Destinations: Italy

These notes appeared in the printed program for distribution on February 17, 2019 at the Sandler Center for Performing Arts for the performance of “Italy” conducted by Daniel W. Boothe. All program notes for this performance were written by Lee Dise.


Messa Da Requiem

Verdi (1813-1901)

The Catholic mass is a mystical ceremony of the Christian faith for celebrating the Eucharist, or communion, the events and the significance of the Last Supper. It is mystical in the sense that Christ Himself is present, and, in Catholic tradition, even physically present. A particular form of the mass, the requiem—it means “repose” or “rest”—is one that is held in remembrance of the dead. What better medium is there than music to present such a majestic and mysterious ritual? Many composers have accomplished some of their best work in setting the requiem to music, the most famous being Mozart, Berlioz, and Brahms (though his “German Requiem” is set to German texts and is not beholden to the Catholic liturgy).

Add Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) to this exalted list. He was a pivotal figure in the world of Italian opera, taking the art form all the way from the lovely bel canto style of Bellini and Donizetti to the doorsteps of the rugged and gritty verismo of Leoncavallo and Puccini. Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, was performed at La Scala when he was only 24; it was financially successful, so La Scala’s impresario signed Verdi to a contract for three more. However, his breakthrough hit was the opera Nabucco (1842), which propelled him to international fame and fortune. Verdi went on to write more than two dozen operas all told, plus other works, including chamber pieces and his Requiem.

Composing a requiem seems an unlikely occupation for someone like Verdi who was indifferent to religion. His second wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, wrote, “I won’t say he is an atheist, but he is not much of a believer.” He had been a church organist in his youth, but as an adult did not attend church. Even so, when the hugely popular Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni died in 1873, Verdi resolved to write a requiem in his honor. Verdi greatly admired Manzoni, who had been a sort of father figure for the Italian unification movement. Verdi was a patriot, through and through—“You may have the universe if I may have Italy,” were his famous words. So, it’s clear why Verdi wanted to honor Manzoni, less clear why he wanted to do so with a requiem.

We do have clues. Years earlier, Verdi was devastated by the untimely deaths of his first wife, Margherita Barezzi, and both of the children she had borne him. Had he been harboring a bitter grudge against God all this time? Was composing a requiem his way of making peace with the past? Another consideration: when Gioachino Rossini died earlier, in 1868, several composers had joined together to write a requiem for him, and Verdi contributed one of the movements, the Libera me. Unfortunately, this effort suffered the dreaded “death by committee” and the performance was cancelled. Verdi was quite disappointed and feared he would never get to hear his Libera me; however, Verdi saved its artistic life by including it in his Requiem. As for his choice to write a requiem in the first place, we may never fully understand his motive, but there may have been more than one.

The Requiem premiered in 1874 at the San Marco church in Milan. The public loved it immediately. The critics would eventually come around. Hans von Bülow, the great Wagner conductor, at first dismissed the work as “Verdi’s latest opera, though in ecclesiastical robes.” Like the good musician he was, Bülow eventually changed his tune. But musicologists even today jokingly refer to Verdi’s Requiem as his “greatest opera.”

So what’s wrong with an operatic Requiem? Italian opera is drama. It is emotion. The style fits the liturgical text. What could be more dramatic, more emotional, than these words from the “Dies irae” (“Day of Wrath”)?

The day of wrath, that day will
dissolve the world in ashes,
as David and the Sibyl prophesied.

How great will be the terror,
when the Judge comes
who will smash everything completely!

That’s drama. It’s the end of the world. It goes out with a bang, not a whimper. Verdi’s music does not understate the message, and it would be impossible to overstate it.
Verdi’s composition is mostly true to the Latin text, with only minor adjustments. Scored for four vocal soloists, double chorus, and full orchestra plus four off-stage trumpets, it consists of seven basic movements, each one corresponding to a grouping of the liturgical text.

