Verdi’s Requiem: A Cosmic Choral Drama
By Thomas May
“I would like to compose a Mass for the Dead to be performed next year for the anniversary of his death,” wrote Giuseppe Verdi to his publisher on June 2, 1873, shortly after the burial of his idol, the novelist, poet and patriot Alessandro Manzoni. “The Mass would have rather vast dimensions, and besides a large orchestra and a large chorus, four or five principal singers (I cannot be specific yet) would be needed.”
The ambition of the memorial project he had in mind makes sense when we consider the personal significance of the artist he wanted to honor. Verdi’s passionate love of literature is reflected in the sources he chose to adapt throughout his operatic career. They range from works by Shakespeare and Schiller to those of such contemporaries as Hugo and Dumas. Yet it was Manzoni’s own person — the man revered as the leading literary figure of nineteenth-century Italy — whose death prompted Verdi to complete one of his most dramatically moving masterpieces.
Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) had been an icon ever since Verdi’s teenage years, when the budding composer devoured I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), Manzoni’s groundbreaking historical novel. Published in the mid-1820s, I promessi sposi is treasured as the foundational epic of modern Italian literature. Meanwhile, the author himself became a cultural hero during Italy’s protracted struggle for national unification. In this respect, Manzoni’s life suggests uncanny parallels with Verdi’s own. (Curiously, Verdi, who died at age 87 in 1901, enjoyed a life almost as long as that of the novelist.)
As far as Verdi was concerned, Manzoni was a secular saint — one he preferred to the official saints of the Catholic Church. The Messa da Requiem or Requiem he announced to his publisher was a project Verdi determined to complete in time for the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death. He himself conducted the premiere on May 22, 1874, at the Church of San Marco in Manzoni’s native Milan. (San Marco was the very church where the funeral — which Verdi was unable to attend — had been held the year before.)
Only once did Verdi meet Manzoni in person — in 1868. That was the year in which the idea of a Requiem was first planted in Verdi’s mind — but in honor of still another cultural hero: Gioachino Rossini, who died in November of that year. Verdi came up with the idea to organize a dozen other Italian composers, each of whom was to contribute a separate movement for a Requiem that would be performed on the anniversary of Rossini’s death.
Even though the miscellaneous parts were collected, financial squabbling and other unpleasantness scuttled performance plans. The memorial Requiem was dropped; “men of talent are almost always overgrown boys,” the frustrated Verdi remarked. His Aida had by this time been premiered (in Cairo, in late 1871), and Verdi had embarked on a period of semi-retirement, retreating to his country estate and farm at Sant’ Agata near Busseto (in Parma). But the music he had already written for the scrapped Rossini project — the movement he had been assigned was the Libera me — was not wasted. Verdi later incorporated this into his Manzoni Requiem.
One fascinating paradox associated with the Requiem — and there are several — is that the stark reality of death inspired in the composer a rejuvenating revival of creative energy. Another is that Verdi, an avowed freethinker who flouted convention and had little faith in the institutional Catholicism in which he had been raised, was somehow driven to write music of soul-stirring profundity in response to the ancient ecclesiastical ritual.
The Requiem stands apart not just within the composer’s career, but within the era. Few other works from the century’s second half rival Verdi’s success in breathing a fresh spirit of individuality into the enervated tradition of sacred music. One parallel that does come to mind is by yet another artist who was similarly skeptical regarding matters of piety and religious creed; for him, too, an independent world view did not restrict his capacity to explore deeply spiritual intuitions: Johannes Brahms and his Deutsches Requiem (1868).
With Aida behind him, a crowning success, Verdi felt it was time to draw the curtain on his composing career and on the never-ending frenzy of the opera biz. Nothing held more appeal at this point in his life than the prospect of spending whatever years remained in comfortably secluded retirement with the former soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, his second wife. But the Manzoni project reignited Verdi’s need to express himself in music. Perhaps it also suggested the possibility for a deeper artistic leave-taking.
