Aside from his operas, Verdi is best known for his extraordinary Requiem, written in memory of the Italian writer and nationalist Alessandro Manzoni. The dramatic power of the famous Dies irae and the sublime lyricism of the work’s solo passages have led many to describe it as more of an opera than a formal Requiem Mass.
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Verdi did not feel the death of Alessandro Manzoni any less keenly because Manzoni was a very old man. It was a grievous blow. He had long had a reverence, almost amounting to idolatry, for the eminent Italian novelist and poet. He had admired him from a distance and, when a meeting was finally arranged, he was moved to the depths. ‘How shall I describe the extraordinary, indefinable sensation I felt in the presence of your “saint”?’, he wrote to Countess Clarina Maffei. ‘I would have gone down on my knees if one could worship men’. Earlier, he had tried to explain what it was he felt about him. Manzoni, he said, had written ‘not only the greatest book of our time but one of the greatest books that the human mind has produced [I Promessi Sposi (‘The Betrothed’)]. It’s not just a book, it’s a consolation to humanity. I was 16 when I first read it. Since then … if anything my experience of men has made me admire it all the more – because it’s a true book … Oh, if artists could but understand that “true”, there would be no more composers of the future or composers of the past, no puristic, realistic or idealistic painters, no poets classic or romantic, but true poets, true painters, true composers’.
This was Verdi’s creed as an artist, and the Requiem Mass he wrote as a tribute to Manzoni and performed in 1874 on the first anniversary of his death is the fruit of it – whatever the critics’ subsequent attempts to reduce it to a category, labelled theatrical or operatic. The Requiem is true, before it is anything else. Verdi could only respond to the liturgy as the dramatist he was and by using the personal language he had evolved while composing a score of operas. But the sound-quality and texture and whole feel of the work is as unique and as different from La traviata or Don Carlos as they are from each other. And perhaps none of the works written before it had been so perfectly fashioned, so consistently strong in inspiration, so lofty in aim and achievement (even if the gaiety of the Sanctus may at first disconcert the non-Italian). The Requiem used to be called ‘Verdi’s greatest opera’. Why not? As a sneer the remark is meaningless; as a splendid compliment it is not far short of the truth. What is the text of the ‘Dies irae’ if not operatic?
The Requiem is certainly not religious in an orthodox way. Neither is Brahms’s, nor the Grande Messe des Morts. Even in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis God is in a sense the projection, the creation of human fears and longings. Like Berlioz, Verdi was a humanist who retained a poignant regret for his childhood beliefs. But he had little use for the historical church (listen to the Grand Inquisitor’s scene in Don Carlos or the gloomy, brutish music that accompanies the procession of condemned heretics in the same work); and the criticisms that emanated from the Catholic hierarchy when Manzoni died did not dispose Verdi any more gently towards it. ‘Not a Catholic in the political and strictly theological sense of the word – nothing could be further from the truth’, was Boito’s verdict. As Verdi’s wife Giuseppina remarked, ‘the science, the sophisms, the metaphysical subtleties of the theologians and the learned of all the religions of all the ages strike vainly against the mystery of death’. It is too big a subject to be left to the clergy.
Death and fear pervade the work. As someone who, in D’Annunzio’s phrase, ‘wept for all’, Verdi could express humanity’s feelings about it with ample authority. Hell, he knew, was something human beings can carry in themselves, and inflict on others. And death was in the air: Manzoni palpably a dying man some years before his long life ended in 1873, Rossini dead in 1868 (Verdi’s ‘Libera Me’ originated as a movement contributed to an abortive project for a mass in his honour), Verdi’s father dead, followed by his beloved father-in-law and benefactor Antonio Barezzi. The Requiem is, among other things, the passionate protest of a man who rebels against the outrage that is death. Boito experienced a similar feeling when he watched Verdi on his death-bed: ‘Never have I had such a feeling of hatred against death, of contempt for that mysterious, blind, stupid, triumphant and craven power … He too hated it, for he was the most powerful expression of life that it is possible to imagine’.
Requiem and Kyrie: The opening is hushed, as muted cellos, then all the strings, play a slow, falling theme in A minor, against muttered pleas of ‘Requiem’, and the chorus continuing to intone sotto voce against the orchestra’s more expansive melodic line. At ‘Kyrie, eleison’ the soloists enter in turn, to an exalted theme which soars up over a chromatically descending bass, the music rising three times to climaxes of thrilling beauty. The end is again hushed, though a chord of F major strikes across the A major tonality like the sudden lifting of a curtain.
