Messa da Requiem
b. Le Roncole, Italy / October 9, 1813; d. Milan, Italy / January 27, 1901
Verdi’s Requiem Mass dates from a fallow period in his operatic career, brought about by a variety of personal and artistic factors. Due to the immense fortune his operas had earned him, and his wish not to revisit the period during which he churned out one piece after another simply to earn a living, he composed no operas for 16 years following the premiere of Aïda in 1871. For the remainder of his life, only projects whose call his heart would not permit him to refuse stirred his creative muse into action.
The Requiem was inspired by his high esteem for two fellow Italian artists. The first was Gioachino Rossini, his predecessor as the country’s greatest opera composer. Just four days after Rossini’s death in 1868, Verdi put forward the suggestion that a group of composers pool their talents and write a joint requiem in his honor. It would be performed just once, on the first anniversary of his death, in Bologna, where Rossini had grown up.
A committee was struck to decide which composers would create which sections of the piece. Verdi ended up contributing the final section, Libera me, completing his contribution on August 21, 1869. For various reasons, the projected performance never took place. This fascinating joint composition disappeared from sight. It received its much-belated premiere in 1988.
Aside from composing for the theatre, Verdi’s other great passion was patriotism. He was actively involved in promoting Italy’s independence from Austria. He did so both through his music – he regularly chose operatic texts that dealt with historical struggles against political oppression – as well as through his personal life. This latter facet included a stint as a member of the Italian National Parliament.
Another artist who shared Verdi’s wish for a free Italy – and the second vital figure in the origins of Verdi’s Requiem – was author Alessandro Manzoni. His novel I promessi sposi (‘The Betrothed’), like several Verdi operas, used an historic episode – in its case the oppression of the residents of the Italian province Lombardy by their Spanish overlords during the early seventeenth century – to comment upon current conditions in Italy.
It remained Verdi’s favorite novel throughout his life; he felt the deepest respect for its author. Understanding that Manzoni loved privacy as much as he did, however, he did not attempt to meet him. When his wife was introduced to Manzoni through a mutual friend, Verdi felt satisfied with the autographed photograph which she brought back with her. The inscription reads, “To Giuseppe Verdi, a glory of Italy, from a decrepit Lombard writer.” Verdi hung the picture in his bedroom and sent Manzoni a photo inscribed, “I esteem and admire you as much as anyone can esteem and admire anyone on this earth, both as man and true honor of our country so continually troubled. You are a saint, Don Alessandro!”
It was only in 1868 that the two patriotic artists met. “What can I say of Manzoni?” Verdi wrote to a friend after the encounter. “How to describe the extraordinary, indefinable sensation the presence of that saint produced in me? I would have knelt before him if it were possible to adore mortal men.”
Meanwhile, Alberto Mazzucato, a member of the committee that had decided which composer would write which portion of the joint requiem for Rossini, examined Verdi’s Libera me and gave it the highest praise. He also expressed the desire that Verdi use it as the basis for a complete, all Verdi requiem. The composer appreciated the praise but begged off the suggested project, citing the existence of so many fine requiems by other composers. By early 1873 he changed his mind, and he determined to take up Mazzucato’s suggestion. He may have done so because he realized that Manzoni, then 89 years old, might not have long left to live, and that his passing would merit the creation of a musical testimonial.
His timing turned out to be prophetic, since Manzoni died on May 22. Verdi was so stricken that he was unable to attend the state funeral. After visiting Manzoni’s grave, he made a proposal to the mayor of Milan. Verdi would finish his Requiem and dedicate it to the author’s memory. He stipulated that it would be performed in Milan on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death. Verdi volunteered to pay all publishing costs, if the city financed the performance itself.
The mayor agreed to all these conditions, and Verdi set to work intensively in Paris that summer. He finished the Requiem by the following April, in time for the scheduled premiere. Verdi chose the church of San Marco for the debut, because of its size and its excellent acoustics.
It made a sensational impression. Wherever it was performed, a few listeners criticized it as too operatic for its sacred subject. But what else could anyone have expected from Verdi, a man whose heart, soul and instincts were firmly rooted in the theatre, and whose responsibility was to set to music the emotional contents of the text at hand, be it sacred or secular? Perhaps in recognition of its theatricality, throughout the subsequent European tour it was in performed in theatres rather than churches, a practice that has proven to be the norm ever since.
The opening section, Requiem aeternam (Grant them eternal rest), is scored for chorus and orchestra. It is slow, quiet and filled with a deep sense of grieving. Passing into the Kyrie (Lord, have mercy), the tempo quickens, and the levels of volume and animation rise as the solo quartet enters.
The quiet close of this section sets up the greatest possible contrast with the following Dies irae (Day of wrath). This apocalyptic vision of the terrifying day when God passes judgement on the souls of all humanity is the longest and most varied portion of the score. The opening is violent and raging, punctuated with thunderous strokes on the bass drum. The ensuing subsections resemble a set of contrasting operatic arias, while offstage brass add a stirring effect to the Tuba mirum (The mighty trumpet) section. The opening tempest returns, but this section concludes with Lacrymosa (Day of sorrow), a gentle prayer for mercy.
The next three movements are more positive in feeling. Offertorio (Offering) is a heartfelt piece featuring the solo quartet; Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy), a brief, joyous fugal hymn for divided chorus; and Agnus dei (Lamb of God), which begins as a restrained, chant-like duet for soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists, unaccompanied, gradually grows in fervor, color and number of performers.
Lux aeterna (Eternal light) opens in similar mode, but a sense of unease returns to the music, especially when the Requiem’s very opening text, Requiem aeternam, is heard again as a bass solo. The final movement, Libera me (Free me) adopts highly operatic procedures in its stark contrasts and dramatic surprises. After an agitated soprano solo, the Dies irae is heard again, briefly, then the Requiem text, quietly and ethereally, for one last time. A grand fugue on Libera me crowns the score, only to cede to an impressive final gesture: a quiet ending.
Program Notes by Don Anderson © 2013