Italy’s na­tional spirit, cap­tured en masse


The Daily Telegraph - Review - - FILM - By Ivan Hewett

TCho­rus and Orches­tra of La Scala, Mi­lan, cond. Ric­cardo Chailly Decca

he ex­pres­sion of na­tional char­ac­ter is some­thing that has more or less died in clas­si­cal mu­sic. It’s not just that na­tion­al­ism is a sus­pect qual­ity these days. It’s hard to know which mu­si­cal mark­ers of English­ness or Ger­man-ness would ac­tu­ally be un­der­stood as such, in these cul­tur­ally frag­mented times.

There were no such prob­lems in Italy in 1868, the year in which Rossini died and the idea for a grand Re­quiem Mass in his hon­our was mooted. The na­tion wasn’t yet uni­fied po­lit­i­cally, but mu­si­cally it had an un­bro­ken tra­di­tion stretch­ing back to Palest­rina, the great­est sa­cred com­poser of the Re­nais­sance, and be­yond.

Giuseppe Verdi, the man who stepped into Rossini’s shoes as the fig­ure­head of Ital­ian mu­sic, was no chau­vin­ist – he ad­mired Wag­ner – but he was de­ter­mined to pre­serve the Ital­ian tra­di­tion. When he sug­gested to his pub­lisher Ri­cordi that he should com­mis­sion a num­ber of Italy’s lead­ing com­posers in­clud­ing him­self to write a Messa per Rossini, he laid down strict con­di­tions. None of the com­posers or per­form­ers must be paid, and no for­eign­ers in­cluded.

The re­sult was a set­ting of the Latin Re­quiem Mass by 13 hands for chorus, orches­tra and five soloists. Nearly all of the cho­sen com­posers di­vided their careers be­tween the church and the opera the­atre, prov­ing Verdi’s point that the Ital­ian tra­di­tion is one un­bro­ken unity. One hears it in the mu­sic, which min­gles sa­cred and pro­fane in fas­ci­nat­ing ways.

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