She had 6 dogs die in 5 years. Now, ‘Animal Requiem’ honors all pets loved and lost
Rachel Fuller was an angsty teen in England when she first decided to write a Requiem Mass. A classically trained pianist and church organist, she was 15 when the choir she regularly accompanied performed British composer John Rutter’s 1985 “Requiem,” a sumptuous piece that opens with a low, ominous pulse in the bass before soaring into an angelic blossom of choral harmonies.
“And then also I watched ‘Amadeus’ with Tom Hulce,” Fuller recalls, describing the way that movie depicts Mozart composing his own Requiem from his deathbed.
By age 17 or 18, Fuller already felt like a misunderstood composer, she says. “I thought nobody understood how brilliant I was — you know, when you’re full of youth and full of ego. So I wanted to write my own Requiem. In my head, I thought I would die young and they would play it at my funeral, and then everyone would realize what a genius I was.”
Fuller laughs recalling that impulse of youth. She made some sketches but never finished that Requiem-for-self. She did, however, keep listening to the great funeral Masses of music history, adding Verdi’s, Fauré’s and others’ to her regular rotation.
“I like the text, the Latin,” she says. “And I think the music is really uplifting in a Requiem, so I’d always wanted to write one.”
Now, at age 46, Fuller is preparing for the American premiere of her “Animal Requiem” on Saturday night at Royce Hall, presented by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA. Performed by the Hollywood Studio Orchestra and the talented local choir Tonality, “Animal Requiem” also features Fuller’s husband and longtime creative partner, Pete Townshend of the Who. He’ll sing something by his friend Paul McCartney: The Beatles’ “Blackbird.”
“Blackbird” serves as a sort of coda to Fuller’s Requiem, which opens with the gentle whistle of live bird songs recorded by the composer in Assisi, Italy, at the cave site where St. Francis — the patron saint of animals — often prayed.
The CAP UCLA concert also will feature a performance of Saint-Saëns’ “The Carnival of the Animals,” with poetic narration read by actor and animal rights activist Jane Lynch.
An aching work for choir and orchestra written to honor all the animals she and others have loved and lost over the years, Fuller’s “Animal Requiem” received its world premiere in January in London, where she and Townshend share a home with four dogs, Tuppence, Elsa, Pudding and Peanut. Townshend vlogged the premiere, which featured the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra at St. James’s Church.
Fuller is a lifelong animal lover; she says her dad likes to tell a story about her jumping into a muddy sty on a farm as a little girl so she could to play with the pigs. Today, when she is away from her own dogs and missing them, she says she stops strangers on the street who are walking their dogs.
“I completely ignore the owners and just pet the dogs,” she says, adding that, at home, she’s the kind of doting dog mom who regularly dresses her pups in jumpers and lets them drink Evian from her glass.
“Pete loves our dogs too, of course,” she says, “but he’s not as psychotic about it as I am.”
Fuller grew up with cats. Her teacher mother and banker father were too busy with their jobs to care for a dog. But at 26, when she got her first apartment on her own, Fuller rescued a golden retriever named Spud.
“He was neurotic and skittish and, I hate to say it, but he really was quite dumb, but also just the most adorable dog,” she says.
When Spud was 1, she got him a companion, another golden, named Harry. Her pack grew when she moved in with then-boyfriend Townshend and his border collie, Flash.
“Then, I got a Bichon Frise; then, I rescued a poodle; then, we got a Yorkshire terrier, and so we ended up with six,” she says.
Fuller and Townshend lived with six dogs for a dozen years. And then, within a span of five years, all six of those dogs died of old age.
“It’s horrible when they pass,” Fuller says. “It’s like losing a family member. It’s grief. The dogs we lost, we’d fed them, nursed them; they were our daily companions, our confidantes, such an integral part of our daily lives. When they go, it’s incredibly painful.”
Fuller began composing “Animal Requiem” after the first four dogs from that original pack died. Her Yorkshire terrier was 13 at the time and unwell. Fuller had a feeling her time with that dog was limited too. The Yorkie died the week after Fuller finished writing the Requiem, she says.
The act of writing “Animal Requiem” and the act of hearing it performed in a communal setting were cathartic, healing experiences, the composer says.
At the London premiere, she invited audience members to pin photos of deceased pets on a communal board, which she saved and hung in her home. People at the Saturday concert will have the same opportunity, and Fuller has created an online memorial book where anyone can create a dedication for a lost animal.
It hurts to lose a beloved family pet, and yet, Fuller says, the immensity of that pain is also a reflection of the boundlessness of the love we have for the animals in our lives.
“Unlike a human relationship, I think the relationships we have with our animals is very uncomplicated,” she says. “So this Requiem is not a sad thing. It’s a celebration. It’s about people coming together and remembering, feeling joyful, happy. It’s about honoring these beautiful, wonderful animals, and it’s a moving and magical thing.”
Where: Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, Royce Hall, 340 Royce Drive, L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $39-$99 (subject to change)
Info: (310) 825-2101, cap.ucla.edu
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