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Composed: 1873
Length: c. 85 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 8 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 5, 1932, with soprano Monnie Hayes Hastings, contralto Clemence Gifford, tenor Dan Gridley, bass Clifford Lott, and the Los Angeles Civic Chorus, Bernardino Molinari conducting

Is the Requiem Mass Verdi’s greatest opera? Did this great man of the lyric theater compose a work in which four solo singers, one from each vocal group, stand on a platform in company only with a symphony orchestra and a mixed chorus, and produce anything even remotely resembling the kinds of staged works that had made him famous? Or was it just his latest opera in ecclesiastical vestments? This was the snide assertion made by the loyal Brahms partisan, pianist-conductor Hans von Bülow. For his trouble, Bülow was soundly rebuffed by Brahms himself, who said, “Only a genius could have written such a work.”

Brahms, of course, was right; it takes one to know one.

When Verdi composed the Requiem, in 1873, he had long been considered opera’s reigning master. His singular stature in the world of 19th-century lyric theater effectively began with the success of his third opera, Nabucco, in 1842, a work that the composer came to write only after the most intense urging and cajoling by Bartolomeo Merelli, impresario of Milan’s La Scala.

A vital element of Nabucco’s success was a performance-stopping chorus in the opera’s third act. “Va, pensiero, sull’ ali dorate” (Go, thought, on golden wings) became a rallying cry of freedom from Austrian rule and Verdi the musical standard bearer of the movement towards a united and free Italy. Verdi’s sympathies with the Italian nationalist liberal cause may not have been the guiding force of his professional activities, but there was no question that he held high the ideal of his country’s desire for independence, which finally came in 1870.

Verdi equated Italy’s freedom from foreign rule with an author whom he idolized as much for his championing of Italian independence as for his literary excellence. Alessandro Manzoni, born in 1785, is considered the father of the modern Italian novel; his masterpiece, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), although a charming love story, was actually intended by the writer to express a strong political statement. When Verdi wrote the Requiem, he was, at 60, the composer of some 25 remarkably vivid operas, with only Otello and Falstaff to come. The dramatic impulses that gave life (and death) to La Traviata, Il Trovatore, Aida, and the rest could not be diluted or stilled when directed toward this work honoring a man of whom Verdi, after they had met, wrote with unashamed emotion, “How to describe the extraordinary, indefinable sensation the presence of the saint produced in me. I would have gone down on my knees before him if we were allowed to worship men. They say it is wrong to do so and it may be, although we raise up on altars many that have neither the talent nor the virtue of Manzoni and indeed are rascals.”

When he heard of Manzoni’s death he was stunned, incredulous, so much so that he could not even bring himself to attend the revered man’s funeral. But with the passage of time the loss became somewhat bearable, and as the haze of mourning lifted, the idea of honoring Manzoni through music appeared clearly. He would write a Requiem Mass and express the depth of emotion he felt. He already had in hand the last section of a mass for the dead, a Libera me, having written it, or a version thereof, in 1868 as part of a Requiem Mass intended to commemorate the death of Rossini, to which the composers of the day were to contribute a movement. The planned honor for Rossini never materialized, but as a result of his effort on its behalf Verdi was provided with a limb of the “Manzoni” Requiem. Waste not…

The “Manzoni” Requiem was first performed on May 22, 1874, at St. Mark’s in Milan. Immediately following its premiere it moved to La Scala for three hugely successful performances, and then Verdi took it to Paris, London, and Vienna, where it received equal acclaim.

Architecturally the work is in seven movements, with the second, the Dies Irae, the most extended, being set in ten sections. The Libera me, an optional movement in a traditional requiem, becomes here in its position as the final movement, in effect a recapitulation musically of earlier materials. These materials, of course, were devised, as it were, after the fact. [“…the last shall be first, and the first, last.” Matthew 20]

Textually the Libera me brings a personal emphasis to the Mass. The Requiem text, ending as it often does with the Lux aeterna — “May eternal light shine on them, Lord…Grant them eternal rest” — fulfills the elevated ecclesiastical requirement of praying for the dead. In the Libera me, the fear of the “last enemy” that is latent in all of us is brought to consciousness: “Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death…Deliver me.”