As a result, Verdi’s Requiem acquired a remarkable sense of urgency: He completed the massive score by April 1874, within less than a year. Moreover, the scale of his canvas and musical thinking expanded, taking on operatic dimensions. The composer tapped once again into the creative well — just as he would do, twice, for the miraculous operatic undertakings of his final decades, when later periods of silence yielded, first, to Otello and, ultimately, to Falstaff.
Opera in Disguise?
Although the Requiem was premiered in the context of church liturgy, Verdi intended it for secular performance — where the focus could be on the music itself. Hans von Bülow, a conductor and hugely influential musical figure of the era — the champion of Brahms and Wagner alike — notoriously dismissed the work at first without even bothering to attend the premiere, dubbing it “an opera in ecclesiastical robes.” Later recanting this flippant verdict, Bülow came to share the opinion of his friend Brahms, who found Verdi’s score to be the product of genuine genius. Yet both admirers and detractors of Verdi frequently come up with a similar image of the Requiem as an opera in disguise in order to explain its unique character.
Without a doubt, it’s easy to point to other celebrated works of sacred music by Handel, say, or even to Mozart’s own Requiem, and to find sections at least that would be perfectly suitable for the opera house. The director Peter Sellars has referred to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis as his most successful “opera.” (Last year the LA Master Chorale took part in the staging of the Missa Solemnis directed by James Darrah, with the LA Philharmonic conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.) By the same token, several of Verdi’s operas incorporate self-consciously “sacred” music to enhance the dramatic atmosphere — sometimes, as in La forza del destino or Don Carlos, by way of dark parody of religious corruption.
As for his Requiem, Verdi undeniably draws on his wealth of experience as an opera composer, deploying the rhetorical devices of opera in turn to heighten the sense of what is at stake. You can hear fresh echoes of the recent Aida, and Verdi even recycled the melody from a duet he had written for Don Carlos but later cut (in the Lacrymosa). The Requiem also anticipates the still-to-be-written Otello in the stormy onslaught of the vast Dies irae section — music that, more than anywhere else in the work, is bound to be compared with the musical thinking familiar from opera. This is music, writes choral music authority Nick Strimple, that “is awash in primary colors. Its sense of drama is total. And one must search many years in each direction — back to Handel’s Saul (1739) and forward to Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (1931) — in order to find another choral work that presents its case in terms so purely visceral.”
It’s fair to say that Verdi’s Requiem on one level represents a testament that sums up the composer’s accumulated musical wisdom. At the same time, Verdi intensifies this wisdom to create something new and unprecedented. We shouldn’t let the issue of genre or generic character distract us from what is so special about this late Verdi masterpiece.
As the composer himself emphasized, this is a score that needs to be performed in a style of its own: “One must not sing this Mass as one sings an opera, and therefore the coloriti [specific aspects of its expressive gestures] that may be good for the theater will not be to my liking at all.”
The very act of composing a requiem seemed to liberate Verdi from the constraints of psychological realism, as well as from the limiting conventions of the opera stage. The framework of the Requiem allowed Verdi to home in on the cosmic drama that made these liturgical texts of relevance to him — and without the distractions of a plot and similar operatic conventions.
Structure of the Requiem
Cast in seven large-scale movements, the Requiem shows off Verdi’s genius for finding the fitting and distinctive color for each — not unlike his operatic tinta (signature color), to use the composer’s own term for those particular musical features that, he proudly noted, gave each of his operas a distinguishing flavor or feature.
Verdi ended up settling for four rather than five soloists: these singers acquire the status of archetypal individuals facing the human condition — as opposed to particular characters in an opera. (Wagner, in contrast, would opt for mythic archetypes.) The chorus plays the role of the community in which our individual lives unfold.
Verdi also allots a major part to his orchestra, weaving a fabric of almost symphonic coherence at times, along with an abundance of moment-to-moment insight and commentary on each existential situation that is explored. He creates unity by means of recurring ideas — but, as David Rosen observes in his study of the Requiem, these ideas “are not restricted to thematic material but…may also include texture, harmonic progressions, orchestration, tempo, and the like.”
