(Melbourne Symphony Orchestra)

Verdi’s Requiem

(Articles & Program Notes)
Published – 19.05.2019
(Writing)

So, onto the music. You might recognise parts of it, and I want to start off by playing one that you’ve possibly heard many times before, in all kinds of odd places; one of the most dramatic works for chorus and orchestra ever written, in my opinion – the Dies Irae, which describes the end of the world, the day of reckoning. It roughly translates, following some editing for clarity to:

The day of wrath, that day
Will dissolve the world in ashes
As foretold by David and the Sibyl!
How great the tremors there will be,
when the judge comes,
investigating everything strictly!

It’s kind of brutal and epic and hugely powerful. In fact, this excerpt is frequently listed as one of the most frightening pieces of classical music in the repertoire, and hearing it live in this hall is absolutely the best way to hear it – it’s violent and loud and spine-chilling when you consider what Verdi is trying to put across: that belief that the day of wrath is coming.

I did ask the MSO if for this talk I could descend from the ceiling as the piece played for dramatic effect, but they said no, so you’ll have to image your own special effects as we listen to this recording of the Dies Irae.

That really gives us a feel for the intensity of the work, so I’d like to focus in on the emotional journey of this Requiem, and that discussion starts with the pretty heavy title, which for a tiny word is packed with baggage. As soon as you hear the word Requiem, and even more so when you hear the complete title, Messa di Requiem, an image is immediately conjured up, and it’s generally pretty religious in nature. A requiem is a mass, specifically a mass for the dead, so church imagery springs to mind, as do heavy thoughts on souls and funerals. The literal word comes from a liturgical root and translates to rest or repose. Music as part of this traditional text began very early, and the Latin words were sung to Gregorian melodies. In the second half of the 15th century, works steadily began to pop up with Requiem in the title. Moving through the 16th century, many more composers began sourcing inspiration in the Requiem mass, and the vocal scoring became more and more rich in texture, many completely a capella, meaning without accompanying instrumental parts. From the 17th century though, composers began preferring instrumental-heavy works, supplemented with choirs or soloists. Liturgical music generally changed a lot during that period, as the religious text aspect became slightly more bendable, composers feeling more and more comfortable dropping sections and/or moving text around to fit the desired artistic outcome. It’s interesting to keep in mind that almost all Requiems up until the 18th, 19th centuries, were written really specifically for church or for funeral services of some kind – they had to physically be small enough to fit in the local parish. Requiems had a really serious job – they were to honour the church and the text, and also to send people to their final rest.

When our man of the hour, Giuseppe Verdi, alongside other composers like Berlioz, Dvorák, Gossec, were writing their versions of the traditional requiem, the pieces they came up with were practically-speaking, concert-works, they were dramatic oratorio’s built for a stage not a church or a hall where a funeral would actually be held. They were also for very specific singers, singers that would usually be seen on the opera stage, not just any local chorister. There were groups of religious people and musicians, beginning in Germany in the second half of the 19th century that worked as a bit of a counter-argument to this style of writing; it was called the Cecilian Movement, and they were really unhappy with the way composers were taking religion out of the church, out of context, I suppose and bastardizing it in someway, by using dramatically large ensembles and specialist vocalists.

They wanted restrained accompaniment for liturgical music, to I guess, keep the liturgical part of things at the forefront, rather than winning audiences with the use of special effects. Female singers, in fact, of which there are two in this work, were actually not permitted to perform in rituals like the mass in the Catholic Church, and as a result, when Verdi was writing the pre-cursor to the requiem we’ll hear tonight, he actually had to write the Pope to see if he would be granted permission to use females in his work: “If I were in the good graces of the Holy Father—Pope Pius—I would beg him to permit—if only for this one time—that women take part in the performance of this music” For Verdi, the voice mattered a huge amount, perhaps more so than pleasing the pope in this instance. When he was interviewed by Gino Monaldi in 1887, he said “young composers must remember that the human voice, apart from being the finest of all instruments, is not merely a sound; poetry is wedded to this sound, and poetry requires an ideal form of expression that is both lofty and always intelligible”. Those two key things that make poetry possible for Verdi, are backbones of his Requiem. It is lofty, in the way only something with as much religious significance as a requiem can be, but it is also intelligible: the orchestra playing the part of narrator, allowing the singers to explore the depth of emotion Verdi requires them to, as they move the story along.

Before we carry on, I’d like to play another very well-known excerpt, from the end of the Requiem, Libera Me. It begins with a cry from the soprano soloist, alone, and for just a moment, it’s like everyone has left the stage. It’s a personal prayer, before the orchestra joins, then the chorus.

A discussion of religion is actually really important to the talk of emotion in Verdi’s Requiem. Or more importantly, the notable departure from the traditional religious meaning of the text. Verdi’s Messa da Requiem from 1874, has similarities of feeling to those requiems written in the 20th century, where composers began to use the form and its depth and range of emotion as a way to honour other death, and other tragedy that sat outside of the church. The war requiem, for example, became notable, as did the secular requiem, which leans on non-liturgical text to carry through the reverence and passion laid out in the bones of the traditional form. While Verdi’s requiem is still traditional in many senses, his reasons for writing it in the first place are more personal. But still before we get to that, I mentioned a pre-cursor earlier in this talk.

