Verdi – Messe da Requiem (Requiem Mass)

by Max Derrickson

Giuseppe (Fortunino Francesco) Verdi      (born Roncole, near Parma, Italy, 1813; died Milan, 1901)

Messe da Requiem (Requiem Mass) 

When Verdi completed this towering masterpiece in 1874, Italywas just barely the unified state that we know it today.  Even in Roman times the country was a passel of small city-states and small kingdoms, and after the fall of that Empire, foreign rule dominated, most austerely by the ruling Habsburgs, both the Spanish and the Austrian branches.  But at the turn of the 19th Century two events, again foreign born, set into motion Italy’s pursuit of independence – the irresistible Enlightenment ideals of the French Revolution, and the crushing blow of Napoleon’s conquering and subsequent Kingdom of Italy in 1805.  Above a growing populist desire for autonomy, the suffering of Napoleon’s puppet government, furthered by the humiliation of being tossed back to the rule of the Austrian Empire in 1815, Italian’s yearning for independence was galvanized.  Into this world were born three important men, each integral to the creation of an autonomous Italian State – Rossini, Manzoni and Verdi – and each the inspiration for the creation of the famous Requiem.

While he was composing until 1829, Rossini (1792-1868) was undisputedly the greatest opera composer in the world – in a sense, he put Italian music back on the map in the modern world.  That he was Italian made his countrymen proud peers – that his countrymen could not precisely claim his Italian-ness in an environment of ever-changing foreign rule produced deep frustration.

Allesandro Manzoni (1785-1873) was the most celebrated Italian poet and novelist after Dante.  His Il Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) was first published in 1827 – a novel that would electrify independent-minded Italians like nothing before it.  The Betrothed is set in early 1600’s Italy during the Spanish Habsburg rule and champions two Italian commoners as they struggle with a ruling class which despotic and unsympathetic to the lives of the Italian peasants.  The novel became immediately pivotal in Italian independence in two regards: it was clearly a veiled indictment against the current Austrian rulers of the day, and most remarkably, it essentially created a new, unified Italian language.  Because Italy’s political history had been, largely, a collection of city-states and duchies under foreign rule, regional dialects had grown vastly disparate over the centuries.  Manzoni committed his novel to a synthesis of these dialects – and when he found no common dialectical word in existence, he created one.  The Italian language as it used today was chiefly achieved by Manzoni.  The effects were immediate and wide-spread, both unifying a diverse population with language, and inciting deep distaste for foreign rule.  In fact, until very recently, entrance into Italian university was predicated on examinations on the works of both Dante and Manzoni.  In Milan, Manzoni’s hometown, a popular saying remains enshrined regarding its two most cherished features  – “Un tempio ed un uomo, Manzoni ed il Duomo” (A temple and a man, Manzoni and a cathedral).

Giuseppi Verdi regarded Rossini and Manzoni as two of Italy’s greatest achievements, and regarded Manzoni as a personal hero.  For his part, Verdi was briefly engaged in Italy’s struggle, Il Risorgimento (Reunification), but soon realized that his responsibility to his countrymen lay in creating music.  That Verdi was a passionate patriot there can be no doubt, and his music echoed his fellow revolutionary’s sentiments.  It is no legend that the Hebrew slaves’ chorus in Nabucco captured the minds and hearts of Italians en-masse – the song of a people yearning for their homeland – and at Verdi’s funeral in 1901, tens of thousands of Italian mourners began singing that chorus simultaneously and from memory.  His last name even became a popular acronym for the struggle: “Viva VERDI” – Long live Vittorio Emanuele, Re DItalia (Emanuele being the populist choice for the Risorgimento’s ruler/king).  After Rossini stopped composing in 1829, Verdi steadily rose to become one of Italy’s most profound musical and cultural icons.

It was the death of Rossini in 1868, in fact, that prompted Verdi to begin his Requiem. He mobilized about a dozen contemporary composers,
[. . .]
Disappointed, his score sat shelved for years.

When Manzoni died in 1873, Verdi grieved with the rest of Italy.  His respect, even worship, of Manzoni ran deep, and soon Verdi arranged for a similar anniversary Requiem for Italy’s literary hero, only this time, Verdi would write the entire Requiem, direct it and conduct it.  It premiered on queue in St. Mark’s Church in Milan, the home of Manzoni in 1874.
[. . .]

Verdi’s passion for the man Manzoni and his patriotic zeal seemed to open a floodgate of new ideas and creativity.  For this sacred work, unhindered by the physical constraints of the operatic stage, or by time, such as when the audience’s last train left for the evening, Verdi composed a tremendous masterpiece full of passion and in which, astonishingly, every movement is as fresh and inventive as any of his works.  As for his tackling, for the first time, a sacred piece instead of an opera, Verdi approached it with his usual enthusiasm,
[. . .]
The last comment reflects part-jest and part-genuine zeal for Verdi, as for most of his life he was agnostic, yet his Requiem and his understanding of the sacred texts for it impassioned in him his modern view that every person was responsible for finding faith and purpose on his own terms which may, or may not, involve struggle.

What this zeal and passion brought forth in Verdi’s Requiem was a closer look at the ancient sacred texts and an untraditional interpretation of their most extraordinary parts.  Verdi was writing the Common Man’s Mass for the Dead – a message to those left behind as well as a plea to the Heavens for understanding and mercy in a troubled world.  It is no surprise, then,
[. . .]

One need only melt into the ethereal opening of the Requiem, and in minutes have their soul pounded into oblivion with the terrifying Dies irae (Day of wrath), to fully understand how deeply felt Verdi’s expression is.  Or to hear the antiphonal trumpets filling the earth, as it were, with a spine-tingling calling forth God’s wrath.   This message of wrath and judgment comes back again and again throughout the Mass,
[. . .]
Verdi’s Requiem chooses to make a bold statement to all who are left behind, while sending up with grandeur those heroes like Rossini and Manzoni who made the world a more decent abode while they lived amongst us.  A unified Italy would not have been possible without them.