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Verdi Requiem Essay

All but one of Guiseppe Verdi’s masterworks are operas. This poses a problem for those of us who aren’t opera buffs. Fortunately, though, that one exception is his stunning Requiem, into which he poured the same vibrant emotion that thrills opera fans, but without the trite plots, simplistic characters and dull narrative stretches that tend to alienate others. Indeed, more than a few critics have hailed the Requiem as Verdi’s finest opera.

Verdi’s inspiration was neither religious, egotistical nor fiscal. Rather, his gesture was one of national pride. He considered the opera composer Gioacchino Rossini one of the two greatest Italian artists of his time. Four days after Rossini’s death on November 13, 1868, Verdi wrote his publisher Ricordi to propose a requiem mass to be given one year later in Rossini’s heartland of Bologna. Each of the twelve sections was to be written by an Italian composer, so that the result would compensate for any lack of unity with a variety of universal veneration. Verdi himself would supply the concluding section. There was to be “no foreign hand, nor hand foreign to art, no matter how powerful, to help us.”

To avoid petty vanity, all composers and performers were to contribute their services. To avoid exploitation, the score was to be sealed in the city archives and presented only on subsequent anniversaries of Rossini’s death. While all the assignments were completed in ample time, the performance never materialized, the organizing committee was disbanded, Verdi refused to allow publication or performance of his portion, and in 1873 his score was returned. He soon found another appropriate use for it.

Verdi’s other idol was Alessandro Manzoni. Although Manzoni had written only a single novel, I promessi sposi (“The Betrothed”), it was so popular that the author became the leading Italian literary figure of the century. A sprawling historical tale of peasant lovers buffeted by and triumphing over the repression of society, religion and injustice, it emerged as the driving literary force of the Risorgimento movement for Italian unification. Originally published in 1827, in 1840 Manzoni rewrote it in Tuscan, which he considered the pure indigenous Italian language. William Manning notes that beneath its plot and characters, it served as “a kind of stylebook of the language of a country which though politically united was linguistically chaotic.”

Alessandro Manzoni
(1785-1873)
As a teenager, Verdi had read the book following its initial publication and came to view it as serving two complementary and ideal uses of art for social ends – not only did it transcend politics to rally people by appealing to their collective roots, but its popularity served as a cultural emissary to attract the world’s attention and admiration. When he finally met Manzoni in 1868, Verdi revered him as a saint.

Although Manzoni’s death in his 89th year was hardly unexpected, Verdi was deeply grieved. The next day he wrote to his publisher Ricordi that although he wouldn’t attend the funeral, “I will come in a little while to visit his tomb, alone and without being seen, and perhaps (after further meditation and after having gauged my strength) to suggest something to honor his memory.” The next week Verdi made his pilgrimage, condemned the many published tributes as superficial and resolved to write a requiem, but this time without the political snags and bickering that had thwarted his Rossini project. His proposal – to write the entire mass himself if Milan would fund its first performance.

Despite opposition from the city council which already had funded a lavish funeral, the mayor accepted, the San Marco church in Venice was selected as the venue for its acoustics, the convention of using a priest to recite liturgy between musical numbers was bypassed, and the Archbishop gave special permission to use female performers on condition that they be veiled, dressed in black and hidden behind a grating. Verdi’s project was officially titled Messa da Requiem per l’anniversario della morte de Manzoni, 22 Maggio 1874 (“Requiem mass for the anniversary of Manzoni’s death, May 22, 1874”).

The resulting work was indeed as dramatic as any Verdi opera. George Marek calls it “a prayer for peace by a man who had devoted his music to conflict.” As George Martin has noted, it is suffused with Verdi’s personal doubts as to the efficacy of prayer, a concern perhaps heightened by his advancing age and fear of what lay ahead. Indeed, the Requiem’s very strength lies in its exploration of Verdi’s ambivalent views toward religion, given reign through the unparalleled sense of theatre he had developed.

Guiseppi Verdi
(1813 – 1901)
As Cecilia Porter notes, death is a complex character in the Requiem, playing multiple roles – an object of terror, a comforter, an emancipator – fully reflecting Verdi’s penchant toward intensely human drama rather than a staid presentation of liturgical dogma or an intellectual effort at theological exploration (a task which Verdi, a very plain man, could never have abided). It’s indeed ironic that from this simple man, with no pretension of philosophical insight, arose a work that presents a far more potent sense of sophisticated (and quite modern) theology than the religious works of most of his predecessors.

Martin further notes that since a requiem is an assortment of responses and prayers without a rigidly prescribed text, and since Verdi never intended his work to be sung as part of an actual church service, he could select and emphasize portions that ran the gamut of human experience, ranging from sadness to joy, simplicity to majesty, reflection to apocalypse. As a man of the theatre, Verdi chose to fashion these disparate elements into a drama from which solos would emerge as true individuals, rather than as offshoots of the massed choir. Indeed, his use of solo voices is daringly intricate – not the decorative figures of Haydn, nor the schematic personas in Bach cantatas, but multi-faceted roles that often complicate the texture to subtly question the apparent meaning of the wording presented by the underlying choral forces.

The soprano, in particular, seems to voice Verdi’s own ambivalent skepticism, adding emotional intensity at odds with the faith-based text and affording a wide latitude for interpretation – indeed. in their respective recordings, Elizabeth Schwartzkopf whispers the final “libera me,” Galina Vishnevskaya nearly chokes on those words, and Herva Nelli snarls the passage as a stern defiant demand.

Of Verdi’s primary models, Mozart had couched his Requiem in classical order, Cherubini had dwelled on the Offeratorium’s hope for deliverance and Berlioz had deployed his massive performing forces only in the intensely powerful and vivid Dies irae, Lachrymosa and Sanctus sections, projecting throughout the remaining movements a somewhat meandering overall sense of peace and contentment amid ingenious sonic effects (including quadraphonic placement of voices and brass). In contrast, Verdi’s score is intensely melodic, tightly focused and bristles throughout with surging passion and challenging discomfort.

Why did Verdi choose a mass, rather than an oratorio of Manzoni’s own words, to honor his hero? After all, although severely moral, Verdi was anti-clerical and an agnostic; his wife considered him an atheist and recalled that he would laugh and call her mad when she spoke of religion. Martin suggests historical and practical motivations – masses had been used by Cherubini and Rossini to honor departed public figures and thus a work in that genre was more likely to be welcomed elsewhere. Besides, Verdi already had a large emotional investment in his contribution to the aborted Rossini venture. Perhaps on a more personal level, Verdi found an outlet in the varied text of the requiem to explore his own ambivalent faith through his inherent sense of drama.


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