by Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) descended from a long line of small-town businessmen and minor landowners. His musical talents were revealed at an early age, so that he spent his formative years in private study. In 1836 he accepted the position of maestro di musica in the town of Busseto, whence he hailed. There he spent three years churning out, among other works, "marches, sinfonie [overtures or short orchestral movements], a complete mass, a complete set of vespers, three of four settings of Tantum ergo, and other church music I don't recall," as he wrote in 1853.
He left this post in Busseto for Milan, where he gained steady success writing operas. The production of Nabucco in 1842 at La Scala secured his fame, spreading his name throughout Europe with subsequent performances in all the major capitals. A particularly rich period from 1844 through 1853 followed this achievement, with Stiffelio, La forza del destino, II corsaro, Rigoletto and La traviata produced in premieres at Rome, Paris, Milan and London.
Verdi's late period of composition resulted in few works, but those he did write are among the most famous: Don Carlos in 1869; Aida in 1871; Otello in 1887; and Falstaff in 1893. By this time his incorporation of political, patriotic themes into his works was well established. He addressed the great unrest in the Italian peninsula through stirring musical themes and charged libretti. When one character sings "You may have the universe, So long as I keep Italy," the Italian audience was swept up in the vision of a united Italy. Thus, when Verdi learned of the death of the patriotic writer Alessandro Manzoni on May 22, 1873, he immediately began a Requiem Mass, lamenting "Now all is over and with him ends the purest, holiest title to our (Italians') fame."
Indeed, one could expect a high degree of kinship between two such supreme artists. Not only had Manzoni's The Betrothed become recognized as a masterpiece of world literature, but in its final form it summarized Manzoni's efforts to found modern Italian literature on the unifying qualities of Dante's works. The Betrothed, like The Divine Comedy, "left an indelible mark on the spirit of a people," said Gaetano Mosca. Verdi's reverence for Manzoni rested on the latter's tireless writings and activities on behalf of Italian political unification.
The Requiem stands with Aida, its immediate predecessor, as the culminating point in his career. Verdi weaves into the seamless work all the characteristic features of his development and style, deftly and beautifully composed, a perfect wedding of voices and orchestra. He exhibits a direct, Italian appeal to the emotions through the expressive power and beauty of the human voice, supported by the resources of a typical Italian opera orchestra, which is used here with great subtlety. The work rests solidly on a foundation of three centuries of Italian operatic development, which by the 19th Century permeated all Italian musical forms, including church music.
Verdi esteemed other earlier composers (such as Palestrina) for their pure ideal of church musical composition, but could never divest himself of his own idiom of expression. It is fruitless to judge the work according to the norms of adverse sensibilities of the contemporary German or English Protestant. The Requiem is no more a liturgical work than the Missa solemnis of Beethoven. Verdi simply infused the Mass text with deeply felt sincerity and candor. He created a work worthy to stand by Manzoni's The Betrothed as a supreme expression of the Italian spirit.
For as Eduard Hanslick wrote, "it is unmistakably Verdi, wholly and completely. The study of old Roman church music shines through it, but only as a glimmer, not as a model... Mourning and supplication, awe and faith; they speak here in language more passionate and individual than we [Germans] are accustomed to hear in the church. Verdi, following the better Neapolitan church music, had denied neither the rich artistic means of his time nor the lively fervor of his nature. He has, like many a pious painter, placed his portrait on his sacred canvas. Religious devotion, too, varies in its expression; it has its countries and its times. What may appear so passionate, so sensuous in Verdi's Requiem is derived from the emotional habits of his people ...”
However Italian Hanslick viewed the essence of the Requiem, the work's true universality has been proven, as it stands among the peaks of musical literature, sharing the grandeur of its inspiration, The Betrothed of Manzoni.