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.”