The Verdi Requiem

The Verdi Requiem

In November 1868 Rossini, the grand old man of Italian music, had died in Paris at the age of 76. Verdi proposed that the anniversary of his death be commemorated by a requiem mass to which all the leading Italian composers of church music should contribute a movement. He himself would provide the concluding "Libera me." The mass would be performed at the Church of San Petronio, Bologna, the city with which Rossini has been most closely associated. The pieces were all composed and copied in good time; but the performance never took place. The local impresario refused to make his forces available for the occasion, since this would have meant curtailing the opera season from the proceeds of which he counted on being able to feed his large family. But of course the city council could easily have indemnified him, had the hearts been in the project. At the time Bologna prided itself on the modernity of its culture (two years later it would mount the Italian premiere of Lohengrin).

The Messa per Rossini seemed to the authorities a backward-looking enterprise. Not daring to oppose it openly, they just let it run aground. In 1871, however, there was talk of reviving it for the inauguration of a bust of Rossini at La Scala, Milan. A committee was set up to reexamine the Mass to judge whether it would stand up as a composition on its own merits. Evidently they decided that it would not. But one of the members, Alberto Mazzucato, director of the Milan Conservatory, felt moved to write to Verdi praising his contribution to the skies. Verdi said that Mazzucato's words almost persuaded him to complete the requiem on his own, "especially since with a little more development I would find that I had already written the 'requiem aeternam' and the 'Dies irae,' to which there is a back-reference in the 'Libera me' ... but don't worry, it's a temptation that will pass.”

Fortunately for the world it did not pass. The "Libera me" from the Messa per Rossini became the acorn from which the oak of the present requiem grew. A suitable occasion for its completion soon presented itself. On 22 May 1873 the writer Alessandro Manzoni died. To Verdi his historical novel, I promessi sposi, was "not just a book, but a consolation to all mankind." True, the author was a liberal Catholic, while Verdi disclaimed any religious belief whatsoever. Yet they were kindred spirits. Each had fostered the cause of Italian unity; and each combined national feeling with a profound sympathy for the individual. Verdi could have found no more fitting subject for such a supreme commemoration. The first performance of the requiem took place on the anniversary of Manzoni's death with the soloists Teresa Stolz, Maria Waldmann, Giuseppe Capponi and Ormindo Maini, and was a predictable triumph. But Verdi had not yet finished with it. By the time it was given at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on May 15, 1875, he had replaced a fugal setting of the "Liber scriptus" with the declamatory solo for mezzo soprano that we know today.

And thus in the long operatic composition hiatus that spanned the 16 years between the premiere of Aida in 1871 and the writing of Otello in 1887, Verdi wrote one of his most important and nowadays popular works, the Requiem.

Not everyone greeted the arrival of this new work with enthusiasm. The great Wagnerian conductor Hans von Bulow wrote in the Allgemeine Zeitung of May 21, 1874: “tomorrow will see at the Church of St. Mark, Milan, decked out like a theater for the event, a monster performance of Verdi's requiem conducted, exceptionally, by the composer himself ... a work with which the all-powerful corrupter of Italian artistic taste presumably hopes to sweep away the remains of Rossini's immortality, which is so troublesome to his ambition. His latest opera in ecclesiastical garb will then be exposed to public admiration at La Scala for three evenings in succession...”

Naturally, Italian opinion was outraged by the article. But the most devastating rebuke came from that stern guardian of the German classical tradition, Johannes Brahms who said that "Bulow has made a fool of himself for all time; only a genius could write such a work." To be fair to Bulow, that would soon be his own opinion as well. Years later he wrote to Verdi begging the composer's forgiveness for his abominable journalistic sin. "There is no trace of sin in you," Verdi replied with characteristic dryness; "besides, who knows? Perhaps you were right the first time!” Julian Budden, on of the leading Verdi scholars of our time, argues that “if asked which is Verdi's greatest composition one would be hard to put to it for a reply. But to the question, which one shows his genius at its most concentrated, the answer must surely be the requiem. For here his musical thought can expand freely, undiluted by the special doneness that inevitably govern a work for the stage. Together with Beethoven's Missa Solemnis it stands at the pinnacle of 19th century church music."
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