The Kennedy Center


About the Work

Giuseppe Verdi Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
© Paul Horsley

Giuseppe Verdi
Born October 9 or 10, 1813 in Roncole, near Busseto
Died January 27, 1901 in Milan

If Verdi's Requiem is not exactly what the traditional Roman Catholic musical establishment might have ordered for a typical Mass for the Dead, it has become lodged in the Western imagination as an expression of the 19th century's view of faith as an intensely personal matter. Verdi's 1874 masterpiece pushed sacred music beyond extremes of expression already challenged in Bach's St. Matthew Passion, Handel's Messiah, Beethoven's Missa solemnis, Schubert's Masses and Berlioz's Requiem. The Messa da Requiem per l'anniversario della morte di Manzoni 22 maggio 1874, to cite Verdi's full title, was composed ostensibly in memory of the great Italian author and nationalist hero Alessandro Manzoni. Though it was clearly more than the sum of its parts, it was a real Requiem: It transcended the cliché established early on of an "opera in ecclesiastical garb," to cite the conductor Hans von Bülow's appraisal of the piece. While clearly operatic in style, the Requiem remains "the summit of 19th-century liturgical music," in the words of Verdi scholar Julian Budden. It also represented, in part, the growing sense in the Western mind that each individual was responsible for finding faith and purpose through a struggle that might or might not involve traditional religion.

The Requiem is also a piece with which Christoph Eschenbach has had a long personal relationship. "This work is one of the greatest masterpieces ever written," he has said. "I heard this work early in my life from the great masters like Herbert von Karajan — who was one of its greatest interpreters. So the work got really into my blood." When asked why he chose a Requiem for his first concerts since his appointment as Music Director of the Kennedy Center and the National Symphony Orchestra, Maestro Eschenbach pointed out that Verdi's work exceeds by far the narrow concept of a Mass for the Dead. "It is a great masterpiece in itself." It is moreover, as Budden has written, the piece into which Verdi poured "all the purely musical resources that he had developed in the course of 26 operas, and which he could here exploit to the full without having to take into account the special demands which a stage action inevitably imposes."

The 1870s in Italy was a time of great change, with the nationalist movement giving way to decentralized and corrupt leadership, and the musical scene becoming gradually "Germanized," to use Verdi's word for the influx of works like Wagner's Lohengrin and the presence of musicians like von Bülow. In this atmosphere, sacred music languished. This was also a period in which Verdi, who had all but decided that Aïda of 1871 would be his last opera, began reevaluating his own artistic mission. Rossini's death had initially sparked his first attempt to take part in composing a Requiem: When the elder composer died in 1868, Verdi had proposed a plan in which the leading composers of the day would each contribute a movement to a Requiem, which would be performed on the anniversary of Rossini's death. Intrigue ran that project aground, though not before Verdi had composed a Libera me that he would later revise for his "Manzoni" Requiem.

In the ensuing years, those around him began hinting that he should take up a Requiem. "It is a temptation that will pass like so many others," Verdi wrote to a friend in February 1871. "I do not like useless things. There are so many, many Requiem Masses!!! It is useless to add one more." Nevertheless, in 1873 when Verdi's publisher, Giulio Ricordi, returned to him the score of the unused Libera me, he also planted a letter in the Gazzetta musicale di Milano urging Verdi to "give new life to sacred music, now fallen to such a low point." Manzoni's death on May 22 of that year finally activated Verdi's resolve.

"I am profoundly saddened by the death of our great man!" he wrote to Ricordi. In Verdi's eyes, Manzoni so represented the ideals of 19th-century Italian nationhood that some have speculated that Verdi wished to compose a "Requiem for the risorgimento" — the Italian national "awakening" that had found such powerful resonance in his music. Still, Verdi's remains a work of sacred music to its core, despite a certain dispassionate approach to the liturgical aspects of the text. Scored for four soloists with chorus, it does not turn the singers into "characters" playing roles in any traditional sense: At times they speak to the general narrative, at others they are as individual supplicants seeking mercy.

