Sunday, April 26, 2015

VIVA VERDI ! The Manzoni Requiem of Giuseppe Verdi

These are my program notes for tonight's performance of Giuseppe Verdi's monumental Messa da Requiem, composed in memory of Alessandro Manzoni, as performed by Maestro Leif Bjaland, the Waterbury Symphony Orchestra, the Connecticut Choral Society, the New Jersey Choral Society, the NVCC Chorale and four outstanding soloists, at the Leever Auditorium of NVCC in Waterbury CT

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 coir, 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 conjured and crafted a singular and very modern view 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 published 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.

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.

Alessandro Manzoni was Italy's greatest living

poet and novelists. It was not only Manzoni's
poems, but also his sweeping historical novel,
I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), that

catalyzed Verdi’s life-long admiration for the

author, whom he revered as a saint. That

novel, and Verdi’s own indelible Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves (“Va’, pensiero, sull’ali

dorate”  “Go forth, thought, on Golden

Wings”) from his 1842 opera Nabucco,
became rallying cries for Italian unification in

the years of the Risorgimento. 

It was also not lost on the Italian public that

the five letters of “VERDIwere both a sign

and a symbol, a rallying cry, spelling out the

acronym for Victor Emanuel II, King of
Italy  (Vittorio Emanuele II, Re DItalia), who
was soon to govern the new republic. 
Upon Manzoni's death in 1873, Verdi had

found a place for his Libera Me, and a

dedicatee for a Requiem.

The Requiem was first performed at the
Church of San Marco in Milano, on May 22nd,

1874, the anniversary of Manzoni’s passing,

with Verdi himself conducting.  Verdi had to

receive a special dispensation from the

Archbishop to allow the inclusion of female
singers (who had to be veiled, dressed in black
and sing behind large grates, so as not to
"distract" the audience). Given the setting,
there was to be no applause, just sacred
However, when the work was reprised a few

nights later at Milan’s great opera house, La
Scala, the overflow crowd demanded four
encores and gave it a deafening ovation,
cementing it as yet another triumph for the
Verdi then took his Requiem on the road, to
Europe’s major cities; a performance in
London, with 1200 choristers, led critics to
exclaim that it was the most beautiful setting
of the mass since that of Mozart.
However, other reviews were mixed. The
conductor Hans von Bulow called it “an opera
in ecclesiastical robes." To be sure, Verdi had 
selected established operatic stars as his
soloists, (three of them having sung in the
European premiere of Aida two years earlier),
but that was for the effect he sought. When 

asked his opinion of the Requiem, Richard

Wagner, speaking through his wife, Cosima, 

was icy: “it is better to say nothing.”

Johannes Brahms, though, was overwhelmed and stated that “only a genius could have written such a work.”

The Requiem begins with an Introit and

Kyrie, as is customary, but there is no ensuing

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, triple

fortissimo 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.