Verdi’s Requiem

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Verdi’s Requiem


COMPOSER: Born October 9, 1813,Le Roncole, near Busseto, Italy; died January 27, 1901, Milan
WORK COMPOSED: Verdi wrote the Libera me in 1868 in tribute to Gioachino Rossini. In the summer of 1873, Verdi resumed work on the Requiem, which he completed on April 10, 1874, and dedicated to the memory of Italian poet and patriot Alessandro Manzoni. Verdi’s original title read “Requiem Mass for the anniversary of the death of Manzoni, 22 May 1874.”
WORLD PREMIERE: Verdi conducted the first performance on May 22, 1874, in the church of St. Marco, Milan, with Teresa Stolz, Maria Waldmann, Giuseppe Capponi, and Ormondo Maini, vocal soloists.
MOST RECENT OREGON SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE: Sunday, April 21, 2002, at the Portland Expo Center; Murry Sidlin, conductor; Lisa Willson, soprano; Eleni Matos, mezzo-soprano; Philip Webb, tenor; Gary Relyea; bass-baritone; Portland Opera Chorus
INSTRUMENTATION: Soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass soloists, four-part chorus, 3 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets (one offstage), 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, and strings

“It was an impulse, or, to put it better, a need from my heart, to honor, as best I could, this great man whom I held in such esteem as a writer, and venerated as a man, and as a model of virtue and patriotism.” – Giuseppe Verdi’s letter to the mayor of Milan about the composer’s proposal to write a Requiem Mass to honor the memory of Italian writer, poet, and patriot Alessandro Manzoni

“A great name has disappeared from the world! His was the most widespread, the most popular reputation of our time, and it was a glory of Italy! When the other one who still lives [Manzoni] is no more, what will we have left?” These were the words of Giuseppe Verdi upon hearing the news of Gioachino Rossini’s death in 1868. It was Rossini’s passing that first inspired Verdi to think of composing a Requiem. Just days after Rossini died, Verdi wrote the Italian music publisher Ricordi, proposing a collaborative Requiem written by “the most distinguished Italian composers,” to honor Rossini’s memory. Verdi added many stipulations and conditions to his idea, including the suggestion that everyone involved with the Requiem should help finance it. For a number of reasons – financial, logistical, and political – the proposed Rossini memorial ceremony was shelved, although every composer who was asked to write a movement completed their assigned section on time (this “Messa per Rossini” did eventually receive a public performance – in 1988).

With the Rossini project scrapped, Verdi turned his creative attention elsewhere. In the years between 1869 and 1873, Verdi busied himself with his opera Aida, a commission from the Egyptian government to commemorate a new Egyptian opera house built to celebrate the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal. As Verdi conducted Aida around Europe, he also composed his E Minor String Quartet, his only surviving piece of chamber music.

In the spring of 1873, Ricordi sent Verdi the score to his Libera me. A month later, Alessandro Manzoni, one of the most important writers, thinkers, and patriots of 19th-century Italy, died at the age of 88. Verdi, along with most Italians, venerated Manzoni almost to the point of sainthood. Verdi said of Manzoni’s 1827 masterpiece, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), that it was “not only the greatest book of our epoch, but one of the greatest ever to emerge from a human brain.” Both men were also deeply committed to the Risorgimento, the decades-long Italian political and social effort to unify all the Italian city-states into one Kingdom of Italy, with Rome as its capital. Verdi was not much given to hero worship generally, but the depth of his feelings for both Manzoni and Manzoni’s impact on Italian culture cannot be exaggerated.

With Manzoni’s death, Verdi returned immediately to the idea of a Requiem Mass to honor a true Italian hero. On June 3, 1873, Verdi wrote to Ricordi, “I too would like to demonstrate what affection and veneration I bore and bear to that Great Man who is no more, and whom Milan has so worthily honored. I would like to set to music a Mass for the Dead to be performed next year on the anniversary of his death. The Mass would have rather vast dimensions, and besides a large orchestra and a large chorus, it would also require . . . four or five principal singers . . . I would have the copying of the music done at my expense, and I myself would conduct the performance both at the rehearsals and in church.” Verdi further asked Ricordi to invite the Mayor of Milan to sanction this undertaking. Permission was soon granted, and Verdi quickly set to work.

