of his musicality and joie de vivre.

      kind regards

      Rexleigh Bunyard (now in the UK at (+44)(0)7724653202

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