De Profundis

Verdi's searing 'Requiem'

The hundredth anniversary of the death of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), widely commemorated in the music world this year, reminds us that he wrote what is generally conceded to be the greatest and most popular work of modern spiritual music, the Messa da Requiem (1874). Studded with mighty choral episodes and a terrifying "Dies Irae" ("Day of Wrath") movement, the Requiem has been called-only half jokingly-"Verdi’s greatest opera."
Operatic or not, the Requiem is certainly Michelangeloesque, and its wild and sometimes savage emotions require interpreters of unusual majesty. Feverishly passionate conductors like Arturo Toscanini and Victor de Sabata made recordings that seem to take us through death and judgment in a thrillingly vivid way. In the stomach-tightening "Dies Irae," the orchestral strings slash violently, a booming timpani is slammed so loudly that the audience jumps, and the chorus wails in agony about the Day of Wrath. The presence of a mighty chorus makes the whole experience a shared one, rather than a lonely odyssey, a vision of multitudes being judged that hails back to Dante’s Inferno.

Unlike earlier Italian religious music (such as works by Pergolesi or Rossini), Verdi’s Requiem resists excerpting, and contains no "hits." Its moving solo airs for soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass are almost never performed out of context. The composer interwove these melodies so skillfully with orchestral and choral elements that the solo moments cannot stand on their own, despite their grandeur within the Requiem itself. Verdi’s Requiem is more unified than any of his operas. Even the seamless final ones, Otello and Falstaff, do not entirely share this perfect continuity. Such organic composing is like the buildings of the great Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926), which also seem to be living, breathing things, indissoluble assemblies of creativity.

Unfortunately, an outstanding new 8-CD set from EMI France, with some of the best historical performances of Verdi (Les Introuvables du Chant Verdien or Verdi Vocal Rarities), does not contain excerpts from the Requiem, or from Verdi’s other sacred works, such as his Quattro Pezzi Sacri. The latter, containing an "Ave Maria," "Stabat Mater," "Te Deum," and "Laudi alla Vergine," was written by Verdi in his eighties. It is not a blockbuster like the Requiem, but as recorded by conductors like Toscanini or Carlo Maria Giulini, it conveys deep tragic emotion. In 1896 Verdi wrote to his friend Boito that musical "Te Deums" were usually performed "at great, solemn, noisy celebrations for a victory or a coronation." But his own "Te Deum," although beginning majestically, ends with the prayer "Dignare Domine die isto," which the composer called "moving, sad to the point of terror!" Like the Requiem, this "Te Deum" inspires fear as a dramatic element of religious emotion. Unlike Faure’s gentle Requiem, this is not comforting or cosseting music, but a glimpse into the abyss. Indeed, Verdi told Toscanini, the solo singer should sound like "humanity that is frightened of hell."

The overt tragic nature of these works may in part reflect the fact that Verdi was considered by his contemporaries to be an atheist. Mary Jane Phillips-Matz’s fine Verdi biography, which has just been issued in paperback by Oxford University Press, quotes Boito’s opinion that "in the ideal, moral, and social sense he was a great Christian; but one must be very careful not to depict him as a Catholic in the political and narrowly theological sense of the word: nothing could be further from the truth."

Still, when the Requiem was completed, Verdi noted, "I have done nothing but write note after note, to the greater glory of God....Now the music is done, and I am happy to have written it." The exact degree and nature of Verdi’s belief are a complex issue, easy to misstate. In the booklet notes for a new recording of the Requiem on Philips, conductor Valery Gergiev misleadingly claims that Verdi must have been a believer because "in his operas, people say Dio thousands of times." More realistically we may say that if Verdi never developed a sense of the love of God, nonetheless he possessed a convincing fear of God. His religious music is moving, dramatic, even thrilling, but always tragic. As with Greek drama, it may be emotionally cathartic but it is never soothing. Beyond the terror and abyss, there is only mors stupebit (stupefying death), as the shell-shocked bass soloist laments in the Requiem.

Admittedly, there is much in Verdi’s secular oeuvre that is equally tragic. He had a dark view of human existence, accentuated by the tragic experience, at age twenty-five, of the death of his wife and small children from rheumatic fever. It was an appalling misfortune, one from which Verdi never really recovered. Certainly, the experience made it nearly impossible for him to believe in a benevolent God, and the tragic nature of his religious compositions reflects his suffering and lack of belief.

Published in the 2001-06-01 issue: 
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