Dies irae: ‘Dies irae’ is set as a single vast movement held together by its structure of keys and by the cataclysmic music of the opening, which recurs at intervals, its mood of terror pervading the intervening quieter sections. Verdi evokes the tumult of the Last Judgment by means of four thunderous chords, a jagged rising phrase, a wailing chant lurching backwards and forwards, giant bass-drum blows on the offbeat, precipitous woodwind scales, strings tremolando, uprushes of violins, and rapid rhythmic figures splayed out by the trumpets. The music dies down to a shudder of strings, fragmentary scales bubbling up on clarinets and bassoons, and awestruck repeated notes from the chorus. Then the air is thick with trumpets answering each other across the universe, and the crisis is upon us. Abruptly it breaks off and the solo bass, with bass drum, tells how Death and Nature itself shall stand amazed when the great Judge appears. ‘Liber scriptus’, a long, passionate solo for mezzo-soprano, wonderfully scored, follows – the choral interjections, descending chromatic phrases, and increasingly heavy, dragging rhythm, all showing that ‘Dies irae’ is gathering itself for a return, this time in shortened form.
The succeeding verses are: ‘Quid sum miser’, a lovely, plaintive trio with desolate bassoon obbligato; ‘Rex tremendae’, alternating a majestic dotted theme for the basses with a wide-spanned phrase (‘salva me’), the two together building to a mighty climax; ‘Recordare’, a duet for soprano and mezzo in F major, with a repeated woodwind C, its rhythm taken from the preceding cries of ‘salva me’; ‘Ingemisco’, a lyrical tenor solo, with a moment of profound peace at ‘inter oves’, where the melodies’ anxious chromatic movement is stilled and the oboe plays an exquisite pastoral tune against divided tremolo violins; ‘Confutatis’, a bass solo of noble dignity and resignation, pleading for God’s mercy, and seeming to be about to cadence in E minor, but resolving onto G minor, the key of ‘Dies irae’, which now returns in all its fury and at full length, before settling into a dark and lamenting B flat minor, the key of the concluding ‘Lacrymosa’. This is built on a long theme of great breadth, with contrasting sections of lighter texture, but always returning to the desolate theme, each time more densely and darkly orchestrated. After a massive climax, the end is muted and melancholy. But just before it, by a juxtaposition of remote concords, Verdi strikes a note of hope, as ‘Amen’ is sung to a chord of G major, like a revelation; and the movement closes on repeated B flat major chords of immense solemnity and finality.
Offertorium: Solo voices develop a calm, flowing theme stated by the cellos. The orchestration is warm and luminous. ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ is set in more vigorous style. It encloses a radiant ‘Hostias’, to a beautiful theme announced by the tenor, with accompaniment of tremolo strings. After the reprise of ‘Quam olim Abrahae’, there is a short restatement of the opening theme by all four voices in unison, then a shimmering orchestral epilogue, with the theme played three times very softly, each time differently harmonised.
Sanctus: Trumpet fanfares, alternating with cries of ‘Sanctus’, introduce a fugue for double chorus, with brilliantly animated accompaniment. ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ is set to a smooth, serene version of the fugue subject, while the strings continue their vivacious chatter.
Agnus Dei: Soprano and mezzo-soprano, in octaves, unfold a slow 13-bar theme. The whole movement, apart from the brief epilogue, is made up of repetitions of the theme (unvaried except for one minor-key version), first in unison, then harmonised in soft colours, with the calmly flowing counterpoint of three flutes prominent. The soloists are answered each time by the chorus, at first in full, later by the theme’s last six bars.
Lux aeterna: A trio, for mezzo, tenor and bass – the soprano silent, in preparation for the final movement. Darkness and light here struggle for supremacy. The mezzo’s ‘Lux aeterna’ is in B flat major (with side-slips to D), against the bright sound of six-part tremolo violins, but answered by the bass with ‘Requiem aeternam’ on a sombre theme in B flat minor, punctuated by dark chords on low-lying bassoons, trombones and tuba. After a passage for the three voices alone, the bass theme returns; but out of it grows a wonderful melody, broad and lyrical and radiantly scored. Though the trombone chords are again heard, flutes and clarinets weave untroubled arpeggios above the voices, and the final mood is serene and hopeful.
Libera me: That mood is abruptly dispelled, as the soprano’s recitative strikes a note of terrible urgency. The chorus murmur the prayer for salvation from everlasting death. Once again the soprano strikes in with ‘Dum veneris’ above an accompaniment that recalls the music of ‘Dies irae’. ‘Tremens factus’ follows, with the soprano gasping out broken phrases above a grey, restless texture of muted strings and low flutes. C minor comes to rest on a quiet E natural – followed without warning by the crashing G minor chords of ‘Dies irae’. This is given in full, finally modulating to B flat minor. Now comes one of the great moments of the work: the first movement’s ‘Requiem aeternam’ is repeated, this time by the voices alone, unaccompanied, intensified by the upward transposition of a semitone and crowned by the solo soprano’s soft, rapt B flat. But the peace so hardly won is shattered by a rasping tritone. The soprano repeats ‘Libera me’ with renewed energy, and the chorus break in with an agitated fugue. There is a transcendent moment when the soprano calms the tumult by singing the opening phrase of the fugue subject in long note-values, but the dread returns; the fugue works up to a devastating climax which leaves only a smoking ruin, a world destroyed by fire. In an atmosphere of abject supplication the soprano mutters the words on a single low note. The final two-fold ‘Libera me’ – pp, then pppp (very soft, then even softer) – is a prayer as much for the living as for the dead.
David Cairns © 2008