Here’s a riddle for you: Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, one of the most beloved of all choral works, came from a composer who wanted nothing to do with God or organized religion. Why would he write a massive sacred work? How could the result be so eloquent?
Let’s let Verdi and those near him tell the story.
“You’re all mad!”
In 1872, the year before Verdi began working in earnest on the Requiem, his wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, wrote to one of their friends about her husband. She thought his talent came from God, but he scoffed. “Everyone agrees in saying that there fell to his lot the divine gift of genius,” Strepponi wrote. “He is a jewel among honest men; he understands and feels every delicate and elevated sentiment. And yet this pirate permits himself to be, I won’t say an atheist, but certainly very little of a believer, and that with an obstinacy and calm that make one want to beat him. I exhaust myself in speaking to him about the marvels of the heavens, the earth, the sea, etc., etc. It’s a waste of breath! He laughs in my face, and freezes me in the midst of my oratorical periods and my divine enthusiasm by saying: ‘You’re all mad!’”
“The glory of Italy”
When Strepponi sent off that lament, the idea of writing a Requiem already lurked in Verdi’s mind. In 1868, he had mourned the death of his operatic forebear Gioacchino Rossini, celebrated creator of “The Barber of Seville” and “William Tell.” Verdi wrote a friend: “A great name has gone from the world! His was the most widespread, most popular reputation of our time, and the glory of Italy!” Verdi spearheaded a plan for himself and other leading composers to create a Requiem in Rossini’s honor, with each contributing a section. The collaborators went to work, and the Requiem’s climactic plea for deliverance from death, “Libera me,” came from Verdi. But the performance was called off; the musical memorial had to wait until 1988 for its premiere.
“I am not fond of useless things”
A musician who helped organize the Rossini project, Alberto Mazzucato, studied Verdi’s “Libera me” and extolled it in a letter to its composer: “You have written the greatest, most beautiful and most immensely poetic pages imaginable,” Mazzucato wrote. Verdi replied, “Such is a composer’s ambition, your words arouse in me the desire, one day, to write the entire Mass. … But stay calm: It’s a temptation that will pass, like many others. I am not fond of useless things. There are so many, many, many Masses for the Dead. It would be pointless to add one more.”
“A model of virtue and patriotism”
The death of novelist and poet Alessandro Manzoni in 1873 changed Verdi’s mind. As 19th-century Italy struggled to become a unified country rather than a cluster of unruly states, Manzoni was an icon. His magnum opus, the epic novel “The Betrothed,” not only symbolized Italy’s yearning for nationhood, but it helped forge a single Italian language transcending the babel of dialects that had existed for centuries. Immediately after Manzoni’s death, Verdi revealed his plan to write a memorial Requiem. He was driven, he wrote, by “a need from my heart to honor, as best as I could, this great man whom I held in such esteem as a writer, and venerated as a man, and as a model of virtue and patriotism.”
“True poets, true painters, true composers”
The “Libera me” from Verdi’s Rossini tribute helped supply the raw material for a 90-minute Requiem bursting with melody, soulfulness and drama. Verdi’s music brings out the Latin text’s human meaning – the universal hunger for serenity and deliverance from troubles. Audiences have loved the work ever since its premiere. Its impact on listeners regardless of their faith shows that Verdi lived up to a goal he described in a tribute to Manzoni’s “The Betrothed.” “This book is true, as true as truth itself,” Verdi wrote. “If only artists could grasp this idea of truth! There would no longer be futuristic and backward-looking musicians; no more impressionism, realism, or idealism in painting; neither classic nor romantic poets; but only true poets, true painters, true composers.”
Steven Brown is a Houston writer specializing in classical music and the arts. He has been the classical music critic of the Houston Chronicle,Charlotte Observer (N.C.) and Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
Don’t miss Verdi’s Requiem this weekend!
March 20, 21, 22, 2015
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor
Amber Wagner, soprano
Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano
Francesco Demuro, tenor
Alfred Walker, bass-baritone
Houston Symphony Chorus
Betsy Cook Weber, director