— Program Notes —
All but one of Guiseppe Verdi’s masterworks are operas. Fortunately for us, it is not a venture into some uncharted territory, but rather a stirring and imaginative setting of one of the oldest texts in the Roman Catholic canon. That one exception is his stunning Requiem, into which he poured the same vibrant emotion that continues to thrill opera fans around the world more than a hundred years later. This is an intricately woven tapestry of emotion, but without the operatic plots, the ingenious character development and the intriguing narrative stretches. If there is a plot, it is of the plight of mankind, given over to base desires and excess. If there is character development, it is of the many faces and actions of a God of superb power, unparalleled majesty and unending benevolence. If there are narratives, they tell an awe-inspiring tale of the universe. Indeed, more than a few critics have hailed the Requiem as Verdi’s finest opera.
Verdi's inspiration was neither religious, egotistical nor fiscal. Rather, his gesture was one of national pride. He considered the opera composer Gioacchino Rossini one of the two greatest Italian artists of his time. Four days after Rossini’s death on November 13, 1868, Verdi wrote his publisher Ricordi to propose a requiem mass to be given one year later in Rossini’s heartland of Bologna. Each of the twelve sections was to be written by an Italian composer, so that the result would compensate for any lack of unity with a variety of universal veneration. Verdi himself would supply the concluding section. There was to be “no foreign hand, nor hand foreign to art, no matter how powerful, to help us.” To avoid petty vanity, all composers and performers were to contribute their services. To avoid exploitation, the score was to be sealed in the city archives and presented only on subsequent anniversaries of Rossini’s death. While all the assignments were completed in ample time, the performance never materialized, the organizing committee was disbanded, Verdi refused to allow publication or performance of his portion, and in 1873 his score was returned. He soon found another appropriate use for it.
Alessandro Manzoni(1785-1873)Verdi’s other idol was Alessandro Manzoni. Although Manzoni had written only a single novel, I promessi sposi (“The Betrothed”), it was so popular that the author became the leading Italian literary figure of the century. A sprawling historical tale of peasant lovers buffeted by and triumphing over the repression of society, religion and injustice, it emerged as the driving literary force of the Risorgimento movement for Italian unification. Originally published in 1827, in 1840 Manzoni rewrote it in Tuscan, which he considered the pure indigenous Italian language. William Manning notes that beneath its plot and characters, it served as “a kind of stylebook of the language of a country which though politically united was linguistically chaotic.”
As a teenager, Verdi had read the book following its initial publication and came to view it as serving two complementary and ideal uses of art for social ends—not only did it transcend politics to rally people by appealing to their collective roots, but its popularity served as a cultural emissary to attract the world’s attention and admiration. When he finally met Manzoni in 1868, Verdi revered him as a saint.
Although Manzoni’s death in his 89th year was hardly unexpected, Verdi was deeply grieved. The next day he wrote to his publisher Ricordi that although he wouldn’t attend the funeral, “I will come in a little while to visit his tomb, alone and without being seen, and perhaps (after further meditation and after having gauged my strength) to suggest something to honor his memory.” The next week Verdi made his pilgrimage, condemned the many published tributes as superficial and resolved to write a requiem, but this time without the political snags and bickering that had thwarted his Rossini project. His proposal—to write the entire mass himself if Milan would fund its first performance. Despite opposition from the city council which already had funded a lavish funeral, the mayor accepted, the San Marco church in Venice was selected as the venue for its acoustics, the convention of using a priest to recite liturgy between musical numbers was bypassed, and the Archbishop gave special permission to use female performers on condition that they be veiled, dressed in black and hidden behind a grating. Verdi's project was officially titled Messa da Requiem per l'anniversario della morte de Manzoni, 22 Maggio 1874 (“Requiem mass for the anniversary of Manzoni’s death, May 22, 1874”).
Giuseppe Verdi(1813-1901) The resulting work was indeed as dramatic as any Verdi opera. George Marek calls it “a prayer for peace by a man who had devoted his music to conflict.” As George Martin has noted, it is suffused with Verdi's personal doubts as to the efficacy of prayer, a concern perhaps heightened by his advancing age and fear of what lay ahead. Indeed, the Requiem’s very strength lies in its exploration of Verdi’s ambivalent views toward religion, given reign through the unparalleled sense of theatre he had developed.
As Cecilia Porter notes, death is a complex character in the Requiem, playing multiple roles — an object of terror, a comforter, an emancipator — fully reflecting Verdi’s penchant toward intensely human drama rather than a staid presentation of liturgical dogma or an intellectual effort at theological exploration (a task which Verdi, a very plain man, could never have abided). It is indeed ironic that from this simple man, with no pretension of philosophical insight, arose a work that presents a far more potent sense of sophisticated (and quite modern) theology than the religious works of most of his predecessors.
