Performance Tuesday, October 23, 2012 | 8 PM

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads The Philadelphia Orchestra in Verdi’s Requiem—the conductor’s first performance at Carnegie Hall as the orchestra’s music director. Written three years after Verdi’s operatic triumph Aida, the Requiem combines the drama of the stage, the emotional power of an oratorio, and the intensity of a symphony in a grand Romantic expression of grief.
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That a man who was by all reports an agnostic should have written one of the most effective pieces of sacred music in the repertoire might give us pause. But if Verdi's Requiem is not exactly what Rome might have ordered, it has become lodged in the Western imagination as an expression of the 19th century's new view of faith as being an intensely personal affair. While using the trappings of the liturgically flexible Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, Verdi's masterpiece pushed sacred music beyond extremes of expression already approached in Bach's St. Matthew Passion, Beethoven's Missa solemnis, and Berlioz's Grande messe des morts.

A Transcendent Work

The Messa da Requiem per l'anniversario della morte di Manzoni 22 maggio 1874, to cite Verdi's full title, was composed ostensibly in memory of the great Italian author and nationalist Alessandro Manzoni. Although it was clearly more than the sum of its parts, the work also transcended the cliché, established early on, of an "opera in ecclesiastical garb," to cite conductor Hans von Bülow's misguided early appraisal of the piece. Further, its qualities go beyond merely being "the summit of 19th-century liturgical music," in Julian Budden's phrase, to which the Verdi expert acceded that there was not much competition.

More than that, the Requiem represented a sea-change in the way Europeans, and ultimately Americans along with them, viewed their bargain with religion. It strayed further from the rituals of liturgy than Mozart or Rossini had, into a realm where the politics of 19th-century Italian church-and-state divisions mingled with the European mind's growing sense that each individual had to find a way to faith through a struggle that might or might not have anything to do with traditional religion.

The Requiem was by general agreement the work in which Italy's greatest composer concentrated his musical energies most effectively and explosively. Quite apart from the question of whether the Requiem is Verdi's "greatest work," it is at least the piece into which the composer poured "all the purely musical resources that he had developed in the course of 26 operas," as Budden summarizes, "and which he could here exploit to the full without having to take into account the special [demands] which a stage action inevitably imposes."

The Work's Genesis

The Requiem came about through a sporadic course of events, whereby Verdiwho had all but decided that Aida of 1871 would be his last operabegan reevaluating his artistic mission. The Italy of the 1870s was a period of great change, with the nationalist movement in politics giving way to decentralized and corrupt leadership, and the musical scene becoming gradually "Germanized," to use Verdi's word for the influx of works like Wagner's Lohengrin and the presence of musicians like Liszt and Bülow. Sacred music, it went without saying, languished.

It was Rossini's death years earlier that sparked Verdi's first attempt to take part in composing a requiem: When the elder composer died in 1868, Verdi had proposed a plan in which the leading composers of the day would each contribute a movement to a requiem, which would be performed on the anniversary of Rossini's death. Intrigue on the part of the conductor and impresario Angelo Mariani would ultimately foil the plan, but not before Verdi had already composed his contribution, the Libera me, a revised version of which became the final movement in his own Requiem five years later.

During the ensuing years, when friends began hinting that Verdi should take up a requiem, the composer seemed to resist the idea, while implicitly admitting that he had entertained the notion. "It is a temptation that will pass like so many others," he wrote to conductor Alberto Mazzucato in February 1871. "I do not like useless things. There are so many, many Requiem Masses!!! It is useless to add one more."

Despite these overemphatic words, some speculate that Verdi might have been contemplating such a work already in 1873, after his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, returned to him the score of the unused Libera me, then (apparently) planted a letter in the Gazzetta musicale di Milano that urged Verdi to "give new life to sacred music, now fallen to such a low point."

