Annotations on Masterworks 4: Verdi Requiem

Annotations on Masterworks 4: Verdi Requiem

Giuseppe Verdi


Composer: born October 9, 1813, Le Roncole, nr Busseto, Italy; died January 27, 1901, Milano

Work composed: Verdi wrote the “Libera me” in 1868, in tribute to Gioachino Rossini. In the summer of 1873, Verdi resumed work on the Requiem, which he completed on April 10, 1874. Dedicated to the memory of Italian poet and patriot Alessandro Manzoni. Verdi’s original title, inscribed in the mss, reads “Requiem Mass for the anniversary of the death of Manzoni, 22 May 1874.”

World premiere: Verdi conducted the first performance on May 22, 1874, in the church of St. Marco, Milano, with Teresa Stolz, Maria Waldmann, Giuseppe Capponi, and Ormondo Maini, vocal soloists.

Instrumentation: SATB soloists, four-part chorus, 3 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets (one offstage), 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, and strings.

Estimated duration:  83 minutes

“It was an impulse, or, to put it better, a need from my heart, to honor, as best I could, this great man whom I held in such esteem as a writer, and venerated as a man, and as a model of virtue and patriotism.” – Giuseppe Verdi’s letter to the Mayor of Milan, about the composer’s proposal to write a requiem mass to honor the memory of Italian writer, poet, and patriot Alessandro Manzoni

 “A great name has disappeared from the world! His was the most widespread, the most popular reputation of our time, and it was a glory of Italy! When the other one who still lives [Manzoni] is no more, what will we have left?” These were the words of Giuseppe Verdi upon hearing the news of Gioachino Rossini’s death, in 1868. It was Rossini’s passing that first inspired Verdi to think of composing a Requiem. Just days after Rossini died, Verdi wrote the Italian music publisher Ricordi, proposing a collaborative Requiem written by “the most distinguished Italian composers,” to honor Rossini’s memory. Verdi added many stipulations and conditions to his idea, including the suggestion that everyone involved with the Requiem should help finance it. For a number of reasons – financial, logistical, and political – the proposed Rossini memorial ceremony was shelved, although every composer who was asked to write a movement completed their assigned section on time (The Messa per Rossini did eventually receive a public performance – in 1988).

With the Rossini project scrapped, Verdi turned his creative attention elsewhere. In the years between 1869 and 1873, Verdi busied himself with his opera Aida, a commission from the Egyptian government to commemorate a new Egyptian opera house built to celebrate the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal. As Verdi conducted Aida around Europe, he also composed his E minor String Quartet, his only surviving piece of chamber music.

In the spring of 1873, Ricordi sent Verdi the score to his “Libera me.” A month later, Alessandro Manzoni, one of the most important writers, thinkers, and patriots of 19th century Italy, died at the age of 88. Verdi, along with most Italians, venerated Manzoni almost to the point of sainthood (Verdi said of Manzoni’s 1827 masterpiece, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), that it was “not only the greatest book of our epoch, but one of the greatest ever to emerge from a human brain.”) Both men were also deeply committed to the Risorgimento, the decades long Italian political and social effort to unify all the Italian city-states into one Kingdom of Italy, with Rome as its capital. Verdi was not much given to hero worship generally, but the depth of his feelings for both Manzoni and Manzoni’s impact on Italian culture cannot be exaggerated.

With Manzoni’s death, Verdi returned immediately to the idea of a Requiem Mass to honor a true Italian hero. On June 3, 1873, Verdi wrote to Ricordi, “I too would like to demonstrate what affection and veneration I bore and bear to that Great Man who is no more, and whom Milan has so worthily honored. I would like to set to music a Mass for the Dead to be performed next year on the anniversary of his death. The Mass would have rather vast dimensions, and besides a large orchestra and a large chorus, it would also require … four or five principal singers … I would have the copying of the music done at my expense, and I myself would conduct the performance both at the rehearsals and in church.” Verdi further asked Ricordi to invite the Mayor of Milan to sanction this undertaking. Permission was soon granted, and Verdi quickly set to work.