Verdi’s Requiem, like Johannes Brahms’ A German Requiem, is a personal statement of grief that employs structure and text borrowed from church liturgy. However, neither Verdi nor Brahms was personally devout. For both men, the words of the Catholic Requiem Mass for the Dead served as an expressive outlet for the universal need to convey the emotions that surface when a beloved person dies: grief, loss, sadness, anger, fear of judgment, and the hope of a lasting peace for both the departed and the bereaved. The dramatic, operatic quality of Verdi’s Requiem ill-suited it for use as part of a regular church service, and Verdi never intended it to function as liturgy. From the beginning, Verdi conceived his Requiem for performance, not worship.

Conductor Hans von Bülow’s famous remark that the Requiem was “an opera in ecclesiastical costume” was meant as negative criticism. However, one can take von Bülow’s words at face value, without the harsh judgment he intended. Certainly no other Requiem comes close to approaching the drama and tension of Verdi’s, and the ebb and flow of emotion it generates parallels the narrative arc of a grand opera. The obvious passion of Verdi’s music, and the operatic vocabulary he uses throughout, need not diminish the Requiem’s impact as a profound articulation of grief. For Verdi, as for his countrymen, the only way to properly mourn Manzoni and pay homage to his unique stature in Italy was through an equally significant, expansive musical statement.

The liturgy of the Requiem Mass is not standardized; each composer must make specific choices regarding which texts to include. Verdi begins with the standard opening lines, “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine” (Grant them eternal rest, O Lord), which the chorus and orchestra intone in hushed, muted phases. The four soloists join the chorus and orchestra for an exuberant Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy), which makes the Dies irae that follows all the more terrifying. This music is the most recognizable to audiences, but familiarity cannot dent its powerful impact. The sopranos and tenors sustain a high G while the lower voices, punctuated by a shrill piccolo and a pounding bass drum, warn of the Day of Wrath, when fire shall destroy the earth, according to dire prophecy. A chorus of brasses precedes the bass soloist, who describes the sound of the trumpet that will summon all to judgment. The mezzo-soprano and chorus tell of the Book of Judgment, in which all deeds are recorded, and from which the world cannot escape. The focus shifts from prophecy to first person entreaty, as the soprano, mezzo-soprano, and tenor plead in vain for clemency (“Who will intercede for me when even the just are unsafe?”). The Sequence, which begins with Dies irae and ends with Lacrimosa (Weeping), covers the full emotional spectrum from abject terror to gentle entreaties for mercy, as the supplicant, on bended knee, acknowledges his/her own unworthiness.

The tender opening of the Offertory, which features the four soloists, emphasizes the mercy of Christ. Its rocking meter suggests a lullaby, and as the singers describe the “holy light” God promised to Abraham and his descendants, both the vocal and orchestral writing grow more luminous. Verdi expertly delivers us from the pits of hell (low timbres and registers) into the glowing warmth of salvation, and readies us for the untrammeled joy of the Sanctus, with its trumpet fanfare proclaiming “Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Hosts! Heaven and earth are filled with your glory!” In the Agnus Dei, Verdi shifts from extroversion to unadorned unisonal contemplation with minimal orchestral accompaniment, as first the chorus, then the soprano and mezzo sing, “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them eternal rest.” Verdi ends his Requiem with an agitated soprano intoning the opening lines of Libera me (“Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death on that awful day”). All the drama of the earlier sections returns, as if Verdi intended to leave us with a sense of uncertainty: will we, in the final analysis, be redeemed? Verdi reprises the music of the Dies irae, but eventually, the chorus and soprano end with an almost inaudible whisper, “Libera me. Libera me.”

© 2018 Elizabeth Schwartz


Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Bach Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, and other organizations, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. Schwartz also writes about performing arts and culture for Oregon Jewish Life Magazine.



Verdi: Requiem
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano
Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano
Nicolai Gedda, tenor
Nicolai Ghiaurov, bass
Carlo Maria Giulini – Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus
2-EMI/Warner Classics 85219

Joan Sutherland, soprano
Marilyn Horne, mezzo-soprano
Luciano Pavarotti, tenor
Martti Talvela, bass
Sir Georg Solti – Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra & Vienna State Opera Chorus
2-Decca 000710602

Susan Dunn, soprano
Diane Curry, mezzo-soprano
Jerry Hadley, tenor
Paul Plishka, bass
Robert Shaw – Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

2-Telarc 80152