The Lubbock Symphony Orchestra will present Verdi’s Messa da Requiem on October 16 and 17 at the Civic Center Theater. The program notes that I wrote for the occasion are below.
Giuseppe Verdi thought that 19th century Italy had produced two cultural giants – Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) and Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873). The former literally invented 19th century Italian opera. He produced a sound and so new and inventive that Europe literally went Rossini mad. Even Beethoven was jealous of the attention Rossini’s operas received. The latter produced the great Italian novel I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) which is renowned not only for its literary merit, but also as the work that cemented the Florentine dialect as the official form of the Italian language. This linguistic transformation started with Dante and was ended six centuries later by Manzoni. That Manzoni was a Lombard but chose to write in Florentine sealed the language deal.
When Rossini died Verdi, usually the most practical of great composers, got the hair-brained idea of honoring the first anniversary of his fellow composer’s death with a requiem mass written by 13 different Italian musicians. The piece was completed but not performed until more than a century later. After Manzoni’s death (May 22, 1873) he proposed to the Mayor of Milan that he, and only he, write a requiem mass to commemorate the first anniversary of the author’s death. Manzoni was born and died in Milan. The Mayor readily assented and the mass was first performed on May 22, 1874 in Milan’s San Marco church with Verdi conducting. This was the church that had held the author’s funeral. As the work’s premiere was in a church the audience could not applaud or show its appreciation of the piece. When the requiem was performed at La Scala three days later it received a tumultuous reception.
At this point in his life Verdi considered himself retired. He was a rich man and was devoting most of his time to the management of the huge estate he had acquired outside of his hometown of Bussetto. But he was a practical man; so he took his requiem on the road. He led performances in Venice, Vienna, Paris, and London making even more money in the process.
The initial reaction to Verdi’s mass was mixed. Wagner hated it, but he hated anything by any living composer other than himself. Some criticized it for being too operatic. To know why the Verdi Requiem turned out the way it did, you must understand its composer’s approach to music. Verdi said that he had to write for the theater. Accordingly, almost all his compositions are operas. Furthermore, there are no gods or goddesses and almost no magic in them. They are filled with people under the same stresses as their audiences and set to music of striking aptness which is why they are so compelling and why audiences identify with their characters and keep returning to them.
Verdi’s artistic focus was on those emotions and states of consciousness common to all of humanity. Love, hate, anger, jealousy, the relationship of parent to child, the clash of private and public obligations – all fill his works. Thus, it was certain how he would react to the greatest concerns of human beings depicted so vividly in the text of the Catholic Requiem Mass – death, eternal judgment, damnation, salvation, the fate of our souls. He had the greatest libretto he could ever find. And he rose to this challenge with a musical cyclone unique in liturgical music. But there is more than explosion in Verdi’s requiem. While the Dies irae (Day of wrath) dominates the work, the tenor solo (Ingemisco) suggests hope for the sinner (which would be all of us). The Lacrimosa asks for mercy and eternal rest and is of stunning beauty. The work ends with Libera me (deliver me). Verdi had originally written this section for the ill fated Rossini mass; he altered it for his new mass. This poignant cry for deliverance is interrupted by the final recurrence of the Dies irae. There is a plea for eternal rest and the work concludes with a second and more urgent plea for deliverance. The urgency of this request suggests that the final outcome for all of us is very much in doubt.
As mentioned above, the Verdi Requiem was composed when Verdi thought his operatic career was over. Ironically, this was the time the great British composer Benjamin Britten said that Verdi seemed to have discovered the secret of perfection. Always a ferociously hard worker, Verdi put everything his skill and great experience could muster into what he thought would be his last major work. Of course, two more masterpieces Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893) were still ahead of him.
Verdi’s mass is unlike any other requiem. It is a sacred opera and makes no attempt to sound “ecclesiastical”. Its connection to the listener is direct and immediate. Verdi’s failure to conform with what was expected of sacred music was the cause of contemporary criticism of his mass. After its initial success the Requiem was regularly, but not frequently, performed over the next 50 years.
Though the Verdi Requiem is liturgically correct, the requirement of chorus, four soloists, and large orchestra plus its length (about 90 minutes) have ensured that it is typically performed in the opera house or concert hall rather than in a church. The Met didn’t get to it until 1901. The company has performed it 48 times since then. The last being in 2008 in memory of Luciano Pavarotti. Over the past 80 years it has been performed throughout the world so often that it is now the most frequently performed large choral work in all of Western music.
Verdi’s personal relationship to religion was typical of a 19th century liberal. He was born and died in the embrace of the Catholic church, but in between he was rarely seen in a church. His portrayal of the clergy in his operas is almost universally negative. His wife, Giuseppina who was devout, was amazed at the contrast of his personal integrity with his lack of interest in religion. Some have wondered if he was an atheist. Thus, it is not surprising that his mass is more about man than God. Its subject is universal and Verdi’s technical skill and sublime inspiration communicates to all regardless of individual spiritual belief.
The Verdi Requiem can only be compared with a non-musical work – Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. Both are overpowering and evoke awe, though Verdi seems to offer a bit more hope than his Florentine compatriot. Verdi’s God is more forgiving and sensitive to the failings of humanity, though the horror of his Dies irae is without musical precedent.
Verdi’s unique combination of dramatic power and melodic beauty sets him apart from all composers for the theater. Parenthetically, the Verdi Requiem is so dramatic that it has been staged. Here again a non-musical comparison is needed. In the theater there are just Verdi and Shakespeare. Everyone else, no matter how great, operates at a lesser level.