Pasatiempo - - LISTEN UP - James M. Keller

Strad­dling the sa­cred and the secular: Verdi’s Re­quiem

Giuseppe Verdi is ven­er­ated as one of the great­est of all opera com­posers, but this week­end mem­bers of the Santa Fe Sym­phony Orches­tra and Cho­rus show off a dif­fer­ent as­pect of his ge­nius when they per­form his Re­quiem Mass. When Verdi wrote this tow­er­ing master­piece, in 1873 and 1874, he was the undis­puted king of Ital­ian com­posers. He had un­veiled about 25 op­eras by then, in­clud­ing the trip­tych of his mid­dle years — Rigo­letto, Il trova­tore, and La travi­ata — and the four mag­nif­i­cent master­works of his mid­dle-late pe­riod — Un ballo in maschera, La forza del destino, Don Car­los, and Aida, the last of which had its pre­miere on Christ­mas Eve of 1871 in Cairo.

And then, af­ter Aida, Verdi ba­si­cally re­tired. He wrote no more op­eras for an­other 16 years, not un­til, in the very last years of his life, he emerged with re­stored en­ergy to pro­duce his two fi­nal op­er­atic master­works,

Otello and Fal­staff. He had ba­si­cally noth­ing left to prove. He was wealthy. Roy­alty pay­ments were rolling in. He was en­joy­ing his life as a gen­tle­man farmer. It took an ex­tra­or­di­nary event to stir him into post-Aida ac­tion.

The run-up to that event be­gan with the death of Gioachino Rossini in 1868. Verdi viewed him as an es­sen­tial fore­fa­ther and felt the loss deeply. “A great name has gone from the world!” he wrote to his friend and con­fi­dante the Countess Clara Maf­fei. “His was the most wide­spread, most popular rep­u­ta­tion of our time, and was the glory of Italy! When the other one who is still alive will no longer be with us, what will re­main?”

Via his pow­er­ful pub­lisher, Gi­ulio Ricordi, Verdi ap­proached the pow­ers that be in Bologna, a city with which Rossini had been par­tic­u­larly as­so­ci­ated, to pro­pose a trib­ute. His idea was that a com­pos­ite Re­quiem Mass — a clas­sic Ro­man Catholic Mass for the Dead — should be read­ied for the first an­niver­sary of Rossini’s death, with 13 com­posers con­tribut­ing one move­ment each. The city fa­thers in Bologna sup­ported the idea, but ob­jec­tions were raised on other fronts — from other mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties that were plan­ning Rossini trib­utes, from crit­ics who ob­jected to the idea of a “piece­meal” com­po­si­tion, from peo­ple re­spon­si­ble for bal­anc­ing bud­gets. Nonethe­less, com­mis­sions were handed out. Verdi as­signed him­self the con­clud­ing “Lib­era me” sec­tion, and the other por­tions were divvied up among 12 other com­posers, all of whom have since de­scended into ob­scu­rity. In the end, bickering pol­i­tics got the bet­ter of the plan, and the piece was not per­formed. Verdi was cha­grined, but he got on with his life and plunged into the com­po­si­tion of Aida.

But what was Verdi talk­ing about when he wrote, “When the other one who is still alive will no longer be with us, what will re­main?” You might think he was re­fer­ring to him­self, but in the con­text of the rest of that let­ter it be­comes clear that the “other” to whom he was re­fer­ring was Alessan­dro Man­zoni — not a mu­si­cian but rather a poet and nov­el­ist of in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion and, like Verdi, a pa­triot for an Italy in the throes of na­tional uni­fi­ca­tion.

Then on May 22, 1873, Man­zoni died, at the age of eighty-eight. Un­able to at­tend the fu­neral, Verdi re­ported to Maf­fei: “I was not there, but few peo­ple can have been sad­der or more moved than I was, even though I am far away. Now it is fin­ished! And with him dies the purest, holi­est, and high­est of our glo­ries.” He was the great Ital­ian au­thor of the 19th cen­tury, and to this day stu­dents of Ital­ian meet up with his ground­break­ing novel

I promessi sposi (The Be­trothed) early in their stud­ies. A panoramic his­tor­i­cal novel set in the 17th cen­tury, it was popular among the opera crowd: Amil­care Ponchielli, of

La Gioconda fame, wrote an op­er­atic I promessi sposi in 1856, and a less fa­mous com­poser, Er­rico Pe­trella, fol­lowed up with one in 1869. Man­zoni’s novel served as a coded man­ual for Ital­ians swept up in the pro­gres­sive ideals of the Risorg­i­mento, the po­lit­i­cal move­ment that even­tu­ally turned Italy into a uni­fied mod­ern na­tion rather than a patch­work of mis­cel­la­neous duchies and prin­ci­pal­i­ties. In that sense, the sub­text of Man­zoni’s nov­els served much the same po­lit­i­cal func­tion that some of Verdi’s op­eras did.

