Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi
by Giovanni Boldini, 1886
If you haven't heard Verdi's "Requiem" before, you might think a setting of the traditional Latin mass for the dead would be a somber (not to say dreary) business, steeped in religiosity. You'd be completely wrong.
To begin with, Verdi wasn't all that religious. Although raised Roman Catholic, he had little patience with clerical arrogance. “Stay away from priests," he once warned his cousin Angiolo Cararra Verdi. “For some virtuous people," noted Verdi's second wife, Giuseppina Strepponi (quoted in "Verdi: A Biography" by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, 1993), "a belief in God is necessary. Others, equally perfect, while observing every precept of the highest moral code, are happier believing in nothing.” She saw her husband as an example of the latter.
Besides Verdi was, first and foremost, a man of the theatre. So his "Requiem" is overtly and profoundly theatrical. When conductor and music critic Hans von Bülow, after a quick glance at the score before the work's Milan premiere, described it as Verdi's "latest opera, though in ecclesiastical vestments," he thought he was being snarky and dismissive. He was, in fact, pointing out the work's real strength, even if he was too clueless to notice it.
When, for example, Verdi depicts Judgment Day in the "Dies Irae" section, he uses the full orchestra and chorus complete with an expanded brass section (including four extra trumpets placed strategically around the hall for surround sound) and great whacks on the bass drum with the dynamic marking ffff (which effectively translates as "as loud as possible"). It really does sound like the end of the world. When the mezzo and tenor sing "Quid sum miser, tunc dicturus?" ("What shall I, a poor sinner, say?") they're echoed by a plaintive rising figure on the bassoon. The "Lux aeterna" section, depicting the shining light of salvation, begins with a shimmering melody in the violins.
And so it goes, one completely right dramatic gesture after another, for a bit over eighty minutes. "It is theatrical," write Brockway and Weinstock in "Men of Music," "full-bodied, noisy, sweepingly melodic, more like a sincere and impulsive paean than anything else. Some sections are catchy and even alluring, but only professional Protestants could deplore the high spirits of this Requiem Mass. In judging it, we must enter into the Latin temper, and forget Bach and all such solemn fellows. We can then admit that the 'Manzoni' Requiem is magnificent.
Oh, yeah: Manzoni. Alessandro Manzoni was a celebrated poet, author, and (like Verdi) a strong supporter of the political movement known as the Risorgimento, which had as its goal the independence and unification of Italy. He was one of Verdi's two personal heroes (Rossini was the other). "I esteem and admire you," he once wrote to Manzoni, "as much as one can esteem and admire anyone on this earth, both as man and a true honor of our country so continually troubled. You are a saint, Don Alessandro!" When Manzoni died on May 22, 1873, Verdi was determined to memorialize him with a requiem mass, to be performed on the first anniversary of the great man's death.
Verdi began work on the "Requiem" in Paris on June 25, 1873 and finally completed it back home in Italy on April 10, 1874. Rehearsals for the Milan premiere began in May and the piece had its first performance, as scheduled, on May 22, 1874 with Verdi himself conducting.
In Italy, at least, it was a massive hit. The Italian public loved Verdi to begin with, and they were not disappointed with his latest work. Others had sharply differing opinions. Brahms thought it a work of genius. Wagner dismissed it. They loved it in Vienna but were indifferent in London. Personally, I agree with George Bernard Shaw (cited in Philip Huscher's program notes for the Chicago Symphony) who said that none of Verdi's works would prove to be as enduring as the "Requiem."
Manzoni's funeral procession in Milan
Engraving for The Graphic, 1873
Conducting the symphony, chorus, and soloists will be a great man in his own right: Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. “Frühbeck is one of the few remaining conductors of the old school," says symphony cellist Bjorn Ranheim in the program notes. "He commands such power and respect on the podium. When I say ‘old school,' think of Toscanini, the old maestro, all powerful. It's all a sense of how one carries oneself—supreme confidence combined with history, knowing not only the piece like the back of his hand, but knowing how to utilize the symphony orchestra as an instrument." I might add that for those of us who started collecting classical LPs in the 1960s, the Frühbeck de Burgos name is a familiar one from many an LP jacket, especially recordings of the work of de Falla, Albéniz, Rodrigo, and other Spanish masters. This will be my first opportunity to see him conduct live, and I'm looking forward to it.
The essentials: Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Verdi's "Requiem." Vocal soloists are Angel Blue (soprano) Julia Gertseva (mezzo-soprano), Aquiles Machado (tenor), and Riccardo Zanellato (bass). Performances take place on Friday and Saturday at 8 PM, March 7 and 8, at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand. For more information: stlsymphony.org. The Saturday performance will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio, 90.7 FM and HD 1 as well as via live Internet stream at the station web site.