Voyaging Into Verdi's Heart of Darkness
by Victoria Looseleaf
While the current cultural climate has been reverberating with the question, “Are Men Necessary?” (also the title of Maureen Dowd's bestselling book), the inquiry can be answered in one word. Absolutely. Especially if the man is the monstrously talented Giuseppe Verdi. The Rolls Royce of composers, who was born in the quaint village of Le Roncole in French-dominated northern Italy in 1813, first encountered an array of peripatetic musicians in the tavern owned by his peasant parents. Showing natural gifts at an early age – the youngster played church organ for services before he was eleven – he was shipped off to Busseto for lessons. Never abandoning his roots, Verdi, who once said, “You may have the universe, if I may have Italy,” kept an abode in that area until his death, although nobody could have predicted that this compassionate man of the people would eventually go down in history as one of the most celebrated opera composers of all time – one who, when Googled, produces more than 10 million entries. Not an opera in the strict sense, Verdi's Requiem, a monumental ninety-minute opus for soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, bass, chorus and orchestra, has, in fact, been described as an “opera for the church.” Indeed, German conductor Hans von Bulow, first husband of Wagner's second wife Cosima, referred to it as “Verdi's latest opera, though in ecclesiastical robes.” Teeming with dramatic panache in its setting of the Latin text, the Requiem was written for the concert hall by a rebellious composer who was equally at home railing against the hallowed institutions of marriage (though he himself was twice married) and organized religion. In essence, for Verdi the nonbeliever (or agnostic Christian), this Mass for the dead was his way of trumping spirituality with visceral drama. Seething with what can only be dubbed as “sprezzatura” – a sense of dazzling beauty produced by effortless mastery – spiritual transcendence, however, ultimately rules.
The Requiem bowed in 1874 at the church of San Marco in Milan, with the composer himself conducting a chorus of 120 singers and an orchestra of 100. Written after Aida, when Verdi was liberated from the straitjacketing of opera's character/cum/plot-driven world, the Requiem featured two soloists who had created the roles of Aida and Amneris for the Italian premiere of that work two years earlier. Composed for poet-novelist Alessandro Manzoni (1754-1873), who had met Verdi only once, in 1868, and was regarded as that country's ‘it’ boy of 19th century Italian culture and literature, the Requiem is the Mt. Everest of masses. An expression of terror, supplication, piousness and hope, it is a journey into the soul, no matter that many audiences remain skeptical of a liturgical work that was not deemed duly solemn. Verdi chose the texts from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, rearranging them as he saw fit, in order to elevate the drama, ironically, much as he did in opera. Brahms himself opined, “…only a genius could have written such a work.”
Its nonpareil beauty also made for rampant mass popularity, the music soaring beyond the words. It's no surprise, then, that the Requiem was performed, at times without Verdi's consent, by such disparate groups as military bands and in four piano settings. For it is the vast scope of the Requiem, with its musing on the nature of God, the finality of death, eternity, and the notion of human accountability, which will reward the listener. Heavy, yes, but also universal, the music creates an intensely personal involvement. Bookended by breathtakingly soft ppp's, the work begins with a hushed murmur of cellos in this prayer for the deceased, followed by the formal “Kyrie” as an orchestral stirring and plea for mercy. The affecting core of the work is the “Dies irae,” whose words are from a medieval poem by Thomas of Celano, a 13th century disciple of St. Francis of Assisi. Creating an exceedingly bleak tableau of Judgment Day, the text is fashioned to bully one into leading a more virtuous life.
Performed without a break and comprised of nine sections (totaling approximately half the length of the piece), a quartet of brutal chords in the full orchestra heralds the opening of the “Dies irae” with the chorus loudly proclaiming, “Day of wrath.” This is musical dread as if wrought by Alfred Hitchcock via film composer Bernard Herrmann that proves to be the unifying force throughout the work. Recurring snippets of text and musical motifs emotionally brand this section, while the rest of the “Dies” is characterized by a variety of moods that include booming bass drum punctuations, as well as syncopated accents smacking of Stravinsky. Off-stage trumpets have the clout to add surround-sound effects to the “Tuba mirum,” after which a brief bass solo softly repeats the word “mors,” its silence between utterances hinting at the mighty void death creates. Later in the “Dies irae,” mourners appeal to Jesus for forgiveness, the music becoming exquisitely lyrical, with the famous tenor solo, the “Ingemisco,” an incandescent expression of hope.
Moving to the “Offertorio,” which begins with a rising cello figure answered by woodwinds, the bass soars with a flowing melody, followed by the brief “Sanctus,” which has been described as “a dance of the children of light.” Ebullient, the strings and woodwinds do seem to cavort like children reveling in this prism of unadulterated joy. (Think, too, of the Swingle Singers intoning, “Oh, Happy Day” and Sly Stone's anthemic, “I Want to Take You Higher.”) As the chorus sings, “Heaven and earth are filled with your glory,” the melody, reflecting this awesome state, bleeds into the profound but simple “Agnus Dei.” Here, soprano and mezzo sing a cappella, the chorus repeating the melody. In the “Lux aeterna,” which features a fluttering mezzo arioso, the orchestra pours forth a series of contrasting elements before breaking into the haunting and complex “Libera me.” Originally composed in 1869 as Verdi's contribution to a mass for Rossini (which was never performed), this movement proved to be the seed from which the entire work bloomed. Played at Princess Diana's funeral in 1997, the psychological and musical references are emotionally mainlined into one's heart, the peaceful atmosphere shattering, as the soprano wails, “Free me, Lord, from eternal death.” This staggering outburst is the anguish of us all, a collective longing to be delivered from eternal punishment, before ebbing into silence and a return to the opening bars of the Requiem. Here is supremely elevated art, one that asks unanswerable questions but one that opens its ravishing musical arms to embrace humanity, allowing us, in the process, to discover ourselves.