Within its vast emotional content, the Requiem covers every shade of operatic expression that Verdi every conjured, from the most inward and fragile to the most extrovert and violently passionate. To Verdi, religiosity was not ecclesiastic but humanistic, and his language for speaking operatically about the things of man was the same as speaking oratorically about the things of God. Remember that the composer’s supplications to the Almighty in his massive Requiem were motivated by his having lost a man, Manzoni, and not by his having found God. (Verdi was all his adult life a lapsed Catholic). Realizing this should make acceptable, even to a religionist, the secular musical vocabulary as being fully appropriate to the religious subject matter.

Expectedly the vocal elements in the work, both solo and choral, are masterful. What else could they be coming from the 19th century’s supreme Italian melodist? Perhaps not so expected is the high estate of Verdi’s contrapuntal learnedness and harmonic sophistication, both of which, added to the Requiem’s other virtues, were surely what prompted Brahms’ judgment of Verdi’s Requiem as a work of genius.

Succeeding generations have echoed that judgment unreservedly. Every element of the Mass — chorus, orchestra, vocal soloists; the drama, penetrating emotion, breathtaking excitement, heaven-storming grandeur — all contribute to the irresistible appeal of the work.

Considering the cumulative passion that colors the work, it is a particularly impressive stroke for the very beginning and very end of the Mass to be at the level of extreme quietude. The first notes of the Requiem to be heard are those of muted cellos alone solemnly intoning a phrase containing two important motifs: a descending triad (A-minor), and a descending step-wise four-note figure. When muted violins echo the phrase, with the other strings in harmony, and the chorus murmurs “Requiem” on a single tone, the effect is overwhelming in its simple but profound eloquence. At the 12th measure the poignancy is intensified as the violins sing a compact, haunting melody under which the lower strings provide quiet, gently wrenching dissonances by way of harmonic suspensions, and the choral sopranos sob softly above them. At the end of this phrase, the violins sing another melody, this one in major, a wondrously tender and consoling expression of the “perpetual light” text being sung by the chorus. Having raised the curtain on the Requiem with 27 ineffably moving measures, Verdi proceeds with a brief a cappella choral passage, then repeats the opening before taking up the Kyrie text. This is done in an energetic section whose enlivening subject is presented by the solo voices, in turn, tenor, bass, soprano, and mezzo. The music becomes more agitated (and thoroughly operatic), and then subsides as the section ends prayerfully.

The angelic “reaching for the heavens” of the violins that closes the first movement is perfect preparation for the demonic opening of the huge second movement Dies Irae, the 13th-century text portraying the terrible Day of Wrath. Five shattering “chords of doom” erupt in the orchestra before the chorus enters with its despairing cries. The dramatic pictorialism continues until, its strength sapped, it merges into a brief misterioso section replete with frightened choral whispers and strangely disjointed orchestral interjections. This veiled scene is interrupted by present and distant trumpets which, gathering full brass strength, call forth a chilling catalog of fears, confessions, and pleas for mercy, intoned in turn by the singers, solo and in ensemble.

The four movements that follow, one of which is the joyous, fugal Sanctus for double chorus, precede the touchstone closing movement, the Libera me. This is the music heard only in the orchestra in this Requiem’s first movement. It begins with the soprano and chorus presenting the texts in a dramatic, declamatory manner. At a moment of repose, the pounding Dies Irae bursts in, sweeping all before it. Its demonism subsides slowly, and when it does the soprano sings the word “Requiem” on three descending notes, the same ones intoned by cellos at the work’s austere opening. The chorus then answers with four descending scale steps, again cello material, after which the soprano sings the ineffably tender melody we heard in the violins starting at the 12th bar of the first movement. (This section is a miraculous merging of religiosity and operatic lyricism — but are these necessarily conflicting identities?)

An extended choral fugue separates this section of the movement from the final hushed, devotional supplication by soprano and chorus to the words “Libera me, Domine” — Deliver me, Lord” — bringing the vast panorama of the Requiem to an elevated, ultimately poignant close.

After many years as Director of Publications and Archives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Orrin Howard continues to contribute to the program book.