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Giuseppe Verdi

When Rossini died in 1868, Verdi proposed that a Requiem should be written in honour of the great man.  Thirteen of the leading Italian composers of the day, including Verdi himself, would be invited to write one movement each towards the complete work.  The idea was greeted with general enthusiasm but it was soon dogged by internal political wrangling over which composers should be included and which left out, and by a bitter and widely publicised row between Verdi and the conductor of the chorus specially chosen for the occasion.  When all the music was eventually received it also became apparent that this Requiem was little more than a pot-pourri of styles and ideas and consequently lacked any real conviction.  Faced with all these difficulties there was no alternative but to drop the scheme.

In 1873 the Italian poet and national hero Alessandro Manzoni died.  Verdi had been a lifelong admirer of his writings and was deeply affected by his death, remarking to a friend, ‘With him dies the purest, holiest and highest of our glories’.  He decided to write a Requiem in Manzoni’s memory, incorporating the ‘Libera Me’ which he had written five years earlier for the ill-fated Rossini project.  The work was written between 1873 and 1874, shortly after Verdi had completed one of his finest operas, Aida (1871).  After the Requiem Verdi retired to the country and wrote nothing more for thirteen years.

Though the Requiem is Verdi’s only large-scale work not intended for the stage, it is unashamedly theatrical in style, with passages of great tenderness and simplicity contrasting with intensely powerful dramatic sections.  Writing at the time, the eminent conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow aptly described it as ‘Verdi’s latest opera, in church vestments’.

The first performance of the Messa di Requiem took place on 22nd May 1874, the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death, in St. Mark’s Church, Milan.  It was an overwhelming success, and the tremendous enthusiasm with which it was greeted was repeated at the many European performances that soon followed, including its British premiere in May 1875 at the Albert Hall, conducted by Verdi himself.  One journalist described the work as ‘the most beautiful music for the church that has been produced since the Requiem of Mozart’ – a view that was echoed by most people.  However, a significant minority was offended that Verdi, known to be virtually an atheist, should be writing a Requiem, and they found his operatic approach irreverent and highly inappropriate.  For them the qualities which made his music so ideal for the theatre made it equally unsuited for the church.

Today this difference in style between traditional church music and Verdi’s operatic treatment of the Requiem text does not present a problem for the vast majority of listeners. The uncomplicated directness of Verdi’s music, his supreme ability to write wonderful melodies which lie perfectly for the human voice, his brilliant orchestration and above all the inspired dramatic intensity of the Requiem are lasting qualities which have guaranteed its enduring popularity with both choirs and audiences.

 

Barry Creasy

Chairman

Collegium Musicum of London

(Reproduce with permission from Mr Creasy)

http://www.choirs.org.uk/prognotes/verdi%20requiem.htm

 

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Revised: 07/01/05 20:36:36 -0400.