Events« All Events
- November 1-2, 2013 7:00 PM
- where: Dell Hall directions
- conductor: Peter Bay
The Austin Symphony along with Chorus Austin will perform Giuseppe Verdi’s famous Messa da Requiem in honor of Verdi’s Bicentennial and in memory of John F. Kennedy (50th anniversary of his assassination).
Soloists include: Mela Dailey, soprano; Kathryn Findlen, mezzo-soprano; William Davenport, tenor; Kevin Short, baritone
|Verdi||Messa da Requiem|
b. October 9, 1813 in Roncale, Italy; d. January 27, 1901 in Milan
Messa da Requiem. Completed in 1874, age 60
Verdi’s Requiem is often referred to as “Verdi’s Greatest Opera,” when, in fact, is one of the few compositions in his output that is not an opera. It is clearly a very intense and dramatic work, as are most of his operatic efforts, and he did actually use a discarded duet from his opera Don Carlos which he converted to the Requiem’s hauntingly beautiful “Lacrymosa.”
From his boyhood, Verdi was exposed to singing. His father operated a tavern where voices, lubricated by the tavern’s inventory, were overheard by the young boy on a nightly basis. Street singing in Italy was commonplace in the time of Verdi’s youth, and it is no doubt that these memories fueled Verdi’s creativity throughout his career. His early days as a composer were spent in several posts at area churches and it was not until 1839 that Verdi saw his first opera produced.
It may seem unusual that Verdi would even consider writing a work based on sacred texts, as he eschewed any association with Catholicism and have a long record of antagonism toward the church. His distaste for Catholicism was no late life change of heart. Verdi himself used to recount how, as an altar boy, he had forgotten one of his duties, and been kicked by the priest. The wounded boy cursed the priest with the peasant oath, “May God strike you with lightning!” Amazingly, several years later, the priest was struck and killed by lightning, along with two singers in the choir loft where Verdi himself would have been had he been on time for the service!
The facts surrounding the composition of his Requiem fully explain its seemingly contradictory existence. One of the few people that Verdi revered was the poet and novelist, Alessandro Manzoni. In fact, Verdi considered Manzoni to be his personal hero. Early in his compositional career, Verdi had set several of Manzoni’s poems to music, although these songs were never published. Manzoni was the author of the best-known book in Verdi’s time, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), a sprawling historical novel set in the 17th century. Manzoni’s novel is rich in historic detail, vast in its scope, and renowned for the stunning beauty of its language. The two men met only once (in 1868), but Verdi clearly believed that Manzoni was a saint who combined enormous talent with the highest level of nobility and virtue.
Soon after meeting Manzoni, Verdi learned of the death of Gioacchino Rossini, who was mourned by all of Italy. Verdi proposed an ambitious project of a Requiem Mass in honor of Rossini, to be written by twelve of Italy’s best composers, including Verdi. His contribution would be the concluding section, “Libera me.” Verdi composed his contribution, but for a variety of reasons the performance never took place, and the whole affair ended up a public fiasco, a failure that deeply humiliated Verdi.
On May 22, 1873, Alessandro Manzoni died at the age of 89. For the second time in five years, Italy mourned one of its greatest artists, and a grief-stricken Verdi wrote to his publisher:
“Now all is over, and with him ends the most pure, the most holy, the greatest of our glories. I am profoundly saddened by the death of our Great Man! But I shall not come to Milan, for I would not have the heart to attend his funeral. I will come soon to visit his grave, alone and unseen, and perhaps (after further reflection, having weighed my strength) to propose something to honor his memory.”
By April of 1874, Verdi had finished the Requiem, and the premiere was scheduled for May 22, the day that Manzoni died the previous year. Verdi chose the church of San Marco in Milan for the performance, primarily for its outstanding acoustics. Verdi himself conducted an orchestra of a hundred and a chorus of over 120 singers, plus the four vocal soloists called for in the Requiem. The premiere was an enormous success, and the work was instantly proclaimed a masterpiece, although the work was not without its detractors. The famous and outspoken conductor Hans von Bülow dismissed Verdi’s efforts without even attending the performance, calling Verdi the “Attila of the larynx.” Drawn to the Requiem by von Bülow’s invective, Johannes Brahms studied the score of Verdi’s masterpiece and commented: “Bülow has blundered, since this could be done only by a genius.”
It is very important to remember that Verdi never intended the Requiem to be used as part of a church service. It was, in fact, written as a public tribute to Manzoni that happened to be initially performed in a church, and which consisted of the writings of the traditional Roman Catholic liturgy. Its relationship to religion ended there. With this insight, one can easily see how such an outspoken critic of Catholicism came to write such a monumental work which is seemingly yet superficially religious.
The seven movements of the work are: Introit and Kyrie, Dies irae, Offertorio, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, Lux aeterna, and Libera me. The Requiem begins very quietly, and the four soloists enter one by one singing the Kyrie. They combine with chorus in an ensemble of great fervor and beauty. The Dies Irae is a shatteringly savage depiction of the Day of Wrath. Terrifying in its intensity, it is the longest section of the work. The Offertorio is scored for the four soloists and the orchestra, sans chorus. It is very lyrical, and the main theme of this section is first stated in the cello theme that begins the movement. Following is a brief Sanctus, flourished with trumpet fanfares against an animated chorus. The peaceful Agnus Dei features a lovely duet with the Soprano and Mezzo, answered by the chorus, accompanied by three flutes. The penultimate section is the radiant Lux aeterna, and features the Mezzo, Tenor, and Bass, giving the Soprano a rest before the demanding Libera me.
This final section should be, and is indeed, the most memorable moment of the entire composition. The Soprano begins with an excited recitative, followed by a murmuring rush from the chorus. This leads into a restatement of the terrifying music of the Dies irae, followed by a consoling refrain of the opening Requiem aeternam. The work ends with a quiet but frightened whispered prayer from the Soprano and chorus after a resounding choral fugue.
Lest we are left with the notion that Verdi was completely without religion and spirituality bereft, consider the words written by Verdi’s long-time friend and librettist, Arrigo Boito:
“He provided an example of Christian faith by the moving beauty of his religious works…by his illustrious homage to Manzoni, by the directions for his funeral found in his will: ‘one priest, one candle, one cross.’ He knew that faith was the sustenance of hearts. In the ideal social and moral sense he was a great Christian, but one should take care not to present him as a Catholic in the political and strictly theological sense of the word: nothing could be further from the truth.”
© 2000 – Stephen Aechternacht
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