Martin further notes that since a requiem is an assortment of responses and prayers without a rigidly prescribed text, and since Verdi never intended his work to be sung as part of an actual church service, he could select and emphasize portions that ran the gamut of human experience, ranging from sadness to joy, simplicity to majesty, reflection to apocalypse. As a man of the theatre, Verdi chose to fashion these disparate elements into a drama from which solos would emerge as true individuals, rather than as offshoots of the massed choir. Indeed, his use of solo voices is daringly intricate — not the decorative figures of Haydn, nor the schematic personas in Bach cantatas, but multi-faceted roles that often complicate the texture to subtly question the apparent meaning of the wording presented by the underlying choral forces. The soprano, in particular, seems to voice Verdi’s own ambivalent skepticism, adding emotional intensity at odds with the faith-based text and affording a wide latitude for interpretation. Listen, for example, to the final words of the Libera me, as delivered by several different singers.
Of Verdi’s primary models, Mozart had couched his Requiem in classical order, Cherubini had dwelled on the Offeratorium’s hope for deliverance and Berlioz had deployed his massive performing forces only in the intensely powerful and vivid Dies irae, Lacrymosa and Sanctus sections, projecting throughout the remaining movements a somewhat meandering overall sense of peace and contentment amid ingenious sonic effects (including quadraphonic placement of voices and brass). In contrast, Verdi’s score is intensely melodic, tightly focused and bristles throughout with surging passion and challenging discomfort.
A detail from “The Last Judgment”by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) Why did Verdi choose a mass, rather than an oratorio of Manzoni’s own words, to honor his hero? After all, although severely moral, Verdi was anti-clerical and an agnostic; his wife considered him an atheist and recalled that he would laugh and call her mad when she spoke of religion. Martin suggests historical and practical motivations—masses had been used by Cherubini and Rossini to honor departed public figures and thus a work in that genre was more likely to be welcomed elsewhere. Besides, Verdi already had a large emotional investment in his contribution to the aborted Rossini venture. Perhaps on a more personal level, Verdi found an outlet in the varied text of the requiem to explore his own ambivalent faith through his inherent sense of drama.
The tone is set at the very opening, in which soloists challenge the calm choral serenity of the Requiem aeterna with emphatic individual entreaties. The ensuing Sequence, whose 11 sections occupy nearly half the work’s total length, is suffused with human drama that explores a wide range of emotion while preserving an overall sense of musical continuity. Based on a rhymed 13th century Latin poem, it begins with a heaven-storming eruption of the Dies irae (Day of Wrath), intensified by syncopated thwacks on a huge bass drum, and proceeds through the sun-blasted brass and tympani of Tuba mirim; a chilling bass solo drained of even a shred of melody (Mors stupebit); the mezzo-soprano’s dire warning of the book in which deeds are recorded (Liber scriptus); a desperate quest for a path to salvation (Quid sum miser) in which, in Michael Steinberg's phrase, the soloists seem to cling to each other for support at the height of their perplexed fears; a full choral promise of divine judgment that sounds far more imperious and intimidating than inviting and just (Rex tremendae); fervent yet tender arias of a sinner's confession and a plea for absolution (Recordare and Ingemisco); an abject appeal for contrition (Confutatis); and then an abbreviated return of the terrifying Dies irae that sweeps all of these aside in a wave of utter fear. Finally, there remains only a heart-rending simple plea for mercy (Lacrymosa).
The ensuing major sections comprise an Offertory in which the solo quartet sweetly but ardently asks for deliverance, a swift and giddy Sanctus in which the choir is stereophonically divided to trade leaping phrases of unabashed joyous praise, and a shimmering a capella prayer for eternal rest featuring the soprano and mezzo soloists in tight parallel motion (Agnus dei). But then the respite is broken and the purity and affirmation of these longings are darkened in the Lux aeterna by an ominous challenge of deep brass figures and by increasing tension between orchestra and chorus, creating a division between text and presentation, highlighted by the soprano's attempts to soar toward the light, at first boosted by feathery flute and violin, but then weighted down by the rest of the instruments.
While Mozart, Cherubini and Berlioz had completed their requiems with the peaceful supplications of an Agnus dei or Lux aeterna, Verdi added a further section to conclude on a note not of consolation but discomfiting trepidation. Indeed, the Libera me not only serves as the culmination of the entire work but as its summation and emotional core, as if, having dutifully respected the traditional components of a requiem mass, Verdi at last steps out to have a final, deeply personal say. While the movement mostly follows the version he had prepared for the Rossini mass, Verdi enhances the first portion of the Dies irae outburst with a more intense orchestral role, darkens the texture, and shifts emphasis from the universality of the chorus to the personal plea of the solo soprano.