Verdi’s Requiem, like Johannes Brahms’ A German Requiem, is a personal statement of grief, despite the fact that neither composer was personally devout. For both men, the requiem’s structure served as an expressive outlet for the universal need to convey emotions that surface when a beloved person dies: grief, loss, sadness, anger, fear of judgment, and the hope of a lasting peace for both the departed and the bereaved. The dramatic, operatic quality of Verdi’s requiem ill-suited it for use as part of a regular church service, and Verdi never intended it to function as liturgy. From the beginning, Verdi conceived his Requiem for performance, not worship.

Conductor Hans von Bülow’s famous remark that the Requiem was “an opera in ecclesiastical costume” was meant as negative criticism. However, one can take von Bülow’s words at face value, without the harsh judgment he intended. Certainly no other Requiem comes close to approaching the drama and tension of Verdi’s, and the ebb and flow of emotion it generates parallels the narrative arc of a grand opera. The obvious passion of Verdi’s music, and the operatic vocabulary he uses throughout, need not diminish the Requiem’s impact as a profound articulation of grief. For Verdi, as for his countrymen, the only way to properly mourn Manzoni and pay homage to his unique stature in Italy was through an equally significant, expansive musical statement.

The liturgy of the requiem mass is not standardized; each composer must make specific choices regarding which texts to include. Verdi begins with the standard opening lines, “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine” (Grant them eternal rest, O Lord), which the chorus and orchestra intone in hushed, muted phases. The four soloists join the chorus and orchestra for an exuberant “Kyrie eleison” (Lord have mercy), which makes the “Dies irae” that follows all the more terrifying. This music is the most recognizable to audiences, but familiarity cannot dent its powerful impact. The sopranos and tenors sustain a high G while the lower voices, punctuated by a shrill piccolo and a pounding bass drum, warn of the Day of Wrath, when fire shall destroy the earth according to dire prophecy. A brass fanfare heralds the chorus announcing the sound of the trumpet that will gather all before the throne of God; afterwards, the bass soloist declaims Death and Nature will “stand amazed” when all of creation awaits the final judgment. The mezzo-soprano and chorus tell of the Book of Judgment, in which all deeds are recorded, and from which the world cannot escape. The focus shifts from prophecy to first person entreaty, as the soprano, mezzo, and tenor plead in vain for clemency (Who will intercede for me when even the just are unsafe?) The Sequence, which begins with “Dies irae” and ends with “Lacrimosa” (Weeping), covers the full emotional spectrum from abject terror to gentle entreaties for mercy, as the supplicant, on bended knee, acknowledges his/her own unworthiness.

The tender opening of the Offertorio, which features the four soloists, emphasizes the mercy of Christ. Its rocking meter suggests a lullaby, and as the singers describe the “holy light” God promised to Abraham and his descendants, both the vocal and orchestral writing grow more luminous. Verdi expertly delivers us from the pits of hell (low timbres and registers) into the glowing warmth of salvation, and readies us for the untrammeled joy of the Sanctus, with its trumpet fanfare proclaiming “Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Hosts! Heaven and earth are filled with your glory!” In the Agnus Dei, Verdi shifts from extroversion to unadorned unisonal contemplation with minimal orchestral accompaniment, as first the chorus, then the soprano and mezzo sing, “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them eternal rest.” Verdi ends his Requiem with an agitated soprano intoning the opening lines of “Libera me” (Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death on that awful day). All the drama of the earlier sections returns, as if Verdi intended to leave us with a sense of uncertainty: will we, in the final analysis, be redeemed? Verdi reprises the music of the “Dies irae,” but eventually, the chorus and soprano end with an almost inaudible whisper, “Libera me. Libera me.”


© 2019 Elizabeth Schwartz