Verdi’s Requiem – an “opera in ecclesiastical costume”

Highgate ChoraVerdi Requiem Poster 2l Society, one of my choirs, sings on Saturday, 7 November 2015, 7 pm at All Hallows Gospel Oak, London NW3 2JP their next concert. This time we sing Verdi’s Requiem.

In a sense with this concert we continue the theme of the summer concert about which I wrote earlier this year. Again we sing a sacred work of a composer who is mainly known for his operas.

For Guiseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) writing his Requiem was of great personal importance. It had for him probably a greater significance than any of his operas.

When he was asked in 1871 by a critic whether he wanted to set the whole text of the requiem, Verdi replied: “There are so many, many, many requiem masses; there’s no point in adding one more.”

1. So what is the story behind Verdi’s Requiem and why did he change his mind? The story of the Requiem begins in 1868. The great opera composer Gioachino Rossini died on 13 November 1868 in Paris. Verdi was a great admirer of Rossini and suggested four days after Rossini’s death to his publisher Ricordi that the city of Bologna should commission a requiem mass for Rossini which should be composed by Italy’s leading composers and should have its premiere at the first anniversary of Rossini’s death on 13 November 1869. The idea was approved and Verdi was asked to compose the Libera me, the final section of the requiem. The mass was completed, but sadly not performed. There were disputes about scheduling of the performance and money and it was cancelled. The manuscript was virtually forgotten.

Verdi focussed his attention in the following years mainly on his country estate around Busseto. He reworked La forza del destino for a performance in La Scala Opera House, Milan (1869) and made an Italian version of Don Carlo (1872) for Teatro San Carlo, Naples. Most notably is that he wrote Aida which had its premiere in Cairo on 24 December 1871. The critic I mentioned asked Verdi shortly before the premiere of Aida whether he wanted to set the whole text of the requiem to music, but Verdi denied this and gave the reply already quoted.

Everything changed in 1873 with the death of another man Verdi greatly admired: the writer and poet Alessandro Manzoni who died on 22 May 1873 in Milan. Manzoni’s most famous novel is I Promessi Sposi (The Bethroned). This novel is famous for two reasons: It is a symbol of the Italian Risorgimento – a political and social movement with the aim of the consolidation of the different states of the Italian peninsula into one single state. At the same time it is also a milestone in the development of a unified Italian language. Verdi saw in Manzoni a great artist, but also a great humanitarian and leader in the movement for Italy’s unification and independence. After Manzoni’s death Verdi approached again his publisher Ricordi and proposed to write a requiem mass for the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death. This time he was willing to set the whole text without the collaboration of others.

The premiere of the Requiem took place in San Marco church, Milan on 22 May 1874 as part of a church service. Verdi chose the church mainly for its acoustics. A separate permission had to be granted to allow woman to participate in the performance. The permission was given, but the women had to sing hidden. A few days later the Requiem was performed in La Scala and this performance was greeted with tumultuous enthusiasm. The Requiem became an immediate success and was performed in the musical centres around Europe. The British premiere took place in 1875 at the Royal Albert Hall. Verdi conducted the performance himself with a chorus of over 1000 singers and an orchestra of 140. Sadly the Royal Albert Hall was not sold out – maybe it was a too Catholic occasion.

2. The Requiem is written for an opera orchestra (very similar to the one he used in Don Carlo), for four soloists (soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and bass) and chorus. Also in relation to the soloists, Verdi conceived the whole setting with opera singers in mind. In the premiere of the Requiem three of the four soloists had sung in the European premiere of Aida (the roles of Aida, Amneris and Ramfis) and the tenor was intended to sing Radames, but was replaced due to illness.

Verdi uses largely the traditional text of a requiem mass. Interesting is that he did not set the In paradisum as final section of the requiem, but rather finished with the Libera me. The piece consists of seven movements: (1) Requiem, (2) Dies Irae, (3) Offertorio, (4) Sanctus, (5) Agnus Dei, (6) Lux Aeterna and (7) Libera Me.

