Showcase January-February 2015 - page 51

lion’s mouth, from Tartarus, to the appearance of Saint
Michael, the standard-bearer who will lead the faithful
into the holy light. As Verdi leaves the voices poised on a
C-major chord on
ne cadant in obscurum
, the soprano joins
them, singing the word
(but). For a second or two, her
E hangs in the air alone; then ethereal violins, two muted
solo instruments in the lead, reinterpret that note as part of
the dominant of A major, a bright segment of the harmonic
spectrum we have not visited since the first movement. It
is but a momentary glimpse of transcendence, for almost
at once the soprano slips down to E-flat and so returns
us to the proper harmonic center—A-flat major—of the
. That single word
—it is one of the most
miraculous moments in all of Verdi.
Next, following tradition, Verdi sets the
Quam olim Abrahae
as a fugato, a fugal beginning. The
, set in the
brightness of C major, brings another moment of mystic
Introduced by trumpeting and singing herald
angels, this is at once an exultation and a virtuoso fugue.
agnus dei.
This begins like plainsong, with 13 measures for
solo soprano and contralto, in octaves, unaccompanied,
and famously feared for the difficulty of getting it in tune.
The melody has a remarkable shape, natural and strange
at the same time: a first part of seven bars and a subtly
compressed second part of six bars. What follows is a set
of five variations, the odd-numbered ones drawing in the
chorus, and the last of them spinning itself out as a brief
and contemplative coda. 
lux aeterna.
Against a softly glowing background of violins
divided in six parts, the alto sings the entire text while
the bass, in solemn declamation, reminds us of
. At the evocation of the blessed dead lodged
“with thy Saints for ever,” woodwinds and high violins set
up an angel-wing flutter familiar from many a death scene
in Verdi’s operas.
libera me.
Before, in the
, when Verdi wrote
a trio for three lower voices, it was to set in special
relief the entrance of the highest voice on “sed signifier
sanctus Michael.” In the
Lux aeterna
, Verdi does it to give
the soprano a rest before the
Libera me
, for that taxing
moment is hers alone. Here Verdi had an interesting
challenge, since this Requiem’s
Libera me
, which brings
back words from earlier parts of the text, was based
on the movement he had earlier written for the Rossini
Requiem. He had to extrapolate backwards, as it were,
the settings of
Requiem aeternum
Dies irae
from the
music he had already written for those words as they
appear in the
Libera me
. He succeeded magnificently.
One would never guess or imagine that the earliest
movements quote the later, not the other way around!
In accents of terror—and the agitation in the orchestra
reminds us in every bar why we should feel terror—the
soprano declaims the text. The chorus, murmuring,
echoes her words. The
Dies irae
returns and so, in a
wonderful new scoring, does the opening music of the
entire work,
Requiem aeternam
. The music disappears into
silence, or at least into
. A harsh tremolo on what
was, centuries ago, known as the Devil’s interval—the
half-octave, here G and D-flat—recalls us to the world
of terror. The soprano repeats her anguished plea for
deliverance. This time the chorus joins her in a powerful
fugue whose vigorous dominant-and-tonic punctuations
at the entrance of each voice must have scandalized
counterpoint professors all over Europe. The soprano’s
re-entrance is superb, the theme now in notes that are
double their original length and presented,
against a
backdrop, at a striking harmonic
slant. The music rises to a white-hot climax, the soprano
bestriding all with her high C, and then sinks to a moving
close: quiet but intensely scored chords of C major,
through which first the soprano, still
tremens factus
, then
the chorus, reiterate their prayer:
Libera me
Verdi’s Requiem, even though distinct from opera—and
Verdi did want a less dramatic style of singing here, and
less rubato—is nourished by opera, unimaginable without
opera, and ultimately unperformable by conductors and
singers who do not understand and adore opera. Verdi
spent most of his life in an often frustrating search for
good texts. What he was looking for he summed up in
a few words when he wrote to one of his librettists: “[I
want] a beautiful subject, original, interesting, with fine
situations, and impassioned—passions above all!”
Consider the words of the Requiem, formed from
centuries of ritualistic response to the human drama of
death, including death, as the necessary opening of the
door to eternal bliss. It is fatuous to say, as some have
done, that the Requiem is Verdi’s best opera, but still,
none of his poets ever approached his ideal more nearly
than the authors, most of them nameless to us, who
contributed to the Roman Mass for the Dead.
soprano, mezzo, tenor and bass soloist,
4-part mixed choir and orchestra comprising
3 flutes (doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets,
4 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets (plus 4 offstage),
3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum and strings
Program note excerpted from the late
Michael Steinberg
Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide
(Oxford University
Press, 2005), used with permission.
27, 28
Program Note
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