Behind the Scenes: Verdi Requiem Program Notes

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BY DANIEL CHETEL

Giuseppe Verdi was one of the greatest musical storytellers of the nineteenth century, composing operas that took his audiences to such diverse settings as Nebuchadnezzar’s biblical Babylon, Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England, and high-society nineteenth century Paris.

While Verdi was certainly indebted to the influence of the Italian composers Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini for his early works (including Nabucco and La Traviata), his later operas (including Don Carlo and Aida) owe as much to Giacomo Meyerbeer’s style of French grand opera (as in his greatest success, Les Hugenots) as any composer from Verdi’s native Italy. It is fitting that tonight’s collaborative performance brings the musicians of the Lexington Philharmonic together with four tremendous collegiate choirs from around the region echoes Verdi’s original vision for this work was conceived in the spirit of collaboration.

Verdi proposed the creation of a choral-orchestral requiem by thirteen Italian composers to honor Gioachino Rossini, who died in November 1868. Verdi himself was planning to compose the final movement of the work, the Libera me, which would find its way into the final version. This ambitious project never came to fruition, but a tragedy in Verdi’s life spurred a motivating change in direction and ultimately resulted in the composition of his Requiem that we know today. Verdi’s friend and collaborator, the Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni, best known for his 1827 novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), died in the spring of 1873. Verdi was so distraught that he couldn’t bring himself to attend Manzoni’s funeral in Milan. However, Verdi searched for some way to honor his friend’s life and cultural legacy. He settled on composing a funeral mass for chorus, soloist, and orchestra—what we will hear tonight as the Requiem—and what began as a group project to celebrate one Italian cultural hero in Rossini metamorphosed into a personal expression of love from one friend to another. Verdi himself would conduct the premiere of the work in May 1874 in the church of San Marco, where Manzoni’s funeral had taken place the previous year.

Verdi’s Requiem is in some ways a paradoxial work that transcends traditional definitions of genre. Verdi, a lifelong composer of opera and not a particularly devout Catholic, reaches for the emotional and wrenching text of the requiem mass to express his grief. While we may associate the words being sung with a sacred setting, this is a work that lives in the secular world of the concert hall, like an oratorio that tells a religious story but is not necessarily intended for liturgical use. The grandeur and opulence of the expanded romantic orchestra and cast of choral forces—one might call scene operatic in nature—almost bely the intimacy of a funeral service. The famous German conductor Hans von Bülow, a contemporary of Verdi, once referred to the piece as “Verdi’s latest opera, though in ecclesiastical robes.”

The text Requirem aeternam (Eternal rest) ominously begins this expansive work. Verdi asks for the choir to sing sotto voce, almost as a whisper. The soloists join in on the text Kyrie eleison, asking for mercy from God, and Verdi writes a melody—repeated polyphonically by each voice—that is characterized by rising leaps that span over an octave, as if the singers are repeatedly asking a question (a gesture mimicked by the strings in the closing bars).

After this pensive introduction, the Dies irae (Day of wrath) cannot wait, and Verdi suddenly plunges us into musical peril. The swirling gusts of the woodwinds and pounding stomps of the low brass and percussion seem like something out of Dante’s depiction of hell in his fourteenth- century epic poem Inferno, another iconic Italian cultural touchstone. Verdi’s propensity for drama is featured in the quartet of off stage trumpets that antiphonally trade calls back and forth with the trumpets seated in the orchestra. Since Verdi is an operatic composer who is used to creating gestures of word painting in his music, it is no surprise that the text here is Tuba mirum spargens sonum (The trumpet, scattering a marvelous sound). This extended section of the requiem moves from terror to admiration, from despair to hope, and Verdi uses the vocal soloists to depict each affect while the chorus returns, almost as a refrain. The movement ends with some of the most emotional text of the Requiem: Lacrymosa dies illa, qua resurget ex favilla, judicandus homo reus (That day is one of weeping, on which shall rise from the ashes the guilty man, to be judged). Verdi, never one to miss an opportunity for overt expression, writes into the score that the mezzo soprano soloist should sing her solo wiened, or weeping; later, the choral sopranos are asked to sing their broken couplets klagend, or lamenting. What began in the peril of wrath ends with a humble prayer: Pie Jesu Domine: dona eis requiem. Amen (Merciful Lord Jesus: grant them peace. Amen).

At this point, we’ve heard just two of the seven major sections of the work but have traversed about half of the score. A change of pace is in order, and, after the intensity of the Dies Irae, Verdi composes a more intimate Offertorio, highlighting some of the individual voices of the ensemble: the vocal soloists, for sure, but also the cellos, solo violins, and individual woodwinds from the orchestra. This work always seems to be balancing between the presentational impact of a concert piece and the more conversational nature of a narrative or story, and here perhaps Verdi reverts back to his operatic habits. This plaintive opening eventually gives way to the traditionally imitative treatment of Quam olim Abrahae promisisti et semini ejus (Which you once promised to Abraham and his descendants), music evoking the many lines of Abraham’s family tree that populated the world.

The joy of the Sanctus is palpable and refreshing amidst this weighty creation: the trumpets return to herald this change of character, and then Verdi employs a double choir of eight often independent voices singing out the exuberant exhortation Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth. Pleni sunt coeli etterra gloria tua. Hosanna in excelsis! (Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, Heaven and earth are filled with your glory. Hosanna in the highest!). While Verdi certainly uses his more modern musical vocabulary, it is difficult not to hear connections to the double-choir, Old-Testament oratorios of Verdi’s musical upbringing, especially a work like Felix Mendelssohn’s 1846 Elijah.

Verdi returns to a more intimate texture with the supplicating Agnus Dei, which features an a cappella duet between the soprano and mezzo soprano soloists, who are then joined by the full choir. The text asks God to grant the soul everlasting rest (Dona eis requiem sempiternam), and Verdi uses the orchestra to enhance the request of the vocalists: the high- pitched trio of flutes accompany the soprano and mezzo soprano soloists while the low-pitched bassoons and cellos accompany the choral basses. Verdi’s word painting returns right at the end of the movement as the basses seem to descend into the ground (the burial of the body) while the violins to ascend towards heaven (the ascent of the soul). Continuing with the musical ideas of the Agnus Dei, the Lux Aeterna is again a feature for the quartet of vocal soloists, and the trombones and tuba return in an ominous accompaniment to the bass soloist. The tremolo strings lend a sense of expectancy to the modest, final prayer of this penultimate movement.

Verdi actually began work on the final Libera me movement first—as part of his original multi-composer project to honor Rossini—and here we come full circle as it concludes this panoramic composition. Verdi begins with what is one of his most explicit liturgical references, a chant-inspired invocation of Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna in die illa tremenda (Deliver me, O lord, from eternal death on that awful day). A reprise of the terrifying Dies irae interrupts any sense of calm or conclusion, but the swirling winds finally die down, leaving a bare landscape for the final Requiem aeternam. A piece that began with the hushed whisper Requiem aeternam (Eternal rest) in the ominous key of A minor ends with the equally hushed plea Libera me (Deliver me), now sung in the relative and more benelovent key of C major. Verdi asks nearly every performer in the forces amassed on stage to participate in the final pianississimo whisper. Each individual is just a one small voice in this monumental chorus, yet all are required to give this collective effort such power and might.

Lexington Philharmonic