Sunday, April 26, 2015

VIVA VERDI ! The Manzoni Requiem of Giuseppe Verdi

These are my program notes for the two performances of Giuseppe Verdi's monumental Messa da Requiem, composed in memory of Alessandro Manzoni, as superbly performed by the Waterbury Symphony Orchestra, the Connecticut Choral Society, the New Jersey Choral Society, the NVCC Chorale, and four outstanding soloists, under Maestro Leif Bjaland, and choral directors Eric Knapp and Andrew Ardizolla, at the Leever Auditorium of NVCC in Waterbury CT, April 25 and 26.

Messa da Requiem  (Manzoni Requiem)   
Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi    
(October 10, 1813  Le Roncole di Busseto-January 27, 1901 Milano)

The work is scored for four solo voices, double chorus, 3
flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 8 trumpets, 3
trombones, 4 horns, tuba, strings and percussion.
Giuseppe Verdi, at age 80, in 1893

Giuseppe Verdi is among the most admired and beloved composers in the western canon. All of his masterpieces were operas, except one: the  magisterial   Requiem Mass  you will experience this evening. It is a work of exceptional beauty, overwhelming power, raw emotion, and profound meaning, whose creator was himself highly ambivalent about religion.

When once asked about his religious views, the severely moral but anti-clerical and agnostic Verdi famously responded. “I believe in nothing.” While Verdi's religion was not that of the Church, the thought of God was deeply rooted in Verdi’s  conscience. His own earliest memories were of singing in a church choir, and later in life, with fame and fortune secured, he built a small chapel in the gardens of his beloved home in Sant’Agata. In his Messa da Requiem, Verdi has crafted a singular and very modern conceptualization of spirituality.

Verdi grew up revering two of Italy’s greatest artists, the composer Gioacchino Rossini, and the poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni. Shortly after Rossini's passing, in Paris on November 13, 1868, Verdi asked the publisher Ricordi of Milano to commission a Requiem Mass in memory of the great composer, to be performed on the anniversary death date, in 1869. It was to be in thirteen sections, each written by an Italian composer, creating a broad-based remembrance of the beloved Rossini.
Gioacchino Rossini

Verdi was assigned the last section, entitled Libera me (deliver me), to conclude the work. The text for the Libera me is not part of the canonical Latin liturgy, but rather, a separate prayer said after the coffin of the deceased is closed.

Although everyone completed their assignment on time, the performance did not take place due to a series of petty squabbles over money (even though it had been agreed at the beginning of the project that no one was to have been paid for their services). Ricordi kept the parts secreted away for four years, and early in 1873 returned the Libera me section to Verdi. He was soon to find a very appropriate use for it.

Alessandro Manzoni was Italy's greatest living poet and novelist. It was not only Manzoni's poetry, but moreover, his sweeping historical novel, I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) that fascinated Verdi from his teen years, and catalyzed Verdi's lifelong admiration for the author, whom he revered as a saint. Manzoni's novel, and Verdi's own indelible Chrous of the Hebrew Slaves (Va' , pensiero, sull'ali dorate) from his 1842 opera, Nabucco, that became rallying cries for Italian unification in the exciting and turbulent years of the Risorgimento, during which Italy slowly won release from the AustroHungarian dominion and became a republic (in 1861). It was also not lost on the Italian public that the five letters of "V-E-R-D-I" were both sign and symbol, a rallying cry, if you will, spelling out the first letters of  Victor Emanuel II, King of Italy (Vittorio Emanuele II,  Re d'Italia), who would soon govern the new republic.

Alessandro Manzoni (1784-1873)

Upon Manzoni's death in May, 1873, Verdi had found a place for his Libera me, and a worthy dedicatee for a Requiem mass.