Music of the Requiem
It’s one of the great openings in the choral literature: almost inaudible and richly mysterious, the Introit sets the work in motion as a number of thematic and harmonic motifs coalesce, taking shape from the darkness. These include a descending figure and a stepwise chromatic idea — core ideas from which Verdi generates much of the Requiem’s musical material. The soloists sing for the first time in the Kyrie, where the musical character warms up with the addition of woodwinds.
Some composers — think Brahms or Fauré — emphasize the need for consolation of the survivors in their take on the traditional Requiem; others (arguably, Mozart) focus on the act of pleading for the deceased. Verdi’s treatment is even more encompassing, driven by a cosmic quest for redemption. The immense space he allots for the following movement — the ten-part Dies irae (also known as the Sequentia), which lasts about 40 minutes — establishes the epic, Michelangelesque scale of Verdi’s canvas.
The tempest and terror of this Day of Judgment — complete with hammer strokes from the bass drum — thrill us with music that has become the sonic signature of the Requiem. But note that this is only one part of an enormous emotional spectrum Verdi brings to life. The Sequentia can be interpreted as a microcosm of the Requiem as a whole: It re-enacts the shifting poses of fear, anxiety, hope, and remembered faith that are the work’s fault lines. The singers’ perspectives continually shift, making them alternately observers and participants, commentators and agents, as they give voice to conditions ranging from shell-shocked despair to childlike faith.
In short, this music underscores the principle of contrast — in mood, texture, vocal setting, instrumentation, dynamics — so essential to Verdi’s musical strategy. Following the onslaught of the Dies irae, the call of the last trumpets builds a sense of inexorable tension as prelude to the Tuba mirum. (The call is performed by eight players, who execute one of Verdi’s experiments with spatial acoustics.) Pregnant pauses draw us in more closely. The solo bass is the first individual voice to emerge from the collective in the Sequentia: He stops short at the naked reality of death, tripping on the repeated word “mors.”
An extraordinary diversity of vocal combinations follows: solo arias, a duet, a trio, and two quartets, with beautiful a cappella textures reserved for the Pie Jesu. Verdi chooses selectively from his orchestral palette to find just the right tint: an eloquently mournful bassoon in Quid sum miser and the cello for the lullaby-like sweetness of the Recordare. The tempest that had launched the Dies irae returns again and again, impetuous as a fate motif, while the Sequentia’s conclusion anticipates the sense of ambiguity that will end the Requiem.
The Offertorio’s Domine Jesu Christe unfurls as a rainbow of melody, and Verdi’s splendid writing for quartet takes an ecstatic turn in the Hostias. Verdi the opera composer is always at hand, to be sure, but he alludes to actual ecclesiastical traditions as well through the use of counterpoint and chant-like idioms. While the Sanctus divides the chorus into two bodies, this is remarkably unweighty music, whizzing by in a joy-filled fugue (the most compact of the Requiem’s movements). The Agnus Dei, in contrast, haunts with its pared-down simplicity — Verdi’s modern-day gloss on chant. The movement proceeds as a series of textural variations on a repeated melody: the soprano and mezzo (they sing an octave apart) in alternation with the chorus.
Hints of a death march emerge in the Lux aeterna, but Verdi leads us toward transcendent hope. As the final movement begins, we realize that the soprano has been absent from the foregoing in order to make a dramatic entry in the Libera me, which Verdi divides into several sections. At first the soprano stammers with a kind of dazed anxiety — as if she is about to embark on a mad scene. Verdi then briefly recapitulates the Dies irae, which creeps into the soundscape as a barely subdued threat. But as this sinks into the lower depths, the opening Requiem sequence returns, beautifully reconfigured for soprano and a cappella chorus.
With moving symmetry, Verdi has taken us back to where we started. Another powerful fugue serves as the capstone. Yet its intensity eventually wanes, the complex profusion of lines coming to rest on a repeated monotone C. There is no certain triumph, nor could there be for Verdi, who ends his Requiem with a chord sustained above the abyss, sounding both final and unresolved.
— Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com.