The first movement starts with a quiet almost inaudible evocation of eternal rest (requiem aeternam). Verdi asks the choir to sing as soft as possible. The first soloist (tenor) appears for the Kyrie section and is soon joined by the other soloists. The setting of the traditional “Lord, have mercy” and “Christ, have mercy” has great urgency. It almost seems that the singers demand this mercy.

The next movement Dies Irae is the heart of the piece. It lasts for almost 40 minutes. It consists of nine sections:

  • Dies irae (chorus)
  • Tuba mirum (chorus)
  • Mors stupebit (bass)
  • Liber scriptus (mezzo-soprano, chorus)
  • Quid sum miser (soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor)
  • Rex tremendae (soloists, chorus)
  • Recordare (soprano, mezzo-soprano)
  • Ingemisco (tenor)
  • Confutatis (bass, chorus)
  • Lacrymosa (soloists, chorus)

The beginning of the Dies Irae is probably the most famous part of the requiem. The chorus sings with full force and accompanied by a lot of percussion about the day of judgement. It seems that you can hear thunder and lighting in the orchestra. This almost violent and anxious tone also dominates other sections of the Dies Irae in particular the Tuba mirum which speaks about the last trumpet and is introduced by a brass fanfare. There are also gentler sections like the Liber scriptum, the mournful aria for bass Confutatis and the beautiful Lacrymosa. However, there never seems to be any real consolation in the movement, because the chorus always reminds the soloists and the listeners of the day of judgement. The mezzo-soprano’s aria Liber scriptum is interrupted several times by interjections of the chorus of “dies irae, dies illa“. Also the bass aria is followed by a reprise of the “dies irae” theme from the beginning. If the choir does not sing about this “day of wrath”, it joins the desperate pleadings of the soloists for salvation and repeats over and over again “salve me” (“save me”) (in the Rex tremendae section) and joins the soloist’s in singing about the “day of bitter laments” (Lacrymosa) where you can hear the weeping and mourning in the shape of the melodies. This tumultuous movement finishes with a reprise of the beginning and an evocation of eternal rest (“requiem aeternam“).

The next movement Offertorio is peaceful. It is sung only be the quartet of soloists. The following fourth movement Sanctus starts as the Tuba mirum with a brass fanfare. However, in this movement this fanfare does not sound menacing. It is celebratory. In a sense the Sanctus whose words are sung by the angels in heaven is a complementary movement to the earlier evocation of the day of judgement. Verdi sets this Sanctus as a brilliant and uplifting fugue for double choir which is the most cheerful part of the whole piece.

The Agnus Dei is of great simplicity. It starts with the soprano soloist and the mezzo-soprano soloist who sing one octave apart in unison without any accompaniment. Even when the chorus and a small group of instruments come in everything is calm and subdued. The Lux aeterna is set for the three lower solo voices. With its shimmering string tremolos and colourful instrumentation, this movement has a sense of great mystery.

The final movement is the Libera Me. The soprano soloist, who did not sing in the previous movement, starts with a chant-like pleading for salvation (“Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna in die illa tremenda” – “Deliver me, o Lord, from eternal death on that awful day”). The chorus echoes this plea. After a short aria for the soprano soloist, the choir reprises the “dies irae” theme from the second movement and the “requiem aeterna” theme from the first and second movement. After another plea by the soprano soloist to be spared, a brilliant and energetic fugue for the chorus follows. However, the requiem does not end in this optimistic mood, but rather by another final plea by the soprano soloist for salvation for which the chorus joins for the final bars.

3. The verdict that Verdi’s Requiem is an “opera in ecclesiastical costume” (Oper im Kirchengewand) was a derogatory comment by the critic Hans von Bülow. Von Bülow made this comment after he only looked through the score and used it as an excuse to skip the performance. After he heard a performance a few years later, he changed his mind and apologised to Verdi. Nevertheless, one certainly cannot deny that Verdi’s Requiem is hugely indebted to his operas. I think this is not a disadvantage, but it means that the composer set this ancient text in a dramatic and emotional way and I see no reason why this should be out of place for a work which commemorates the dead.

I want to end with a quote by Brahms who was furious about Von Bülow’s comment. Brahms said: “Only a genius could have written such a work”. This is a comment, I certainly agree with.

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