In any event, it was Manzoni's death a month later, on May 22, that activated Verdi's resolve to complete the piece. "I am profoundly saddened by the death of our great man!" he wrote to Ricordi of the man whose writings represented the goal of Italian linguistic and national unity. "Now it is all ended!" he wrote subsequently to Clara Maffei. "And with Him ends the purest, the most holy, the highest of our glories." In Verdi's eyes, Manzoni so represented the ideals of 19th-century Italian nationhood that some have speculated that what Verdi was ultimately composing was a "Requiem for the risorgimento"the Italian national "awakening" that had found such powerful resonance in the composer's art and imagination.

A Requiem Goes Out into the World

The notion of "operatic" sacred music was hardly new with Verdi. Just to look at the 19th-century Italian sphere, Donizetti (in his Requiem composed to honor Bellini) and Rossini had both set precedents for writing religious music that was essentially informed by operatic style. Beethoven's Missa solemnis certainly has operatic qualities, and moreover Budden argues that works like Bach's Christmas Oratorio or Handel's Messiah are essentially operatic in outlook. (Scholar David Rosen also points to the sacred works of Cherubini and Berlioz as probable influences on Verdi's large-gestured approach.)

But Verdi's remains a work of sacred music to its core, despite a certain dispassionate approach to the strictly liturgical aspects of the text. While scored for four soloists with chorus, it does not turn the singers into characters playing rolesat least not in any traditional sense. There is a certain "depersonalized" aspect to their involvement, to use Budden's word, as they speak at times to the general narrative and at other times, obliquely, as individual supplicants seeking mercy. The way in which the soloists are used is atypical as well: Mozart had employed the soloists in his Requiem generally as a quartet; Cherubini used no soloists at all in his two Requiems, while Berlioz only a single tenor in one movement.

In his choice of texts, Verdi put a personal stamp on the requiem, too. There is no one requiem text: Composers choose from a basic core liturgy and can add sequences and other texts. Nevertheless, the goal of a requiem is generally always the same, as George Martin points out: to evoke in the listener a sense of peace. To the basic texts, Verdi added the Libera me and expanded the Dies irae.

The score for the Requiem was composed chiefly in Paris, Sant'Agata, and Milan from the latter part of 1873 to the spring of 1874. "I'm working on my Mass and doing so with great pleasure," the composer wrote to Camille du Locle. "I feel as if I've become a solid citizen and am no longer the public's clown who, with a big tamburone and bass drum shouts 'come, come, step right up', etc. etc. As you can imagine, when I hear operas spoken of now, my conscience is scandalized, and I immediately make the sign of the Cross!!"

It was complete by April 16, 1874, and the venue for its premiere set for the Church of San Marco, Milanpartly because Verdi favored its acoustics. The performance took place on May 22, a year after Manzoni's death according to plan, and three more performances followed during the next week. It was a popular if not wholly a critical success at its early performances: The most notorious initial criticismBülow's celebrated attackwas in general the exception to the rule.

In any event, Johannes Brahms came out in Verdi's defense: "Bülow has made an almighty fool of himself. Only a genius could have written such a work." (Two decades later, the conductor withdrew his condemnation, which had reportedly been based on a cursory view of the score.) Further successes continued to underscore the work's special nature in Paris and at the relatively new Royal Albert Hall in London. It was at the latter, on May 15, that a new version appeared for the first time, with the "Liber scriptus" fugue turned into a solo for mezzo-soprano. The Londoners were nevertheless lukewarm about the piece, whereas in Vienna the success was "into the torrid zone," as Giuseppina Strepponi, Verdi's wife, observed.

The official United States premiere took place in the Academy of Music in New York on November 17, 1874, under the baton of a former Verdi pupil, Emanuele Muzio. (A previous performance in October had preceded this at St. Ann's Church in New York, with a chorus of 20 and organ accompaniment.)

From the outset, Verdi had emphasized that the piece was not to be performed in an overly operatic style. "One mustn't sing this Mass in the way one sings an opera," he wrote, "and therefore phrasing and dynamics that may be fine in the theater won't satisfy me at all, not at all." Indeed, as Rosen points out, Verdi was especially pleased with the Paris renderings because they were less "theatrical" than the barn-storming Italian performances.

