Spring 2015 Concert Notes

Giuseppe Verdi  Messa da Requiem 

Music director  Ming Luke

Concert Soloists


Verdi’s Requiem belongs to the long and rich tradition of the requiem liturgy, and it is certainly one of the most memorable of those works. It holds a place among many other requiem masterpieces, including those of Brahms, Mozart, Britten, Fauré, and Duruflé. Yet Verdi’s setting is dramatically set apart in style. Since its inception, it has sparked fierce debate over whether it is more at home in a liturgical context, as Verdi intended, or if its style and proportions relegate it exclusively to a concert hall. A critic of the time even denounced the work as “an opera in ecclesiastical robes.” Indeed, Verdi was renowned as the most important and famous opera composer of his time, and his theatrical sensibilities shifted the traditionally solemn requiem genre to operatic proportions, encompassing the entire spectrum of human emotion and expression.

This work was composed in the 19th century, when Italy was under Austrian rule. Verdi was a fiercely patriotic Italian who held strong political opinions, and one can sense strong overtones of his political commentary in his operas. The chorus “Va, pensiero, sull’ ali dorate” (Go, thought, on golden wings) from his third opera, Nabucco, became a rallying cry for a free Italy, and Verdi became the musical poster child for the movement toward Italian unification and independence. His very name became a symbol of the cause; supporters used it to stand for “Vittorio Emanuele, Re D’Italia” (V.E.R.D.I.), for Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia, who was the popular choice to assume the throne of the newly unified Italy. Among other artists who held fervor for Italian liberty was poet and novelist Allesandro Manzoni, whom Verdi admired tremendously. Manzoni’s second tragedy, Adelchi, revolves around the overthrow of the Lombard domination in Italy in the Middle Ages, making strong allusions to the contemporary struggle. Similarly, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), a dramatic love story set during the Spanish oppression of northern Italy in the 1600s, acts as a not-so-subtle comparison to Austrian rule. When Manzoni died in 1873, Verdi was so devastated that he couldn’t bear to attend the funeral. Nevertheless, over the next year, Verdi composed the Requiem to the memory of the celebrated Italian author. Itpremiered in 1874, one year after Manzoni’s death, in the Church of Saint Mark church in Milan.

Some years before, after the death of Rossini in 1868, Verdi had composed a setting of the “Libera me” text. He and several other Italian composers had set out to assemble a commemorative requiem mass for Rossini, with each contributing one movement. After the work was compiled, the project fell through mere days before the premiere, probably due to the conductor’s skepticism that the cobbled-together work would hold up as a single unit. Nevertheless, Verdi’s “Libera me” was not wasted. When he set out to compose the requiem mass for Manzoni, Verdi revised the “Libera me” and included it as the final movement of his Requiem.

The Requiem is an architectural masterpiece. It is in seven movements, the second of which is an extensive setting of the “Dies irae,” divided into ten sections. The “Dies irae,” a thirteenth-century Latin sequence hymn translated as “The day of wrath, day of judgment,” is an extensive and dramatic prayer for the judgment of the deceased, and relates to the final judgment as depicted in the Revelation. The text journeys through the psychological terror of being judged to the willing submission of the soul and plea for the mercy of God. Verdi’s musical setting of this text is nothing short of terrifying. The entire movement gives the aural impression of being chased by terrible death, with only brief moments of repose. However, the “Dies irae” ends with one of the most tender and beautiful moments of the entire mass, the “Lacrymosa,” a welcome calm after the tempestuous storm of the rest of the movement:

Ah! that day of tears and mourning,
From the dust of earth returning
Man for judgment must prepare him,
Spare, O God, in mercy spare him.

While the Requiem is certainly not the most traditional example of the genre, Verdi used his operatic sensibilities to speak straight to the heart: from the quietest, most intimate moments to the terrifying “Dies irae”; from the heartbreakingly beautiful melody of the “Lacrymosa” to the sublime “Sanctus.” The work concludes with the “Libera me” that he had written for Rossini, recapitulating material from the “Dies irae” and culminating in an extensive fugue that draws together the energy of the entire work and then, in its release, finally allows for the repose of the soul, ending on the words “Deliver me.”

Notes prepared by Eric Choate, BCCO Assistant Conductor