The Requiem was first performed at the Church of San Marco in Milano, on May 22, 1874, the anniversary of Manzoni's passing, with Verdi himself conducting. Verdi had to receive a special dispensation from the Archbishop of Milano to allow the inclusion of female singers (who had to veiled and dressed in black, and except for  La Stolz and La Waldmann, also had to sing behind large grates so as not to "distract" the audience). Given the setting, there was to be no applause, just hushed silence. However, when the work was reprised a few nights later, at Milano's famed opera house, La Scala, the crowd demanded four encores and gave the work a deafening ovation, cementing it as yet another triumph for the famed composer. Verdi then took his Requiem on the road, to Europe's major cities; a performance in London, at the Royal Albert Hall, in April 1875 and with a new section (Liber scriptus, for mezzo), boasted 1,200 choristers, and led critics to explain that it was the most beautiful setting of the mass since that of Mozart eighty years earlier.
Poster for the first of three La Scala
performances of the Verdi Requiem
Monday May 25, 1874

However, opinions about the Requiem  were mixed. The conductor Hans von Bulow, without even hearing the work, criticized it as being "an opera in ecclesiastical robes."  To be sure, Verdi had selected four established opera stars as soloists (Teresa Stolz, soprano; Maria Waldmann, mezzo-soprano; Giuseppe Capponi, tenor; Ormondo Maini, bass - the first three having starred in the European premiere of his opera  Aida two years earlier) but that was for the effect he sought. When asked his opinion of the Requiem, Richard Wagner, speaking through his ever tactful wife Cosima, replied icily that "it is better to say nothing."  However, Johannes Brahms was deeply moved upon hearing the  Requiem and exclaimed that "only a genius could write such a masterpiece."

The Requiem begins with an Introit and Kyrie, as is customary, but there is no Gloria, perhaps reflecting Verdi's own agnosticism.
The Sequenza is comprised of the ten-part  Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”) sequence, followed by an Offertorium, a combined Sanctus and Benedictus, the Agnus Dei, and concludes with the Libera me, which Verdi virtually rewrote from  his 1868 effort. Throughout the Requiem, it is the drama that propels the music. Unlike a traditional mass for the deceased with much of the proceedings foreseen, in Verdi’s work there are ever-changing tempi and dynamics. Moments of choral serenity are punctuated by sudden, passionate and intensely personal outcries from the soloists, whose anguished declamations soar over the orchestral accompaniment, and at times belie the very text being sung. The chorus itself erupts in fire and brimstone in the astonishing Dies irae, with its terrifying and recurring leitmotif, as if to remind one of humanity’s place in the cosmos. Deafening, quadruple forte blasts from the brass and tympani signify the day of reckoning, but elsewhere, dissonances and wavering chromatics emphasize the composer’s own unresolved spirituality. Yet, Verdi included a wondrous tenor solo in the Sequenza, the Ingemisco (“I groan”), that offers glimmers of hope.The last section of the Requiem is at once the most fascinating and ambiguous. As Cecilia Porter has written, “death is a complex character in Verdi’s Requiem, playing a number of roles - an object of terror, a comforter, and an emancipator,” yet its shadow grows longer at the end.  Whereas his predecessors (Mozart, Michael Haydn, Cherubini and Berlioz) concluded their Requiem settings within the quiet acceptance of the Agnus Dei or Lux aeterna, Verdi added a whole new section for soprano solo, Libera me, to a text that he required be sung with fear and terror, not resigned supplication. This section is extraordinary, combining fugue, counterpoint, Gregorian plainchant, and prayers for the departed and the living as entreaties of absolution. It is almost as if Verdi is stepping out and speaking to us personally, with all his conflicted feelings about the hereafter, and his Requiem continues to uplift us today with its thoroughly modern theology: relentlessly probing, questioning,  and at once, radiantly universal in spirit.


1.Berger, William, Verdi with a Vengeance: The Life and Complete Works of the King of Opera, New York, Vintage Books, 2000.

2. Phillips-Matz, Mary Jane. Verdi: A Biography, Oxford University Press, 1993.

3. Budden, Julian, The Operas of Verdi, Oxford University Press, 1992.

4. Osborne, Charles, The Complete Operas of Verdi, New York, Random House, 1970.