Although the Requiem by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) sets a traditional liturgical text, the composer himself was a non-believer, and the work itself has secular origins. When the composer Gioachino Rossini (himself a man known more for his gourmandizing than his piety) died in 1868, Verdi spearheaded an attempt to create a composite Requiem in his honor. A dozen other composers—now-forgotten men like Antonio Buzzolla and Alessandro Nini—were selected to contribute movements, with Verdi himself responsible for the closing “Libera me.” The history of classical music is sprinkled with such composite works, but few succeed, and this one was no exception. Yes, all of the music was actually composed (not always the case in such projects); but disputes among various involved parties scotched the premiere. The score was put away and only rediscovered a century later. It finally got its first hearing in 1988, and most of it is as mundane as you might expect.
Verdi, however, knew the quality of his own contribution—and at some point, he decided to write a complete Requiem of his own. There’s some debate about precisely when he started working on it (musicologist David Rosen, in his excellent short book on the work, gives convincing evidence that it was in April, 1873). In any case, the death of revered Italian author Alessandro Manzoni in May 1873 provided the spur for him to start working in earnest, using that “Libera me,” with surprisingly few changes, as a springboard for his new composition in Manzoni’s honor. In a curious sense, then, the work we know today was written backwards. Many listeners experience that “Libera me” as a summation of the entire work, recalling both the spirit and a fair amount of specific music from earlier movements. In fact, though, those earlier movements were crafted in such a way that they would specifically lead to the already-written finale. (You may remember that the Mahler Fourth Symphony, heard on our last Masterworks concert, followed a similar route: the first three movements were composed to prepare the way for a finale that had been composed earlier.)
Beyond its original inspirations, the Requiem is non-liturgical in two more important senses. First, its musical idiom comes more from theatrical traditions than from religious traditions, a quality that infused the work with some controversy. At the time of the premiere, Hans von Bülow, one of the leading conductors and pianists of the time, dismissed it as “opera in ecclesiastical costume”—and while that storm has died down (even von Bülow changed his mind), the work remains a fixture in the concert hall, not in the church. It’s true, as conductor Larry Loh points out, that Verdi “writes music that’s reminiscent of chant,” which gives the work a mildly religious, as well as a vaguely timeless, flavor, as if it were “a collection of centuries of expression.” (The soprano’s senza misura—freely, without the constraint of bar-lines—passage at the opening of the “Libera Me” is among the clearest examples.) It’s true, too, that “Verdi asks his singers not to sing in an overly operatic way.” Still, the theatrical elements are hard to miss, whether it be the spectacular effects of the “Dies Irae” (representing the Day of Judgment) with its onslaught of off-stage trumpets or the soprano’s high C at the climax of the “Libera Me.”
Second, its spiritual content is humanist rather than specifically Christian, much less Catholic—a quality, as Larry reminds us, that ties it to the Brahms German Requiem. This non-sectarian quality is so strong that during the Holocaust, prisoners of the Terezín concentration camp, who learned the piece by rote from a single copy of the score, performed it sixteen times within about a year as an act of defiance. For them, Verdi’s depiction of the Day of Judgment was a forewarning to their Nazi captors.
In terms of its breadth of musical expression, the Requiem holds up to just about any work in the standard nineteenth-century repertoire. The harrowing “Dies Irae”; the bare, almost chant-like a capella duet for soprano and mezzo at the beginning of the “Agnus Dei”; the boisterous “Sanctus,” its lines joyously bouncing back and forth between two choral groups; what Larry calls the “giant plea” of the closing pages, the chorus barely whispering its final words: this is a work that seems to contain the entirety of human experience.
In fact, there’s enough here to fill an evening, and since its first performance, the work has often stood by itself on concert programs. But we decided to fill out the concert—the question was, with what? What could possibly provide a plausible opener? In the end, we decided on The Lark Ascending for violin and orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Vaughan Williams is often typecast as a reserved composer with a strong interest in the countryside, in folk music, and in music of the past. And while there’s a lot more range to his art than that cliché would suggest, The Lark Ascending, with its quiet rural spirit, would not provide evidence for anyone wanting to refute the stereotype. Inspired by a brief George Meredith poem, it’s a luminous and meditative piece attuned to natural beauty. The solo part avoids traditional romantic virtuosity almost entirely—in exchange, it demands the greatest delicacy and purity of tone. Originally begun as a work for violin and piano just around the outbreak the First World War, it was later recast for violin and small orchestra in 1919, and it’s hard not to hear it as a nostalgic evocation of calmer and simpler times. It seems an appropriate opener for this concert because its understatement provides such a clear counterweight to the heightened emotions of the Verdi. But it was also chosen because the two works, for all their outward differences, share a certain disposition. Vaughan Williams, like Verdi, was a non-believer; and like Verdi, he could nonetheless write music of transcendent spiritual quality.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org