Be­fore long, Verdi re­solved to com­pose a full Re­quiem Mass in mem­ory of Man­zoni — this time on his own. Verdi was not a re­li­gious man, but he ap­pre­ci­ated that most of his coun­try­men were and, as an ag­nos­tic, he did not dis­dain re­li­gious be­liefs that were mean­ing­ful to oth­ers. He there­fore threw him­self whole­heart­edly into the project. He al­ready had a leg up with his com­pleted, and as yet un­per­formed, “Lib­era me” for Rossini; and since that sec­tion in­cludes some text that also ap­pears in two ear­lier sec­tions — “Re­quiem aeter­nam” and “Dies irae” — it made per­fect sense for him to ex­trap­o­late back­ward when com­pos­ing those sec­tions, get­ting fur­ther (and per­fectly log­i­cal) mileage out of the mu­sic he had al­ready writ­ten.

He com­pleted his Re­quiem in time for it to be pre­miered on the first an­niver­sary of Man­zoni’s pass­ing, in the nov­el­ist’s home city of Mi­lan, but chal­lenges still had to be over­come. Verdi be­came fix­ated on the idea that the pre­miere sim­ply had to take place in a church. But there was a prohibition against women singing in church choirs, and this Re­quiem was go­ing to in­volve a lot of singing women. Prob­a­bly no­body else would have had the clout, but even in a show­down with the Catholic Church, Verdi was des­tined to get his way, at least mostly. He agreed to a com­pro­mise: The women could sing as long as he placed the fe­male part of the choir off to the side be­hind some pil­lars, where the au­di­ence couldn’t ac­tu­ally see them. An is­sue arose in­volv­ing one of his fe­male soloists, too. Since the mu­sic of his Re­quiem re­sem­bled that of

Aida, Verdi wanted to hire the women soloists who had taken part in that work’s first Mi­lan per­for­mance.

The prob­lem was the mez­zoso­prano who had ap­peared as Am­neris, Aida’s nemesis. She was un­der a con­tract to per­form in Florence just then, and the im­pre­sario there was in­tractable about not re­leas­ing her to sing some Re­quiem over in Mi­lan. Verdi had to ex­ert more of his con­sid­er­able sway, and he got the mayor of Mi­lan to in­ter­vene with the mayor of Florence to get the Floren­tine im­pre­sario to bend to Verdi’s will. The per­for­mance there­fore went on as planned be­fore an au­di­ence of dig­ni­taries both Ital­ian and for­eign.

Notwith­stand­ing this ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal pre­miere, Verdi al­ways viewed his piece as a “con­cert Re­quiem,” and its ap­pear­ances as part of a li­tur­gi­cal cel­e­bra­tion have been rare in­deed. That its mu­sic in­hab­its a mid­dle ground be­tween sa­cred and secular styles raised some eye­brows early on. The em­i­nent con­duc­tor Hans von Bülow — a close col­league of such fig­ures as Brahms, Liszt (whose daugh­ter he mar­ried), and Wag­ner (whom that same daugh­ter mar­ried af­ter she dumped Bülow) — was in Mi­lan when the Re­quiem was pre­miered, but he did not at­tend. He had been given the op­por­tu­nity to read through the score in ad­vance, and he in­formed read­ers of a news­pa­per back home in Mu­nich that, on the ba­sis of that ac­quain­tance with “the show” (as he termed it), he de­cided to stay home rather than “en­dure this opera in ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal gar­ments.” He con­tin­ued, “Our quick and il­licit pre­view of this new­est runoff from Trova­tore and Travi­ata has done away with any de­sire to at­tend those fes­tiv­i­ties.”

For bet­ter or worse, his de­scrip­tion of the Re­quiem as an “opera in ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal gar­ments,” a dis­missal that seems to have been mo­ti­vated largely by per­sonal an­tag­o­nism, be­came a touch­stone idea con­nected to this work, and bar­rels of ink have been spilled ar­gu­ing whether this is a proper piece of sa­cred mu­sic or an opera dis­guised in a cas­sock. Once Bülow fi­nally deigned to lis­ten to the piece, he came to re­gret his state­ment and re­pented in an hon­or­able way. In 1893, fully 18 years af­ter his ar­ti­cle ap­peared, he wrote a let­ter to Verdi in which he apol­o­gized with flow­ery pro­fu­sion for what he rec­og­nized by then as his “great jour­nal­is­tic im­be­cil­ity.” He con­fessed that he had been “blinded by fa­nati­cism, by an ul­tra-Wag­ne­r­ian prej­u­dice” and begged the com­poser to “ab­solve me and ex­er­cise the royal pre­rog­a­tive of cle­mency.” “He is def­i­nitely mad!” Verdi in­formed Ricordi, but he penned a gra­cious re­sponse nonethe­less, al­low­ing the un­likely pos­si­bil­ity, “Who knows? Maybe you were right the first time.”

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