Saturday 10 November 2018
Messa da Requiem (Requiem Mass)
(1813 to 1901)
Verdi’s Requiem dates from a fallow period in his operatic career. He composed no operas for 16 years following the première of Aïda in 1871. For the remainder of his life, only projects whose call his heart would not permit him to refuse stirred his creative muse into action.
The Requiem was inspired by his high esteem for two fellow Italian artists. The first was Gioachino Rossini, his predecessor as the most successful composer of Italian-language opera. On 17 November, 1868, just four days after Rossini’s death, Verdi put forward the suggestion that a group of Italian composers pool their talents and write a joint requiem mass in Rossini’s honour. He contributed the final section, Libera me. For practical reasons, the projected performance never took place.
The second vital figure in the history of the Verdi Requiem was author Alessandro Manzoni. His book I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) remained Verdi’s favourite novel throughout his life.
Alberto Mazzucato, a member of the committee that had decided which composer would write which portion of the joint Requiem for Rossini, examined Verdi’s Libera me and gave it the highest praise. He also expressed the desire that Verdi use it as the basis for a complete requiem. The composer appreciated the encouragement but begged off.
By early 1873, he changed his mind. Inspiration may have flowed from his publisher’s returning the manuscript of the unused Libera me. Another cause may have been a realization that Manzoni, then 89 years old, might not have long left to live, and that his passing would merit the creation of a suitably grand musical testimonial.
His timing turned out to be prophetic: Manzoni died on 22 May. The news struck Verdi so forcibly that he was unable to attend the state funeral. He then made a proposal to the mayor of Milan: he would finish his Requiem and dedicate it to Manzoni’s memory. He stipulated that it would be performed in Milan on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death. The mayor agreed.
That summer, Verdi sequestered himself in a suite at the Hôtel de Bade in Paris. He set to work intensively, and continued his labours after returning to Italy in mid-September. He put the finishing touches to the Requiem in April 1874, well in time for the scheduled première.
Wishing the première to represent something more than a simple “performance,” he insisted that it be given in a church rather than a theatre. He chose the cathedral of San Marco in Milan for the début, because of its size and its excellent acoustics. For three weeks, he carefully and intensively rehearsed the vast performing forces (four solo singers, plus a chorus of 120 and an orchestra of 100), ensuring an expert première performance on 22 May.
The Requiem achieved instant acclaim as a masterpiece. Johannes Brahms stated, “Only a genius could have written such a work.” A few listeners criticized it as too operatic for its sacred subject. But what else could anyone have expected from Verdi, a man whose heart, soul and instincts were firmly rooted in the theatre, and whose responsibility was to set to music the emotional contents of the text at hand, be it sacred or secular? Perhaps in recognition of its theatricality, throughout the European tour that followed the première, it was performed in theatres rather than churches, a practice which has proven to be the norm ever since.
Verdi’s biographer Joseph Wechsberg has this to say of the Requiem: “A requiem is a prayer of the living for the dead. Verdi’s Requiem ends with a prayer for eternal peace and perpetual light — but not for the dead. Verdi felt that the dead have no need of our prayers. We, the living must pray for ourselves: that is Verdi’s message.”
Programme Notes by Don Anderson © 2018