Giuseppe Verdi conducted the first performance of the Messa da Requiem on May 22, 1874, at the church of San Marco in Milan. “Like Brahms’s A German Requiem completed five years earlier, Verdi’s Requiem Mass is a deeply religious work written by a great skeptic.” (Phillip Huscher, CSO)
In the past, a less secular age, there were ongoing arguments over whether Verdi’s massive Messa da Requiem was a religious work or, as the conductor and critic Hans von Bülow put it, “Verdi’s latest opera, though in ecclesiastical robes.” The discussion is interesting, because it leads us simultaneously to two truths: one, that Verdi was not by any means a religious man. He had little use for organized religion – his wife Giuseppina said he was “not an outright atheist, but a very doubtful believer.” He was a man of the world, a man of the theatre, and until 1874, hadn’t written any sacred music since his youth. The other truth is that Verdi essentially worshiped Alessandro Manzoni, the great Italian writer whose novels helped promote the Italian nationalist movement.
Even after his wife was introduced to Manzoni through a mutual friend, Verdi was satisfied with the autographed photograph she brought home, inscribed “to Giuseppe Verdi, a glory of Italy, from a decrepit Lombard writer.” Verdi hung the picture in his bedroom and sent Manzoni his photo, writing across the bottom, “I esteem and admire you as much as one can esteem and admire anyone on this earth, both as man and a true honor of our country so continually troubled. You are a saint, Don Alessandro!” (Huscher)
Upon news of the writer’s death, the composer immediately proposed to his publisher and the city of Milan that a Requiem Mass be performed on the anniversary of the death.
So in this work we have both Verdis – the agnostic operatic composer, and the man who wanted, deeply, to honor the memory of another great Italian artist. Verdi’s Requiem was driven by the latter impulse, which gives the work its depth of feeling.
Tonight’s version of the Messa da Requiem came about in stages. The final movement, the “Libera me”, was composed in 1868 for a Requiem Mass in honor of Gioacchino Rossini – a Mass with each movement set by a different composer. That project never saw the light of day (until 1988 when Helmuth Rilling conducted it). After Manzoni’s death, Verdi reworked the “Libera me” and set the remaining texts for the May 22, 1874 premiere. At that point the Liber scriptus was a choral fugue; Verdi re-wrote the movement as the glorious mezzo-soprano solo it is now for a performance on May 12, 1875.
Verdi was, of course, a supreme melodist and the Requiem has many tunes worthy of any opera. Here he also took the opportunity to develop material for the chorus, writing two magnificent fugues and, bookending the work, two very different a capella sections. The other choral material is operatic in character – picture the singers listening to and commenting on the soloists’ distinctive characters (the “Salva me”, “Liber scriptus”, and “Lacrymosa”). It is a sad truth that in very many sacred choral compositions, one finds text setting that is, at best, careless, and at worst, banal. Verdi’s approach to the various poems and prayers of the Requiem is unwaveringly meticulous and thought out; he pays attention and honors the material.
Requiem & Kyrie
The composer Ildebrando Pizzetti wrote, in his preface to the published facsimile:
… In that Requiem aeternam murmured by an invisible crowd over the slow swaying of a few simple chords you straightaway sense the fear and sadness of a vast multitude before the mystery of death. In the change that follows into the “et lux perpetuam” the melody spreads its wings up to an F sharp before falling back upon itself and coming to rest on an E more than an octave below, you hear a sigh for consolation and eternal peace. You see first a shadow, then a general radiance. In the darkness are human beings bowed down by fear and sorrow, and in the light they reach out their arms towards Heaven to invoke mercy and forgiveness. Far from being merely lyrical the music portrays sadness and hope. (from Verdi (Master Musicians Series) by Julian Budden)
The long poem beginning with “Dies irae, dies illa solvet saeclum in favilla: Teste David cum Sibylla” is commonly thought to be by Thomas of Celano, a 13th century friar; it probably is actually from the 12th century. 17 of its stanzas are three lines in trochaic meter with two-syllable rhymes. David Rosen, in his excellent book on the Requiem, notes that the chorus acts a narrator, while the sections sung by the soloists are more character-driven, more individual. There are too many astounding moments to describe – the ‘last trump’ that will wake the dead, the bass soloist’s faltering, terrified “Mors”, the Aida-like “Ingemisco”, and throughout, the constant, terrified “Dies irae” shout. The “Lacrymosa” is two stanzas of two lines and the “Pie Jesu” is poetically completely different, and Verdi solves the problem of this abrupt metrical change by introducing the text with the soloists singing a capella before they are joined by the chorus and orchestra in a sublime close – listen for the choral “Amen” on a gorgeous G major chord before the orchestra ends the movement in B-flat.
Offertorio and Sanctus
The “Domine Jesu Christe” opens with the mezzo, tenor and bass soloists, singing about the lion’s mouth and the bottomless pit, albeit in a more restrained manner than one might expect. As the text turns from darkness to light, the soprano enters on a floating high E; Michael Steinberg calls this “a momentary glimpse of transcendence.” The movement continues with a traditional contrapuntal setting of “quam olim Abrahae”, followed by the tenor’s magical “Hostias”. The text “face as, Domine, de morte transire ad vitam” closes the movement quietly, and then the brass and choir burst into the Sanctus. Verdi combines the “Sanctus” and “Hosanna” texts in a completely joyful fugue for double chorus.
This movement is utterly simple, chant-like and still – an oasis of calm in the Requiem. The scoring of the soprano-mezzo duet and the woodwinds is magical.
The mezzo soprano opens this section with a rhythmically-free chant by, the strings accompanying her in what Rosen calls “the most extreme example of harmonic mystification in the entire Requiem.” The bass enters with an entirely Verdian melody and the movement picks up in energy, then ends mezza voce with the reiterated text from the beginning. “Instruments of light (divided violins and violas, flute, clarinet) and darkness (bassoons, trombones, timpani, bass drum) illustrate the twin texts of the Lux aeterna, which serves as a valedictory for the mezzo-soprano, tenor and bass soloists.” (John Maclay)
This movement for soprano and chorus has some “mad scene” soprano singing, angelically soaring high notes, and a fugue that the English music critic John Francis Toye described as “the clamor of a multitude intent on achieving salvation by violence.”
It could only have been composed by someone steeped in opera, yet it’s unlike anything else in Verdi’s output. The music moves freely from dramatic recitative to soaring arioso, reprising both the “Dies irae,” in all its concentrated terror, and the opening Requiem aeternam, here magically rescored for soprano and unaccompanied chorus. The last stretch, climaxed by the urgent pleas of the soprano, and finally dissipating into hushed and desperate prayer, is as compelling as anything Verdi ever put on the stage. (Huscher)
In 1875 Ernest Reyer described the final measures as: la dernière lueur de la lampe qui s’éteint sous les arceaux d’une cathédrale – “the last light of the lamp which is extinguished under the arches of a cathedral.” Francis Toye wrote, “Force has failed; only the appeal to mercy remains, now so abject that it is spoken rather than sung.”
—Anne Watson Born