Written by Ronald Comber

Requiem Mass

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

Giuseppe Verdi was arguably one of the most important Operatic composers in the history of the art. In his long and prolific career, Verdi single-handedly was responsible for the evolution of the Italian Opera style from the bel canto techniques of Bellini and Donizetti in the early 1840’s to the beginnings of the verismo school developed by Catalani, Puccini and others in the late 1880’s. His influence was immense, and all for the good. Unlike his northern contemporary, Wagner, he rarely politicised himself, and then only for nationalist goals. In the course of his career Verdi wrote a very few non-operatic works, including today’s Requiem, but his flair for drama coloured the inspiration behind each one.

Verdi’s Requiem has a strange and complicated provenance. The death of Rossini in 1868 had a profound effect on the Italian musical community. In that age of Italian nationalism Rossini’s position as the founder of the modern Italian school of Opera was well appreciated, even forty years after the completion of his last Opera. Without Rossini there would have been no Bellini, no Donizetti, and no Verdi! In fact it was Verdi who first came up with an idea to pay Rossini tribute. He wrote to his publisher, Ricordi, “I think that to honour Rossini’s memory a Requiem Mass should be composed by the most distinguished Italian composers (Mercadante to begin with, even if no more than a few bars) and performed on the anniversary of his death.”

Ricordi quickly organised the work, allotting movements to different composers (Verdi got the Libera Me), and the artists set to their tasks. As so often happens, the work very quickly got bogged down in a series of bitter personal disputes caused largely by professional jealousies, and as the anniversary became immanent it was realised that the Requiem was not going to be completed in time. The project was scrapped in the end.

As the years passed, Verdi found he was thinking more and more of the abortive Requiem, and gradually came round to the idea of completing it himself. He had been pleased with his Libera Me; perhaps he could produce some other movements of the same quality. Ricordi returned the score in April 1873 for Verdi’s perusal. One month later the great Italian poet and novelist, Alessandro Manzoni died.

Verdi, who was not given to public demonstrations of emotion, except in Opera, nonetheless wrote to a friend, “All is finished now. With him the purest, the holiest and the highest of our glories comes to an end.” He wrote his publisher the day after the death was announced to say that he would not attend the state funeral…”I shall come in the near future and visit his grave, alone and without witnesses and possibly (after much reflection and gauging of my own strength) make some proposal for the honouring of his memory.” He was in fact already at work.

By June Verdi had already worked out a cost sharing scheme with the mayor of the city of Milan and all he had left to do was to complete the work. That task proved to be very difficult indeed. Verdi developed an overall concept for the Requiem which constantly opened up new vistas for him to explore, and he had to work very hard to keep to anything like a schedule. He struggled to complete the orchestration almost to the last month before the performance.

As can well be imagined, the Requiem was an immediate sensation. After the memorial performance at the Church of San Marco in Milan, Verdi gave three more performances at La Scala to tumultuous applause, and then gave another seven performances in Paris at the Opéra-Comique. It was a signal triumph everywhere. Everywhere, that is except in the Church, where talk of sacrilege soon began to surface. The Requiem was simply too theatrical, too passionate. In 1875 Verdi took the work to London and then to Vienna where after incredible triumphs he was awarded the Order of Franz Joseph. The Requiem quickly achieved a permanent and a central place in the repertoire, a place that it has easily kept to the present day whenever sufficient forces can be brought together to perform it.

The Church, though disapproving, avoided passing judgement on the Requiem for nearly thirty years. It was only two years after Verdi’s death that his music was condemned, though never by name. The 1903 encyclical Motu Proprio carefully expresses the Church’s position; ‘The theatrical style which was in the greatest vogue especially in Italy during the last century … is by its very nature diametrically opposed to Gregorian Chant and classic polyphony, the most important law of all good sacred music.’

The Requiem is in seven organically linked sections, which defy casual analysis. Each movement is perfectly adapted to its text within a dramatic rather than religious frame of reference, leading to an artistic integrity quite unusual in liturgical music from any period. It requires only one signpost for the unsuspecting auditor. The work opens with a hushed “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine for chorus and orchestra. The Kyrie elieson features the addition of the four soloists in a much more extraverted mood. The Dies Irae which follows is one of the most well-known of all choral movements, illustrating in a series of brilliant flashes the ultimate horror of the day of judgement. The music shifts from prophecy to cries for mercy from the soprano, mezzo and tenor. The Offertory, for all four soloists, focuses on the mercy of Christ, as the music almost has the effect of a lullaby in its ultimate gentleness. The Sanctus, with its trumpet fanfare, shows the unbridled joy of salvation and God’s glory. The Agnus Dei offers a period of quiet contemplation, which leads in turn to the darkly glamorous Lux Aeternam. The final Libera me marks a return to the emotional uncertainties of the Dies Irae. Can we achieve our personal salvation? In the end, perhaps.