The forces used in these early performances varied a great deal, as Rosen has shown: The Milan premiere employed a chorus of 120 and an orchestra of about 100, though on other occasions Verdi authorized much larger forces, most outlandishly a performance at Royal Albert Hall, which featuredaccording to the testimony of the organist for the performancea chorus that was 1,200 strong. Moreover, the original performances were sometimes broken by applause, and sometimes numbers were even encored. An intermission usually followed the  Dies irae.

A Closer Listen

The Requiem begins with an initial Requiem aeternam cast in A-B-A form, with the opening portion introducing the mournful thematic material and a central section formed by the "Te decet hymnus." In the first full-throated cry for mercy ("Kyrie"), the composer introduces his soloists as if they were characters in a drama. The entreaty moves upward in a bone-tingling registral expansion achieved by the soloists ascending successively while the accompaniment descends. Critic Donald Francis Tovey called this "the most moving passage in all Verdi's works; unquestionably one of the greater monuments of musical pathos."

The Dies irae finds Verdi at his most ferocious. The composer has turned the 13th-century text by Thomas of Celano into a huge structure with almost unprecedented extremes of emotion-from hand-wringing cries for mercy to hysterical fears of doom. The initial onslaught is equaled in Verdi's output perhaps only by the opening storm scene of Otello composed several years later. The subsequent Tuba mirum becomes a terrifying antiphony of orchestral and off-stage (or often balconied) trumpet players; here Verdi is at his most theatrical: The slap-dash risorgimento choruses of his operas have been transformed into something close to what we might imagine the last trumpet(s) could indeed sound like. In the shattered silence that follows, the bass is dazed ("Mors stupebit"), the mezzo imperious ("Liber scriptus").

The chorus softly intones "Dies irae" to remind us of the terror before the brief trio of soprano, mezzo, and tenor (Quid sum miser) introduces the entreaty of a single sinner pleading for mercy, as it were. This sets up an ongoing contrast between the narrative cries of all Christians ("Dies irae") with the increasingly personal plea of real individuals, expressed by the soloists singly or in combination.

The immutability of God's power (Rex tremendae) is offered as a response to the plea for salvation, which seems little comfort to the soprano and mezzo-soprano (Recordare), who sing a tender operatic duet. Likewise, the tenor's tormented Ingemisco is answered by the bass's stern Confutatis. A fierce "Dies irae" reprise ushers in the emotional high-point of the section, the plangent lament of the Lacrymosa, filled with sigh-motifs and a sort of inexorable forward-motion. In this case, the operatic nature of the piece is overt: It is derived from a duet composed for the opera Don Carlos but discarded before its premiere.

After so much high-decibel gnashing-of-teeth, the Offertorio comes as a welcome moment of serenity, and ushers in a more tranquil series of movements. The "Domine Jesu" grows from a solo cello theme heard toward the beginning, which moves into a short-lived fugue ("Quam olim Abrahae"). More emphatic still is the double fugue of the Sanctus, which together with the "Benedictus" is set as a continuous contrapuntal texture broken only by the simpler textures of the "Pleni sunt coeli." The Agnus Dei is built from a plainchant-like theme in octaves; with the Lux aeterna for soloists, conflict arises again, but is quickly dispelled in a shimmer of B-flat major.

The Libera me plunges us back into the intense personal drama of the Dies irae, "as though someone had said the wrong thing and God suddenly appeared," in George Martin's formulation. This is essentially the same Libera me as that composed in 1869 for the Rossini Requiem, though with some elaboration of the vocal part"a revealing but not radical revision of the piece," as Rosen writes. The choral interpolations of the "Requiem aeternam" and "Dies irae" have been taken to suggest that Verdi intended even then to expand the Rossini Requiem into a full composition some day. The emphatic fugue is a momentary gesture in a piece that concludes the Requiem on a note of tranquility and, finally, uncertainty.

Paul J. Horsley


 Program note commissioned by The Philadelphia Orchestra.

© 2012 Paul J. Horsley

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