Verdi – Requiem

Requiem Mass (1874)

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

Giuseppe Verdi was born in northern Italy to a family of modest means but belief in their precocious son’s education. Aged eight, Giuseppe became the paid organist at the local church. After education in nearby Busseto, Verdi moved to Milan where in 1842 his opera Nabucco had achieved immediate success. 29 operas later, Verdi was famous and after the success of Aida was set for retirement at his farmhouse south of Milan.

Then in 1873 Verdi’s idol and Italian national hero Alessandro Manzoni died in Milan. Manzoni was a poet, novelist and fellow patriot agitating for the unification of Italy. Verdi noted that not one of Manzoni’s obituary notices “speaks the way it should. Many words, but none of them deeply felt”. So Verdi decided to honour Manzoni in his own way. He would write a Requiem and perform it on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death.

When the Italian composer Rossini had died in Paris five years earlier, Verdi had arranged for a group of Italian composers to write a Requiem in his honour. Although all composers complied, disputes prevented performance of the work. Verdi resurrected his contribution, the final Libera Me, as the basis for his new Requiem. Working hard over the autumn and winter he completed the score, selected soloists, paid for copying of the parts and conducted the rehearsals in time for its premiere at St Marks Church, Milan on 22 May 1874. Only with special permission from the Archbishop were female choristers permitted, and then only if they dressed all in black and were hidden behind a screen. As applause was not allowed, the reception was rather muted, unlike that for the second performance at La Scala a few days later following which the capacity audience erupted.

Despite his days as a youthful organist and his second wife’s regular attendance at mass, Verdi was not religious. Like non-believer Brahms with his German Requiem five years earlier, Verdi adapted the Latin text of the Requiem Mass to convey the universal emotions when a beloved person dies: grief, loss, sadness and the hope of lasting peace. Not designed for the liturgy, it is intended to be performed. The critic Hans von Bülow accurately observed that the Requiem was an “opera in ecclesiastical costume”.

Verdi brings to bear his full arsenal of operatic tools and then some. Emotions swing wildly, from the hushed opening through the visceral recurring Dies Irae to the fading ending that, rather than peaceful resolution, leaves us with the unanswered question – will we achieve everlasting peace?

Performed: 23 June 2019

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