Program Notes: Verdi's Requiem

Memorial Day weekend seems an appropriate time to experience a non-liturgical Mass for the Dead. Written by Verdi to honor a patriot of his own time, this awe-inspiring Requiem is one of the iconic works in the whole of classical music—a tour de force for soloists, chorus, and orchestra.




Giuseppe Verdi
(Born 9/10 October 1813 in Roncole, Italy; Died 27 January 1901 in Milan, Italy)

Composed: 1874

Premiere: 22 May 1874; Milan, Italy

Last MSO Performance: March 2008; Andreas Delfs, conductor

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 offstage trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum), strings

Approximate Duration: 1 hour 30 minutes

Think opera and you think La traviata. You think Aida or Rigoletto. You may even thing of the Shakespeare-based works Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff. In a word, you think Verdi. His music is among the greatest ever conceived for the human voice, yet it transcends the barrier between high art and everyday life. (How often have we heard the drinking song (“Libiamo”) from La traviata or “La donna e mobile” from Rigoletto in a TV commercial?)

From the beginning of his compositional life, the Italian master possessed the opera composer’s sine qua non: the gift of writing affective melodies, those that portray a character’s inner feelings and motivations and, at the same time, generate an emotional response in the listener. And that brings us to the work at hand, his Requiem of 1874. Hans von Bülow was not too far off the mark when he called it Verdi’s “latest opera in church vestments.” He intended it as a statement of derogation, and in our more high-minded moments we might tend to agree with that opinion. But think for a while of the drama the opera composer brings to this non-liturgical Mass for the Dead. Is there a more frightening concert-hall moment than the climax of the “Tuba mirum”—or a more effective one when the subdued “Mors stupebit” follows it? In his depictions of Judgement Day, of hell fire, of the suffering Christ, of the penitent lying suppliant at the feet of the Almighty, Verdi’s opera-house genius is manifest in all its splendor.

This masterpiece had its genesis in 1868, the year of Rossini’s death. Verdi proposed that a Requiem should be composed in honor of the great man. The leading Italian composers of the day would contribute the various portions and the work would be performed on the first anniversary of Rossini’s death. The music publisher Giulio Ricordi chose 13 composers by lot and assignments were made. To Verdi fell the closing Libera me. The piece was written, but due to various circumstances, the performance never took place. Verdi filed away his contribution and forgot about it. (In 1970, the scores for this Messa per Rossini were discovered in the Ricordi archives by musicologist David Rosen. The work’s first-ever performance took place in Stuttgart on 11 September 1988, conducted by Helmut Rilling.) 

Fast forward five years. On 22 May 1873, the Italian poet, novelist, and national hero Alessandro Manzoni died. Verdi had first read the author’s landmark novel I promessi sposi (“The Betrothed”) at age 16; it remained his favorite work of fiction throughout his life. Indeed, the composer idolized Manzoni, a distinguished artist and a distinguished humanitarian who was, like Verdi, a leader in the Risorgimento (“resurgence”), a movement for Italian unification and independence for Austria. The composer could not bring himself to attend the writer’s funeral, preferring instead to visit the grave “alone and unseen.” That same night, he write Giulio Ricordi of his intention to compose a Requiem, to be performed on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death. Additionally, he offered to conduct the work and to pay for copying the parts. 

Like Beethoven’s Missa solemnis and Britten’s War Requiem, among others, Verdi’s Requiem is not a religious statement. His is the work of a patriot and a humanist. As an agnostic, Verdi had left the Church a long time ago. Writing in the The Verdi Companion, William Weaver notes:

Verdi himself was not a practicing Catholic. He would drive his wife to church but not accompany her inside. Like most Risorgimento figures he was an anticleric in that he opposed the organization of the Church, its financial and political power, and its priesthood. Of the love of God or even the existence of God he was, in his wife’s words, “a very doubtful believer,” and his Requiem reflects this. There is no sunny amen, no vision of a kind God or promise of divine intercession—only dwindling power and continued uncertainty. Such apparently was Verdi’s belief even in youth, and at the time of the Requiem it also reflected the increasing uncertainty felt by many as the doctrines of Darwin and the new sciences began to shake traditional beliefs. Thus the ancient text received a new, modern interpretation by an artist being true to himself and his time.

