Program Notes for Verdi’s Requiem

By Claudia Jensen and Bradley Clem

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

What is the Verdi Requiem? This has been the question since the first performance, on May 22, 1874, which took place in a church, San Marco in Milan, and in the context of a religious service with an officiating priest and with the female singers veiled in black. The second group of performances, however, just a few days later, were at the great La Scala opera house in the same city—in both places, Verdi conducted the same group of musicians. So is the Requiem an “opera in ecclesiastical garb,” as one contemporary critic rather dismissively put it, launching the arguments over the work’s genre ever since: is it too operatic for church or too static for the stage? Should we be listening to this work at Benaroya Hall, at the McCaw Hall opera house, or at St. James Cathedral?

Such considerations did not affect Verdi’s approach over the work’s long period of gestation. He began thinking about composing a Requiem Mass to mark the death of the great Italian composer Gioachino Rossini (d. 1868), and proposed writing a joint memorial, sharing the work with other composers. Verdi’s contribution was to be the final large section of the Requiem text, “Libera me” (Deliver me), and, although he ultimately revised this section later, this is the nucleus of his thinking about the Requiem. When the Rossini tribute fell through, Verdi laid aside his own plans, reviving them after around 1873, and finally dedicating the work to the memory of Alessandro Manzoni, a writer and public figure whom he very much admired. Thus the full title of the work: Messa da Requiem per l’anniversario della morte di Manzoni 22 maggio 1874.

Rather than rehashing the well-worn arguments (opera? drama? neither? both?), it seems far better to engage with the Requiem for what it actually is: a fantastically rich musical and dramatic canvas, written in the composer’s maturity and with full control of every resource at hand. In other words, to quote the important Verdi scholar Julian Budden: “The question ‘which is Verdi’s supreme masterpiece?’ is as difficult to answer as in the case of any great artist. But if it be changed to ‘which work shows his genius at its most concentrated?’ then the answer must surely be the Requiem.” As Budden says, it was this composition that allowed Verdi the freedom from the specific and sometimes limiting requirements of staged drama, and at the same time provided the flexibility to employ the chorus in dimensions that recall Handel’s Messiah in their expressive and dramatic power. As another important Verdi scholar, David Rosen, puts it, the Requiem “lies somewhere between the poles of opera and symphony.”

Verdi employs stylistic approaches that are astonishing in their variety, yet there are some effects he avoided completely. If he had been aiming at a “churchy” style, he might have used an organ, for example, or quoted from the liturgical chant melodies associated with the Requiem texts; he did neither. Instead, the seven large sections of the work create a unique sound world of beauty and tension, tenderness and terror, and all of this using the full range of a massive vocal and instrumental ensemble.

The structure of the first large segment, beginning with “Requiem aeternam” (Grant them eternal rest), is determined by the three-fold layout of the text itself, which unfolds gently, accompanied by muted strings. “Te decet hymnus” (A hymn in Zion befits you) offers strong musical contrast, with imitative writing for chorus alone, slipping back to the quiet opening mood as the text itself repeats. The “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy) segment introduces the soloists and then finally combines all of the performers together in a dramatic (perhaps theatrical?) reveal of the full array of the combined forces.

The next large segment, “Dies irae” (Day of wrath), is the longest of the work, and it introduces musical ideas that will reappear later (both in this long movement as well as later in the work). The transition is abrupt—as Budden says, the “Dies irae” is “conceived as an unearthly storm” with percussion thunderclaps, raining scales, and scalding dissonances to proclaim this day of wrath. As the music dwindles down, the horrified choir pronounces “Quantus tremor” (How great will be the terror) sotto voce, in staggering whispers, a declamatory effect that appears elsewhere in the work. Brass fanfares naturally mark the opening of the “Tuba mirum” (The trumpet, scattering a marvelous sound), and the compelling writing for bass drum continues in the “Mors stupebit” (Death and Nature shall stand amazed), which is sung by the bass soloist in a fashion that shows how mysteriously Verdi creates drama: is the soloist a narrator or an actor? After a brief, terrifying return to the “Dies irae” music (Rosen calls this musical sequence “cataclysmic”), the segment concludes with a final “Lacrymosa” (That day is one of weeping) offered up by the intertwining voices of the entire ensemble.

The structure of the third large section, the Offertory, is also determined by the layout of the long text, with the music creating a sense of quiet tension in portraying the violent imagery of the opening. Verdi calls for “dolcissimo” performance at the appeal “Hostias et preces tibi” (We offer to you, O Lord), and there is a brief reprise of part of the opening text, “Libera animas” (Deliver the souls)—all of this unfolding through a kind of expanding variation emanating from the arpeggiated opening by the cellos.

The Sanctus begins with a brass fanfare, setting us up for the breathtaking (and breathtakingly quick) fugal writing for double choir. In his score, Verdi marked the opening line of the Sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth!”) with an exclamation point; as Rosen notes, this punctuation “is indicative of his conception” for the movement, which is joyful and propulsive. It stands in contrast to the beautifully sculpted Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), which alternates striking unison passages by the female soloists with increasingly densely orchestrated choral responses.

The restless harmonies of “Lux aeterna” (Let eternal light) alternate with ominous statements of the “Requiem aeternam” (Grant them eternal rest), proclaimed by the bass soloist with percussion and brass emphasis. “Lux perpetua” (Perpetual light) offers a respite and, although at the end the more transparent writing prevails, we still hear what Budden describes as the lower brass “growling beneath the celestial arabesques of flute and piccolo—the mortal remains contrasted with the immortal soul.”

The final segment, “Libera me” (Deliver me), is where the Requiem ultimately began, as the proposed tribute to Rossini. We hear the unmistakable reprise of the “Dies irae” turmoil and, although we eventually end in a major key, we are left, as Budden says, with the soprano “murmuring in an anxious monotone,” and our mood remains somber, chastened. As Rosen asks, what has changed at this ending? “[T]he soprano is no more certain of the outcome now than at the beginning of the movement.”

So … what is Verdi’s Requiem? About this vast canvas, which takes us into fear, absolution, peace, and, perhaps, uncertainty, it seems that one of Verdi’s contemporaries should have the last word. “Only a genius,” said Johannes Brahms, “could write such a work.”