A detail from “The Last Judgment”by Michelangelo Buonarroti The structure of his Libera me is one of disconcerting clashes of styles and a succession of moods that dispels any comfort the text might suggest. It begins in the naïve, pure faith of a hushed monotone Gregorian chant, soon challenged by trembling fear of the soprano’s premonition of the day of reckoning. The tranquility is shattered by a reprise of the uproar of the Dies Irae outburst from the second movement, followed by a reflection of the Requiem aeterna that opened the work, but this time, rather than setting an initial reverential mood and reference point, it barely dispels the preceding turmoil; indeed, its temporizing aura of universal order is soon challenged by the soprano, this time embellishing the soothing choral lines with a reminder of the skeptical human dimension. Then, after she turns fearful once again, there erupts a stern fugue, that most venerable, staid and intellectual of musical forms, suggesting a final effort to restore order and revert to historical precedent, but in this context it seems more an insistent demand than an appealing supplication. Soon, its universal abstraction, too, ultimately cedes to the increasingly desperate human quest of the lone soprano. Indeed, it seems that Verdi, like Jesus, has humanized the relationship between mankind and deity concerning death, the one mystery of life that we all must confront regardless of social rank or religious outlook.
After a final climax that utterly exhausts the chorus, the soprano offers a line of chant in a nearly conversational tone, marked in the score senza misura (without strict time), and then, as softly as possible (marked pppp) at the very bottom of her range (middle C) and utterly drained of feeling (the score specifies morendo—“dying away”) with final breaths barely manages to growl two final pleas of “libera me” as if, having tried all the standard approaches to prayer, she is left stripped of any armor religion might provide to confront the worst fear of all for a culture steeped in faith—that at the very end of life’s struggle there is no salvation at all but only eternal silence. And so Verdi’s Requiem ends in a gesture that is musically and philosophically both thoroughly modern in its theology and utterly devastating in its emotional impact.
Even before its first performance, the Requiem met critical resistance. Hans von Bulow disparaged it as “oper im Kirchengewande” (“opera in ecclesiastical dress”) and others denounced its cheapening of religion with theatrical contrivances. Critics ever since have debated the nature of the work. Its juxtaposition of solo voices and chorus, extreme sensitivity to the text, and outright drama have marked it as operatic, and indeed Verdi cast the two female solos with opera stars who had created the leads in his Aïda four years earlier and rejected a tenor who wasn’t spontaneous enough. Yet, its counterpoint and repetition, avoidance of casting soloists as specific characters, and massive sonic structures suggest theatre, in the service of which Verdi demanded that the orchestra play with “verve and fire” and used choruses ranging from 120 singers for the premiere to 1,200 on tour at London’s Royal Albert Hall. All the while, its respectful treatment of the text is palpably religious— Eduard Hanslick quipped, “When a female singer appeals to Jesus, she shouldn’t sound as if she were pining for her lover.” Verdi hedged, saying only that he didn’t want it sung as opera or theatre, “There are questions of expression and character that are not so easy.”
But, as Robert Jacobson noted, these are needless distinctions—while Northern Europe tended to treat matters of faith with austere awe, Italy and Spain had a long tradition of bringing religion and drama under one roof — quite literally, as their resplendent Baroque churches fused art, architecture and ritual into a dazzling spectacle that overwhelmed worshipers. As Verdi said, “The interiors of churches need not be dimly lit.”
Hanslick rebutted Bulow by noting that no music since Gregorian chant is “pure” and that Verdi was merely talking to God in his own language, reflecting the emotional range of the composer’s own people. Verdi’s wife Guiseppina summed it up well, “I would have disowned a Mass by Verdi that had been made following Model A, B or C. … A man like Verdi must write like Verdi.” Marek has likened the Requiem to Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, which also had been rebuked for its raw emotion that upset expectations of spirituality —both works place far greater emphasis on terror than comfort, perhaps reflecting Verdi’s view of Italy adrift without the cultural anchor Manzoni had provided.
“Pietà” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau(1825-1905)
The premiere in San Marco was such a success that three more performances were held at Milan’s legendary La Scala opera house, complete with an intermission after the Sequence and numerous encores. With that, Francis Tovey notes, “The Mass had arrived at its real home… where the audience, now unrestrained by ecclesiastical conventions, were able to give vent to their enthusiasm in all its typically Italian exuberance.” Indeed, unlike his plans for the Rossini project, Verdi had no intention of caching the score, to be aired only for rare solemn civic commemorations. Rather, Verdi wanted his work to complement Manzoni’s own achievement as a proud emissary for displaying Italian culture to the world, and personally took it on tour to Paris, New York, London and Vienna.
In urging a retired opera star to participate in the premiere without pay, Verdi, in all humility, predicted that his Requiem would be “something that will make history, not because of the nature of the music, but because of the man to whom it is dedicated.” Yet, while Manzoni is barely remembered nowadays, the fresh, direct radiance of his Requiem endures.