NOTES BY ARTHUR F. EDWARDS
Los Angeles Master Chorale
John Vincent (b. 1902)
Stabat Mater is generally ascribed to Jacopone da Todi (c. 1230-1306), a lawyer who became a Franciscan friar upon the death of his wife. Although immediately popular, it was not incorporated into the Roman Missal as a Sequence until1725. This highly subjective meditation on the mother of Jesus at the foot-of the cross has been a source of inspiration to composers from Josquin des Pres and Palestrina through Pergolesi and Haydn to Rossini and Verdi. It consists of twenty verses of three lines each. The first nine are descriptive; the next nine are in the form of a prayer to the Mother of Sorrows; the final two, a direct prayer to Christ.
In the tradition of the Baroque motet form, John Vincent has divided the poem into eleven unequal sections. It is scored for flute, oboe, English Horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, three trumpets, two trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings, solo soprano, and male chorus. Tonight marks the first full performance of this work with orchestra in Los Angeles.
Giuseppi Verdi (1813-1901)
Art should have truth as its object and the interesting as its means. – Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873)
In 1827, when Manzoni's great novel I Promessi Sposi ("The Betrothed") was first published, there was no Italian language, merely a peninsula of dialects. As George Martin has stated in his biography of Verdi: "The basis of what ultimately became one was still only a dialect, the Tuscan, descended from the language of Dante, spoken in and around Florence." It was this that Manzoni used for his novel. ''The book became almost a primer and dictionary of the emerging Italian language and from the first, schools used it as such." (Robertson: Requiem, p. 150)
Forty years later, in 1867, Verdi wrote that I Promessi Sposi "is not only the greatest product of our times, but also one of the finest in all ages which has emanated from the human brain ... I was sixteen years old when I first read it; my enthusiasm for the work is undiminished; nay, it has increased with my understanding of humanity; for this book is true, as true as truth itself. If only artists could grasp this idea of truth! There would no longer be futuristic and backward-looking musicians; no more impressionism, realism, or idealism in painting, neither classic nor romantic poets; but only true poets, true painters, true composers."
In 1868, Verdi finally met Manzoni. "What can I say?", he wrote to Contessa Maffei. "How to describe the extraordinary, indefinable sensation the presence of the saint, as you call him, produced in me. I would have gone down on my knees before him if we were allowed to worship men. They say it is wrong to do so and it may be: although we raise up on altars many that have neither the talent nor the virtue of Manzoni and indeed are rascals."
In November of the same year, Giocchino Rossini died in Paris. Verdi's reaction was that "his reputation was enormous, the most popular in our time and a glory to Italy! When that other who is still alive [Manzoni] is no more, what will remain?" He proposed a Requiem Mass as a memorial to Rossini, each section to be written by a different Italian composer. The project collapsed because of petty rivalries. After a year and with the Libera me (his self-assigned task) completed, Verdi abandoned the plan. "Vanitas vanitatis etc.," he wrote, "Ah, men of talent are almost always overgrown boys ...” He later confided to a colleague that he had thought of expanding the Libera me to a complete Requiem Mass, particularly since he had already sketched ideas for the Requiem aeternam and Dies irae which were to be recapitulated in the Libera me. However, he was certain that "the temptation will pass as many others have done." In any case, he was quite occupied with Aida.
On May 22, 1873, Manzoni died. "Now all is over!" Verdi wrote, and with him ends the most pure, the most holy, the greatest of our glories." He did not have the heart to attend the funeral, but wrote his publisher, Giulio Ricordi: "I shall come soon to visit his grave, alone and unseen and perhaps ... I shall propose something to honor his memory." On June 1st, after visiting Manzoni's tomb in Milan, he wrote again to Ricordi that he would write a Messa da morte to be performed on the anniversary of Manzoni's death. He also notified the Mayor of Milan of his intentions: "It is a heartfelt impulse, or rather a crying need, to do all in my power to honor this great spirit ..."
By April17, 1874, Verdi could write that "that devil of a Mass is finally finished ... but only since yesterday." Rehearsals began immediately, and the Messa da Requiem was performed at the Church of San Marco in Milan on May 22. Its triumphant reception necessitated a secular performance at La Scala three days later. The following year Verdi consented to conduct all the performances during a three-month tour of Europe, including eight performances in Paris, three in London, and four in Vienna. He also conducted it at the Cologne Rhenish Musical Festival in 1876, after which he wrote: "It may be a good thing to copy reality; but to invent reality is much, much better." In the Manzoni Requiem, he presented the terror of the damned and the radiant bliss of the redeemed with a reality that is worthy of Manzoni's definition of art.
"The stream of melodic invention is unfailing and of the highest quality. The fusion of original Verdian melody with a liturgical strain is as wonderful an effort of the imagination as was that which went into the creation of a new musical language for Aida. Most impressive of all is the mastery of form, of constructive power on the largest scale, suddenly revealed in the Requiem, in strong contrast with the rather feeble religious music occurring here and there in the operas." (Frank Walker: Grove's, Vol. VIII, p. 743)
It is scored for piccolo, three flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, four bassoons, four horns, four trumpets (and off-stage trumpets), three trombones, tuba, timpani, gran cassa, strings, solo quartet, and chorus.