The Requiem was composed in Paris, Sant'Agata, and Milan from the latter part of 1873 to the spring of 1874. "I'm working on my Mass and doing so with great pleasure," the composer wrote to Camille Du Locle. It was completed by April 16 and first performed on May 22, a year after Manzoni's death according to plan, in the acoustically favorable Church of San Marco, Milan. It scored further performances in Paris, Vienna, and at the new Royal Albert Hall in London. The Londoners were oddly lukewarm about the piece, whereas in Vienna the success was "into the torrid zone," as Giuseppina Verdi wrote. The official United States premiere took place in the Academy of Music in New York on November 17, 1874, under the baton of a former Verdi pupil, Emanuele Muzio.

"One mustn't sing this Mass in the way one sings an opera," Verdi emphasized from the outset, "and therefore phrasing and dynamics that may be fine in the theater won't satisfy me at all, not at all." The forces used in the early performances varied a great deal, as the scholar David Rosen has shown: The Milan premiere employed a chorus of 120 and an orchestra of about 100, though on other occasions Verdi authorized much larger forces, most outlandishly the performance at Royal Albert Hall, which featured — according to the testimony of the organist for the performance — a chorus that was 1,200 strong.

The work opens with an initial Requiem movement cast in A-B-A, with the initial portion introducing the mournful thematic material and a central section formed by the "Te decet hymnus." In the first full-throated cry for mercy ("Kyrie"), the composer introduces his soloists as if they were characters in a drama. The entreaty moves upward in a bone-tingling registral expansion achieved by the soloists ascending successively while the accompaniment descends. Donald Francis Tovey called this "the most moving passage in all Verdi's works; unquestionably one of the greater monuments of musical pathos."

The Dies irae finds Verdi at his most ferocious. The composer has turned the 13th-century sequence by Thomas of Celano into a huge structure with almost unprecedented extremes of emotion — from hand-wringing cries for mercy to near-hysterical fears of doom. The initial onslaught is equaled in Verdi's output perhaps only by the opening storm scene of Otello composed several years later. The "Tuba mirum" becomes a terrifying antiphony of orchestral and off-stage trumpet players; here Verdi is at his most theatrical: The slap-dash risorgimento choruses of his operas have been transformed into something closer to what the last trumpet(s) might indeed sound like. In the shattering silence that follows, the bass is dazed ("Mors stupebit"), the mezzo-soprano imperious ("Liber scriptus"). The chorus reminds us of the terror ("Dies irae") before a brief trio of soprano, mezzo, and tenor ("Quid sum miser") introduces the entreaty of a single sinner pleading for mercy. This sets up an ongoing contrast between the narrative cries of all Christians ("Dies irae") and the personal pleas of the soloists.

The immutability of God's power ("Rex tremendae") is offered as a response to the plea for salvation, which seems little comfort to the soprano and mezzo ("Recordare"), who sing a tender operatic duet. Likewise the tenor's tormented "Ingemisco" is answered by the bass' stern "Confutatis." A fierce "Dies irae" reprise ushers in the emotional high-point of the section, the lament of the "Lacrymosa," filled with sigh-motifs and an inexorable forward-motion. Here the operatic nature of the music is overt: It is derived from a duet composed for the opera Don Carlos but discarded before its premiere.

After so much high-decibel gnashing-of-teeth, the Offertorio offers welcome serenity and ushers in a more tranquil series of movements. The "Domine Jesu" grows from a solo cello theme heard toward the beginning, which moves into a short-lived fugue ("Quam olim Abrahae"). More emphatic still is the double fugue of the Sanctus, which together with the "Benedictus" is set as a continuous contrapuntal texture broken only by the simpler textures of the "Pleni sunt coeli." The Agnus Dei is built from a plainchant-like theme in octaves; conflict arises again in the Lux aeterna for soloists, but is dispelled again in a shimmer of B-flat major. The Libera me plunges us back into the intense drama of the Dies irae, and the choral interpolations of the "Requiem aeternam" and "Dies irae" have been taken to suggest that Verdi intended even then to expand the Rossini Requiem into a full composition some day. The emphatic fugue is a momentary gesture in a piece that concludes the Requiem Mass on a note of tranquility and, finally, uncertainty.