THE REQUIEM OF VERDI
by Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
Giuseppe Verdi composed his great Requiem Mass in memory of Alessandro Manzoni between May 22, 1873 and May 22, 1874. Manzoni had died on the first date noted at the age of eighty-eight. The Requiem as Verdi projected it was sung in St. Mark's Church, Milan, on the anniversary of the writer's demise. Verdi himself was then in his sixty-first year, having just recently impressed his stature on Europe's musical consciousness with his grand opera Aida.
One must ask why Verdi, holding Manzoni in such profound respect, produced this masterly Requiem. After he had met Manzoni for the first time in Milan in 1868 he exclaimed: ''How can I express the new, inexplicable feelings of joy which the sacred presence of the man aroused in me? I would have knelt before him, if men worshipped men!" At the news of Manzoni's death he lamented: "Now all is over and with him ends the purest, holiest title to our fame:'
Indeed, one could expect a high degree of kinship between two such supreme artists. Not only had Manzoni's The Betrothed (I promessi sposi) come to be 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 Tuscan Italian. The Betrothed, like Dante's Divine Comedy, in the words of Gaetano Mosca “left an indelible mark on the spirit of a people.”
Verdi’s reverence for the Manzoni of The Betrothed also rested on that fervent patriot's tireless writings and activities on behalf of Italian political unification. Verdi himself had consistently lent his talent and fame toward that achievement. His support for Count Camillo Cavour (1810- 1861), Prime Minister of Piedmont/Sardinia, had marked his shift from his earlier adherence to an idealistic republicanism inspired by Giuseppe Mazzini. He adopted a more conservative, hardheaded, and realistic approach toward the realization of that cherished unification. Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-72) with his mystical republicanism had in the abortive revolutions of 1848 sparked Verdi to write a battle hymn, Suono la tromba. Nonetheless, in the face of the Austrian monarchy's entrenched hold over northern Italy, republicanism had lamentably failed to achieve unity. Cavour's quite Machiavellian manipulation of the Sardinian Kingdom's military and diplomatic resources by 1860 had expelled the Austrians and created the Kingdom of Italy. With the incorporation of the Papal States after French protective withdrawal in 1870 from Rome unification of the whole peninsula was achieved with the capital at Rome.
Mazzini in founding Young Italy had exhibited strongly atheistic and pseudoreligious tendencies. Manzoni's patriotism manifested a strongly ethical and moralistic, even Jansenistically oriented, Catholicism. Verdi fell between the two in his convictions. He had little or no faith in Catholicism. Rather he manifested along with a distinctly typical contemporary anticlerical vein a rather sentimental attachment to some Catholic practices. Both as artist and patriot he with his highly developed sense of ethics and social justice could not but regard Manzoni as "the only great Italian after Rossini.” Guiseppina, Verdi's wife, neatly summarized the similarity and difference between her husband and the venerated Writer. "There are some virtuous natures that need to believe in God; others equally perfect that are happy not believing in anything and simply observing rigorously every precept of strict morality, Manzoni and Verdi.”
In 1873 when it thus came to honoring Manzoni, Verdi was not about to permit the kind of debacle which had characterized his efforts in 1868 to have a cooperatively composed Requiem honoring Rossini performed in Bologna. His contribution to that Requiem had been the Libera Me, often considered, though not without dispute, as containing the germinal ideas for the Manzoni Requiem.
Although the Manzoni Requiem may be considered as a "by-product'' at this stage of Verdi's development, it stands with Aida, its immediate predecessor, as a culminating point in his career. Aida shines forth as Verdi's grand opera par excellence. In it he wove into a seamless garment all the characteristic features of his operatic development and style, deftly and beautifully composed, a perfect wedding of voices and orchestra.
Given all that Manzoni stood for as consummate artist and fervent patriot, given the glorious achievement of Italian political unification, and given the inherently dramatic text of the Mass for the Dead, Verdi rendered all three factors supreme tribute to his clearly demonstrated mastery of large movements employing a powerful choral and orchestral palette. That palette 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 here used by Verdi with great subtlety. The work rests solidly on a foundation of three centuries of Italian operatic development. This operatic style by the 19th Century pervaded all the Nation's musical forms, including church music over which it exercised a strongly debasing trend.
The establishment of the Italian Caecelian movement in 1830 by Pope Pius VIII, his regulatory Bull coupled with the reform efforts of no less a composer than Gasparo Spontini (1784-1851), effected little in bringing about the elimination of the entrenched operatic element in the composition and performance of liturgical music. In its worst manifestation Spontini could lament that numerous church musicians simply adapted the text of the Mass Common to currently popular opera tunes to which the congregation, as Baini observed, had danced or by which it had been emotionally stirred the previous evening in dance hall or local opera house. Ecclesiastical censures of these debasing practices achieved little success until well after Verdi's Requiem was first sung in 1874.
However much Verdi may have esteemed and learned from Palestrina's music as the expression of the pure ideal of church musical composition, he could never in being true to himself have divested himself of his idiom of expression. It is bootless to judge the work according to the norms of Pius X's Motu Proprio of 1903 or by the adverse sensibilities of the contemporary German or English Protestant. The Verdi Requiem is no more a liturgical work than the Missa Solemnis of Beethoven. Verdi simply invested 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.
It may prove quite unfashionable today to quote that ferociously partisan Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, but his assessment of the Verdi Requiem is apropos and to the point. "Verdi’s Requiem is a sound and beautiful work, above all a milestone in the history of his development as a composer ... 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 own 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 to be, the work's true universality has been proved and it stands among the peaks of musical literature, sharing the grandeur of its inspiration, I promessi sposi of Manzoni.