When Rossini died in Paris, in 1868, Verdi went to Bologna, where Rossini grew up, and suggested to the powers that be, that they commission a bunch of leading Italian composers to write different sections of a requiem in Rossini’s honour. The town said sure, the movements were split and Verdi took the final one – the Libera Me, part of which we just heard. Unfortunately, budgets and scheduling got in the way of the art, and the piece was never performed, so Verdi sat on the excerpt and the idea for a number of years, until 1873.

So finally, we’re at tonight’s piece. If you look it up on the internet, it’s very easy to find that his Messa de Requiem is a musical setting of the traditional Catholic funeral mass, meaning the text is transplanted almost word for word. But considering the composer’s personal thoughts on religion is important while we discuss the history of the work. Verdi was not a church-goer as an adult, unlike many of his colleagues. He grew up in church; I should note he lived between 1813 and 1901, an important time for religion and religious music, and as a child and young adult he began playing in church as an organist. The musical works he was allowed to explore and hear, and the art the church enables was an incredibly important part of his development as a young artist and person.
There is, of course, religious symbols in a lot of his work, and the church was always a part of his life and family. After he grew rich and popular, he would drive his wife Giuseppina to church and wait outside for her, not going in himself. It was her, Giuseppina, who coined him as “a doubtful believer”, which means one of the most widely performed religious works, was in fact written by a serious sceptic.

Religion aside, emotion is the most important part of this story, because Verdi’s personal grief, rather than any great longing for God, empowered him to write the work in the first place. When Alessandro Manzoni died, Manzoni being possibly the most important Italian writer at the time, Verdi was totally flattened; he was so full of grief that he couldn’t even get himself to the public funeral. Manzoni’s novel I promessi sposi or The Betrothed, was a landmark in nineteenth-century fiction, and Verdi read it when he was an impressionable sixteen-year-old, and revisited it constantly. He looked up to Manzoni as a hero, a leader, an artist throughout his whole life, and when his wife was introduced to the author through a friend, and brought Verdi home an autographed photo he hung it straight up in his bedroom! When they finally met in 1868, the same year as Rossini’s death, Verdi said “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 perfect scoundrels.” So of course, his death was just brutal to Verdi, and it took him a while before he even was able to gather the strength to suggest his Requiem. He wrote to Giulio Ricordi, the head of the publishing house which is very much still alive and thriving, and proposed the work be written in time for the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death.

A quick deadline, but Verdi was spurred on by feeling. Of this, he wrote to his friend and colleague, Camille du Locle "I feel as if I’ve become a solid citizen and am no longer the public’s clown who, with a big bass drum, shouts ‘Come, come, step right up.’” Camille had been the librettist of Don Carlo several years earlier in 1867. This work was an important one in Verdi’s output, so I’d like to play just a moment of Rodrigo’s death aria, Per me Guinto… O Carlo, ascolta, to illustrate the depth of knowledge of the human voice Verdi demonstrates across all work.

Doesn’t it so clearly demonstrate his understanding of how to time moving climaxes, and how subtle yet emotive his melody-writing is? The music of so much of Verdi’s work is characterised by the way it tugs on the heart strings. The way he uses the voice is innately human, because it allows people to share in the feelings he is writing about. The requiem’s music has broad bones, and is filled out with this enormous orchestra, a double choir and four operatic soloists. Verdi, as a premier opera writer, has utter control over colour and pathos, and how to use his singers to express the feelings he so deeply felt in the aftermath of Manzoni’s death. Music, like all art, has an element of tension and release, and a master of composition knows exactly how to use this to take their audience on an intense journey. A work like this one which asks the grandest questions about life and death and faith and heartbreak, uses every element – from the strength of the singers, to the expansive nature and colour of the orchestra - to take its listener on a journey from absolute despair to complete hope.

I would like to play one more excerpt before we finish today, the Lux Aeterna – it is clearly religious in nature, but is also peaceful in nature, and hopeful. It is for Manzoni and it is for all people. It is a nod to renewal, to rebirth and repair, to gratefulness, and light.

May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord,
with Thy Saints for evermore:
for Thou art gracious.
Eternal rest give to them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them:
With Thy Saints for evermore,
for Thou art gracious.

I hope you’re moved tonight. I hope you hear something that takes your breath away, regardless of how many times you’ve heard it before. I am reminded of the anecdote about Hans von Bulow, who looked at the Requiem score and crudely said “Verdi’s latest opera, though in ecclesiastical robes” and decided to skip the concert. When he finally heard it, eighteen years later, in a pretty average parish performance, he was in tears when he left, and swiftly wrote to Verdi to apologise. Tears or no tears, this is a work not easily forgotten.

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