Showcase January-February 2015 - page 50

mind was the need to make a worthy monument to the
man who represented “the purest, the holiest, the loftiest
of our glories,” the man he refers to in his letters as “nostro
Grande” and “nostro Santo.” “Nostro Santo”—our Saint,
our Holy One—a surprising and moving phrase from the
pen of so resolute a nonbeliever.
Verdi did conduct the premiere, which took place at Saint
Mark’s, Milan, on May 22, 1874. Chorus and orchestra
were specially assembled for the occasion, and the soloists
were Teresa Stolz, Maria Waldmann, Giuseppe Capponi
and Ormondo Maini. By February 1875, Verdi had written
a new
Liber scriptus
, and the Requiem was first heard in its
new and final version in the Royal Albert Hall, London,
on May 15, 1875, again with Verdi conducting.
At its first performance, the Requiem was given as part
of a service, the parish priest celebrating a so-called dry
Mass, that is, one without an actual offering of bread and
wine, and the movements of Verdi’s work were separated—
or connected—by passages of plainchant sung by the
church choir. Except for this one occasion, Verdi had no
thought of a Requiem for liturgical use. What he offered
his—and Manzoni’s—public was a concert piece, and it
was as a concert piece that the Requiem was accepted
and understood the moment it moved across the street
to La Scala and from there to the halls and theaters of
Paris, London, Vienna, Berlin and New York. Audiences
understood the secular nature of this religious music. They
applauded at every opportunity, even between the joined
sections of the
Dies irae
, and at the early performances
many movements were encored, most often the whole
of the
, the brilliant
and the
Agnus Dei
Verdi, who was as ironically amused by his acclaim as
a composer of sacred music as he had been fervent in
the writing of the Requiem, wrote to a friend that now,
whenever he heard the word “opera,” he crossed himself.
requiem and kyrie.
The opening of the Requiem does in
fact sound “religious”—yet drama is present here. Like all
Requiem Masses, Verdi’s opens with the sentence “Requiem
aeternam dona eis, Domine; et lux perpetua luceat eis—
Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and let everlasting light
shine upon them.”
Requiem aeternam
is ritual—these are
words of an invisible crowd. With the plea of
dona eis
, individual human creatures become visible as four
solo soprano voices detach themselves. Their prayer is like
a sigh, and it is set against the still more intense entreaties
of the violins. It is also the strings who carry the burden
et lux perpetua
. The voices retreat once more, to step
forward with greater force, but also in the most severe
impersonality, for
Te decet hymnus
Next comes the prayer for mercy—
Kyrie eleison, Christe
—and now single voices, assertive and full of
character, are heard for the first time. Tenor, bass, soprano,
and contralto—they present themselves formally, one by
one, and not without a touch of competitiveness. It is a
glorious moment, this presentation of the four praying
and singing men and women in the
; moreover, when
these first few bars have passed, we have a pretty good
idea of what sort of evening we are in for. The chorus joins
the soloists, and the music ends quietly, with some magical
and at the same time simple turns of harmony.
dies irae.
It takes all available forces to set the scene for
what comes next, the contemplation of the Day of Wrath,
Dies irae
. Great opera composers are great scene
painters, and the tremendous noise at the start of the
Dies irae
fixes the scale for the fresco. The trilling flutes, the
skidding clarinets and bassoons, the percussive accents of
drums and winds and plucked strings, the half-whispering
of the chorus—all people the landscape with a crowd that
gradually falls silent in terror. Near and far, the Last Trump
is announced.
Now, with the scene set, individual men and women
speak their hopes and fears and pleas at the moment of
judgment. Haltingly, the bass sings of the astonishment
of death and nature when creation defies science and
experience, to rise again at the summons of the Judge.
The contralto sternly describes the great book in which all
things are contained. At the height of perplexed terror, the
tenor and both women cling to one another for support.
Their questions disintegrate into silence. Then the basses
of the chorus hail the King of Awesome Majesty, the tenors
timidly repeating the words of their invocation, and from
this grow pleas, both piteous and fervent, for salvation.
The most touching, because the most personal, portion
of the
Dies irae
is the prayer addressed directly to Jesus:
“Recall that I am the cause of your journey.... Let it not
have been in vain” (
Recordare, Jesu pie
). Verdi sets it as
a tender duet for soprano and mezzo, and for a single
wondrous and unforgettable moment, at the poignant
appeal to
Juste judex
, the just judge, their two voices join
to become one. Then the tenor, fearing his prayer to be
unworthy, speaks with utmost pathos. This is the Requiem’s
most overtly operatic moment. Tenors are the authors and
the victims of their passions; basses are fathers, kings,
priests, sternly noble figures. This bass, even in all his
humility, can firmly face the vision of the acrid flames in
which the accursed are consumed. All voices unite in the
summation that the Day will be one of tears.
The chorus is silent. The music begins with
a great upward sweep by the cellos. For a long time we
hear only the three lower solo voices: Verdi is saving the
soprano for a special moment. That moment is the turn
from dark to bright, from the bottomless pit, from the
Program Note
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