As the piece unfolds, pay attention to the projected translations. Note how effectively Verdi has portrayed the text. The following paragraphs offer only the briefest observations about the music.

A pianissimo descending phrase from the muted cellos opens the work, a motif that will later recur. After the initial Requiem aeternam, the Kyrie eleison is introduced by the vocal soloists. The expansive rising melodies and wide dynamic contrasts clearly reveal the operatic bent of the piece.

The Sequence (Dies irae), consisting of ten widely contrasting sections, makes up nearly one-third of the piece as a whole. The “Dies irae” explodes with the ffff thunderbolts of the bass drum, and offstage trumpets add to the drama of the “Tuba mirum.” Next we hear from various eyewitnesses, as it were. At the end of the bass’s “Mors stupebit” solo, sung quietly and full of terror, his voice catches on the word “death” (“mors”). The mezzo-soprano’s aria “Liber scriptus” powerfully tells of the day when the book detailing human deeds will be opened; a brief outburst of the “Dies irae” motif follows. “Quid sum miser” is a trio of lamentation, hauntingly accompanied by a solo bassoon. “Rex tremendae” is a dialogue between the four soloists and chorus that arrives on common ground only in its last measures. The heartfelt “Recordare” prayer is a duet Verdi fashioned with the voices of his first Aida and Amernis in mind. Two arias follow—the tenor’s oft-excerpted “Ingemisco” and the bass’s “Confutatis—then the “Dies irae” refrain is again interjected. The tear-stained “Lacrimosa” brings the soloists and chorus together and, at the end of the movement, they utter a unison “Grant them rest. Amen.”

Verdi scored Domine Jesu Christe for solo quartet, but reserves the soprano for well into the movement; her entrance, with the text “Sed signifier sanctus Michael,” is one of the most sublime moments of the entire work. Maintaining musical tradition, “quam olim Abraham” behaves like a fugue, gathering momentum as it continues. The central “Hostias” is utterly calm.

Set as an effervescent fugue for two SATB choirs, the Sanctus moves rapidly and with remarkable vitality. It is the shortest section of the Requiem; its subject is based on an inversion of the opening cello motif. Following its brilliant ending, the quiet unaccompanied opening of the Agnus Dei is made even more telling. Here, the soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists sing in octaves for 13 unaccompanied measures. The melody—diatonic rather than modal—is a 19th-century version of Gregorian chant that is repeated alternately by the two soloists and chorus, to an accompaniment that grows richer with each reiteration.

The three lower solos voices intone the Lux aeterna, sometimes accompanied by shimmering tremolo strings, at other times a cappella. The soprano then reenters, unaccompanied, declaiming the text of the Libera me. This powerful final scene is based on the music Verdi wrote for the Rossini Requiem in 1869. It moves from dramatic recitative to soaring operatic phrases and reprises both the “Dies irae” and the opening “Requiem aeternam,” here time-stoppingly recast for unaccompanied chorus and solo soprano, and topped by a breathtaking high B-flat. The final section of the work is another energetic fugue, again loosely based on a version of the cello motif. The closing stretch of the Requiem reaches its climax as the soprano’s urgent pleas take her to high C, after which the music dissipates into a hushed, desperate, and unsettling prayer of supplication: Deliver me, O Lord, from everlasting death on that dreadful day. Deliver me!

Recommended Recording: Leontyne Price, Janet Baker, Veriano Luchetti, Jose van Dam; George Solti, Chicago Symphony Chorus & Orchestra (RCA Red Seal/Sony)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.