Showcase January-February 2015 - page 49

of Italy.” Verdi went on to ask: “When the one other glory
that is like unto it exists no longer, what will remain to us?”
That one other was Manzoni.
Poets and composers are no longer national heroes (with
the possible exception of the late Václav Havel), but in
the 19th century that was still possible. When he died
in 1873, Manzoni was the most revered figure in Italian
public life. His reputation had been established by the
poems he had written between 1812 and 1822, one of
which Goethe declared to be the finest of all Europe’s
literary responses to the death of Napoleon. Manzoni’s
most famous work is
I promessi sposi
(The Betrothed), and
aside from its considerable merits as a novel, it became,
as Verdi’s biographer George Martin put it, “a primer and
dictionary…in effect [creating] a serviceable, modern
language for an emerging nation.”
A more essential part of the reverence accorded Manzoni
had nothing to do with literature. The poet had long been
an ardent, eloquent supporter of Italian independence and
unification, and in 1861 he had been elected as one of the
first senators of the newly founded Kingdom of Italy. Verdi,
also elected to the Italian parliament in 1861, had likewise
been committed to the Risorgimento for many years.
Verdi loved Manzoni the artist, whose work so beautifully
embodied his own ideal of “inventing truth”; he loved the
man who bore a lifetime of private sorrows with serenity
and strength; he loved the committed public figure. Deeply
grieved by the death of “our Great Man,” Verdi told his
publisher, Giulio Ricordi, that he intended to stay away
from the funeral but would soon visit the grave “alone
and unseen.” Perhaps, he added, he would “after further
reflection and after taking stock of my strength, suggest a
way of honoring his memory.” He made his pilgrimage, and
it was on that evening that he wrote to Ricordi with his
offer to compose a Requiem for Manzoni.
without delay
In fact, as the American Verdi scholar David Rosen has
established, Verdi had already retrieved the
Libera me
previously written for the Rossini Requiem and been at
work on the Manzoni Requiem for more than a month.
He himself would conduct the first performance and
assume the cost of copying the parts. Might the city of
Milan cover the other expenses and, if Ricordi thought
this made sense, would he speak to the mayor about it?
No doubt stimulated in part by the desire to be seen as
doing the right thing where Bologna had fallen on its face
so miserably in the matter of the Rossini Requiem, the
municipality assented at once.
Nothing in Verdi’s career ever proceeded more urgently
than the composition of the Requiem. Uppermost in his
Giuseppe Verdi
October 10, 1813, Le Roncole, near Busseto, Italy
January 27, 1901, Milan
ne of the smartest and sharpest-tongued figures in
19th-century music, the pianist and conductor Hans
von Bülow, was in Milan the day of the premiere of Verdi’s
Requiem. He was able to sneak a look at the score, and
on that basis he sent a report to a German newspaper.
He was not present at “the show,” he wrote, at the unveiling
of this “opera in ecclesiastical vestments.... Our quick and
illicit preview of this newest runoff from
has done away with any desire to attend these
festivities.” Eighteen years later, when he had actually
heard the Requiem, he wrote to Verdi, recanting his
“great journalistic imbecility.” Verdi, privately opining that
“De Bülow” was “definitely crazy,” accepted the extravagantly
worded apology with grace, adding a characteristically wry
“Who knows? Maybe you were right the first time.”
Before the Requiem, Verdi had composed very little music
that was not opera: a few songs, a potboiler for a 1862
world’s fair in London and an elegant string quartet. The
Requiem was another matter: it was a public address
by Verdi to his own people on an occasion of national
mourning. The poet, novelist and patriot Alessandro
Manzoni, an Italian hero, had died in Milan on May 22,
1873, and Verdi volunteered a Requiem Mass, to be sung
on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s passing.
the glories of italy
The genesis of Verdi’s Requiem is curious and touching as
well as more complicated than the last sentence suggests.
The story begins with the death of Rossini in Paris in
November 1868. Verdi, deeply affected, proposed that
the city of Bologna, where Rossini had grown up, studied,
produced his first opera, and served as honorary president
of the Liceo musicale, should sponsor a composite Requiem
Mass to which 13 Italian composers would each contribute
one movement. The Rossini Requiem was written, with
Verdi contributing the final section, the
Libera me
. But
various jealousies diffused the energy behind the product,
and the performance never took place.
When Rossini died, Verdi had called him “one of the glories
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Program Note
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