Requiem poster for La Scala premiere, 1874

There's only one work on the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus program this weekend, but it's a big one: the "Messa da Requiem" (Requiem Mass) by Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901).

[Preview the music with the SLSO's Spotify playlist.]

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.

Title page of the Messa da Requiem
 first edition (1874), Casa Ricordi

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. The “Requiem” is ultimately a dramatic work—an opera, if we must use the word—in the form of a requiem mass. It’s an opera about facing the inevitability of death and the uncertainty of what comes after. As Hamlet muses in Act III, scene 1:

Who would fardels bear
To grunt and sweat under a weary life
But that the dread of something after death
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

Verdi’s “Requiem” wasn’t written from the point of view of a believer, who is convinced that simply groveling before the Almighty will eventually bring peace after death. Nor is it written from the perspective of the committed atheist, who is just as convinced that there is nothing after death. It is, rather, written from the perspective of a doubter. Which is to say, from the perspective of Verdi.

As George Martin writes in “Aspects of Verdi” (1988), Verdi understood that while believers were convinced that there must be a heaven for some and a hell for others, nonbelievers held that “after death there may be nothing, or something.”

There is always, after all, the possibility that the nonbelievers are mistaken in their view, and then on the judgment day, so unexpected, where will they stand? To whom can they turn for support? Verdi had the courage to peer into the unknown, and to be afraid. The Requiem is his account of what he saw.
1848 portrait of Alesandro Manzoni
Drawn by his stepson Stefano Stampa.

This stands in opposition to the devout Christianity of the man who inspired the “Requiem” in the first place, Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873). 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. It was a cause he advanced in his two verse dramas “Il Conte di Caramagnola” (1820) and “Adelchi” (1822) and, most memorably, in his one and only novel “I promessi sposi” (“The Bethrothed,” 1827).

The novel was a massive hit in Italy, both in its original version and in Manzoni’s later re-write in the Tuscan dialect, effectively making that the standard version of the Italian language. It accomplished on a linguistic level what the Risorgimento strove for on a political level. “The final edition of I promessi sposi (1840–42),” says Encyclopedia Britannica, “rendered in clear, expressive prose purged of all antiquated rhetorical forms, reached exactly the sort of broad audience he had aimed at, and its prose became the model for many subsequent Italian writers.” It is still taught in Italian schools today and has been translated into almost every possible language.

Manzoni 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.

This was not the first time Verdi had been inspired to honor the demise of one of his heroes with a requiem. When Rossini died five years earlier, Verdi had proposed that he and a dozen other Italian composers each write part of a requiem that would be performed in the Church of San Petrino in Bologna on the first anniversary of Rossini’s death. Alas, the project collapsed, and a year later all Verdi had to show for it was the part assigned to him, the closing “Libera me.”

The first performance of the Verdi Requiem
at La Scala on 25 May 1874

When Manzoni died, Verdi decided to do the honors himself, and soon the music originally written for Rossini had become the germ of the memorial for Manzoni. He began work on it in Paris in 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."

One final note: until relatively recently, the work on the program this weekend was routinely billed as “Verdi’s Manzoni Requiem,” both in Italy and elsewhere. “Vocal and piano scores”, writes Martin, “always carried a prominent notice of the dedication or even made of it a separate, handsome page.” Performers and audience alike, as a result, could not escape the questions raised by the two radically different belief systems the work represented. That contrast has been lost along with Manzoni’s disappearance from modern copies of the score, a fact which Martin regards as a distinct loss.

When you see this weekend’s performance, you might want to contemplate that ambiguity. I know I will.

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus along with soloists Hulkar Sabirova (soprano), Judit Kutasi (mezzo-soprano), Russell Thomas (tenor), and Adam Palka (bass) in Verdi’s "Messa da Requiem". Performances take place Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, April 27 and 28, at the Stifel Theatre at 14th and Market downtown.

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