New Documentary Chronicles Creation of Composer's Musical Tribute to his Mother

May 11, 2017

Veteran Hollywood composer Stephen Edwards has seen a lot of drama, death and destruction on the silver screen but, until his mother passed away, he had experienced very little of it in his own life.

“I was kind of left not knowing what to do with myself,” Edwards said in a recent phone interview. "It was a feeling of helplessness, like I couldn’t do anything to bring her back, and I couldn’t do anything to help her."

The rich musical life Edwards' mother, Rosalie “Rosie” Savarino Edwards, brought to their family prepared him for the career he has long enjoyed, composing music for motion pictures, commercials and documentaries.

But it was her death that offered Edwards a way out of his feelings of helplessness and the impetus for his largest musical work yet—Requiem for My Mother, a work for orchestra and adult and children’s choruses that took Edwards and close to 300 performers to Rome for its world premiere, and that became the subject of a documentary with an inspiring message about music, family, love and hope.

The documentary by the same name airs at 9 p.m. Friday, May 12 on WOSU TV, launching Mother’s Day weekend and celebrating mothers everywhere.

Culled from more than 100 hours of footage, the hour-long documentary chronicles the composition and world premiere of Edwards’ Requiem for My Mother. It also offers a glimpse into the life of his mother, a professional choral conductor and professionally trained flutist and pianist, and how her passion for music brought her family together.

Always Something Going on Musically

Edwards’ mother was his first music teacher and also taught Edwards’ three siblings music as they were growing up. She and her children played together regularly, at home and in musical productions at school.

“There was always something going on with us musically,” Edwards said. “We always had some other new thing we were pursuing or some concert we were going to or something we got to share.”

When Rosalie Edwards wasn’t playing music or teaching lessons, she was listening to recordings of many different types of music, which Edwards soaked up like a sponge, even though his college years.

“I would be home in the summer and she would be playing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion one day, and then it would be a Ramsey Lewis record the next day. So she was very eclectic in her tastes, which was kind of a nice thing to be around,” Edwards said.

Composer Stephen Edwards
Credit requiemformymother.com

Taken Away Too Soon

Edwards was in his 40s when his mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and died as a result of complications from surgery. It was the loss of a parent, a teacher and a mentor all at once.

“I just sort of felt like she was taken away from me too soon,” Edwards said. “She was living this idyllic life with my dad, and she goes in for this procedure and literally everything takes this tragic, very quick turn.” 

At that time, Edwards had been composing what he thought would become a Mass in honor of the life of Pope St. John Paul II, who had died not long before.

“When Rosie got sick, and it got very apparent very quickly that she wasn’t going to be around very long, I immediately switched my focus to her,” Edwards said.

Edwards’ requiem for John Paul II became his Requiem for My Mother, a musical setting of the ancient Catholic liturgy honoring and memorializing the dead.

When in Rome

While Edwards was composing his requiem, conductor Candace Wicke, founder of New Jersey’s Continuo Arts Foundation and one of Edwards’ previous collaborators, was invited to become the first woman ever to conduct at the Festival Pro Musica e Arte Sacra in Rome. Wicke then suggested to Edwards that she conduct the world premiere of the requiem at the festival, and he agreed.

Wicke selected several amateur adult and children’s choirs around the country to participate in the performance and traveled to practice with them. After months of rehearsals, the singers and their families, the City of Prague Philharmonic—with whom Edwards had collaborated on two earlier projects—Wicke and Edwards and his family convened in Rome for the world premiere, which was broadcast live on Vatican Radio and RAI TV from the Basilica of St. Ignatius of Loyola in November 2008.

The world premiere of Requiem for My Mother in Rome
Credit requiemformymother.com

The documentary about the long and challenging process leading up to the work’s premiere took another several years to complete. In that time, Edwards says he has heard from many people for whom Requiem for My Mother has helped transform grief into action for others and for the world.

"I guess going into it, I thought it was something I was doing for sort of my own personal catharsis," Edwards said. "But very quickly I learned that it really is about something I’m giving to other people for their experience.

"And what I’ve found is that people relate to this because they just feel like—it’s almost like it’s become a call to action to people," he continues. "If somebody wants to dedicate a park bench or endow a scholarship or write a poem or help a young child out—just something that they want to do that kind of gives back—that’s what I’ve found that people are starting to gravitate toward."

Stephen Edwards’ Requiem for My Mother airs  at 9 p.m. Friday, May 12 on WOSU TV. To enter a drawing for a CD of Edwards’ Requiem or a DVD of the documentary about it, send an email by Friday, May 19 to classical101@wosu.org with the subject line “Requiem.”