I. Requiem and Kyrie

Verdi combines the Requiem aerternam (“Eternal Rest”) and Kyrie (“Lord Have Mercy”) into the opening movement. His instruction to the chorus is to sing the opening as quietly as possible. Beautiful, lyrical voice-leading dominates the proceedings here, with glorious sonorities from chorus and soloists.

II. Dies irae

“Day of Wrath.” This is the largest and most musically significant movement of the entire work. The textual themes are God’s righteous wrath and loving forgiveness; fittingly, the opening is powerful, sensational. The brass and bass drum introduce the wrath of God, and the chorus then brings it. Verdi scored for only one bass drum, the “Hammer of Judgment” as it’s been called; however, for today’s performance, Maestro Boothe will deploy two bass drums, staged antiphonally, to signify that this is a judgment from which there is no escape. But, judgmental hammering aside, there are also tender, melodious passages. The Rex tremendae majestatis (“King of Dreadful Majesty”) is balanced by the Donum fac remissionis (“Give Me the Gift of Redemption”).

III. Offertorio

This movement is a prayer, sung by the solo quartet. It asks mercy for the dead, and offers prayers and sacrifice. In the Roman Catholic tradition, prayers for the dead are effective. “Libera animas omnium fidelum, defunctorum de poenis inferni, et profondo lacu” (“deliver the souls of all the faithful dead from the pains of hell and from the deep pit”).

IV. Sanctus

“Holy, Holy, Holy!” This is praise music—joyful, even bouncy. Opening with a cheery trumpet fanfare, the chorus takes the lead in a fugal celebration of God’s glory. Listen for the Hosanna in excelsis! Rapid chromatic scales, first in the strings, then in the brass, close the movement.

V. Agnus Dei

“Lamb of God.” In other words, Jesus. This is the most textually succinct movement. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem sempiternam. (“Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest everlasting.”) That’s the entire text. The two female soloists singing in octaves, along with the chorus, drive this meditative movement. The harmonies are modern, but the texture suggests Gregorian chant, or plainsong as the musicologists call it.

VI. Lux aeterna

“Eternal Light.” In the scriptures, Jesus says He is “the light of the world.” This movement is a prayer that Jesus’ light shall shine on the dead for all eternity. This movement spotlights the mezzo-soprano and the male soloists.

VII. Libera me

“Deliver me.” The final movement belongs to the soprano soloist. She opens with the chorus, praying for deliverance. The reprised subjects of fear and wrath lead to a reprise of the central theme of the Dies irae, as Verdi begins tying up the loose ends and drawing the music to a close. Then, another reprise, this one of the introductory Requiem aerternam, rounds out the composition’s symmetry. Out of nowhere, a vigorous choral fugue suddenly takes off (suggesting a community of spirits, perhaps?), accompanied by the powerful, brass-heavy orchestra, to escort us to the very end. Once there, the soprano chants her final, poignant plea for mercy, and the chorus, with the brass, slowly and softly die out, so to speak.
Speaking of death, many great works of art aren’t recognized as such during the artist’s life. A more recent tunesmith, Nick Drake (1948-1974), being no stranger to obscurity, penned these bitter lyrics:

Fame is but a fruit tree
So very unsound.
It can never flourish
‘Till its stock is in the ground.

Verdi was fortunate to overcome obscurity. Through his operas, he achieved great renown during his lifetime. But Verdi’s Requiem is special, even for Verdi. George Bernard Shaw, atheist though he was, understood the power of this music, and wrote that it would outlive even Verdi’s operas, calling the Requiem “an imperishable monument.” (This was the man who complained, “The English have a creepy love for Requiems,” and, about Brahms’ German Requiem, that it was “patiently borne only by the corpse.”) Since its premiere a century and a half ago, Verdi’s Requiem has been a favorite in concert halls around the world, and has earned its place as one of the most oft-performed choral works in the orchestral repertoire, and one of the greatest achievements in the history of music.