Italy as we know it today, in its unique boot-shaped form plus the two large islands of Sicily and Sardinia, did not come into being as a political entity until the second half of the nineteenth century. From the middle ages through the post-Napoleonic era, the Italian peninsula consisted of a group of small city-states. Diverse in their size, governmental organization and culture, they ranged from the papal states of Rome to the Kingdom of Naples; from the duchies of Tuscany, Parma and Modena to the northern regions of Lombardy and the Veneto.
The nineteenth century was a period of political consolidation for Italy. Under the leadership of men like Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) and Count Camillo di Cavour (1810-1861), a political movement that became known as the Risorgimento ("resurgence") gathered momentum, especially after the stormy wave of revolutionary events that swept Europe in 1848. The result was the establishment in 1861 of an independent, unified republican state ruled by Vittorio Emmanuele II as constitutional monarch. By 1870, Italy had annexed both Rome and the Veneto, yielding a political map that approximates present-day Italy.
A political novel becomes a best-seller
After centuries of domination by Spanish, French and Austrian oppressors, Italians worked toward unification and reacted to its consummation in much the same way that the American colonists did in securing their independence from England. A seminal literary work appeared in 1827 to fire the patriotic sentiments of Italian citizenry, then under Austrian rule. Written by the poet Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873), I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) is closely tied to and identified with the Italian Risorgimento. Its subject matter was Spanish oppression of Lombardians in the early 17th century. Manzoni's contemporaries had little trouble extrapolating from the novel's situation to apply its prescription for a free, independent Italy to their own circumstances.
Hero worship: Verdi meets his idol
The book sold remarkably well, prompting its author to revise it several times between 1827 and 1840, when he published a definitive version. Nearly two centuries after its initial appearance, I promessi sposi remains the best-selling novel in the Italian language. One of its most heartfelt admirers in the mid-nineteenth century was Giuseppe Verdi, whose own music had become a vehicle for Italian patriotism. Verdi's reverence for Manzoni bordered on hero-worship; he regarded the poet as the brightest star in the firmament of Italian artistic genius. When their mutual friend, Countess Clarina Maffei, arranged for the two men to meet in 1868, the composer was awed. To the Countess he wrote:
What can I say of Manzoni? How to describe the extraordinary, indefinable sensation the presence of that saint, as you call him, produced in me?
Verdi was firmly established in his own career by this time, and had no need to feel inadequate in the presence of another great artist; however, he was by nature a modest man who was deeply moved by the honor the ageing Manzoni had thus accorded to him.
Honoring the memory of a great man
Manzoni died five years later, on 22 May 1873. Verdi was too grief-stricken to attend the funeral -- "I have not heart enough to be present," he wrote to his publisher Giulio Ricordi -- and sent another letter to Countess Maffei advising her:
I shall come soon to see his tomb, alone and without being seen, and perhaps (after ulterior reflection, and after having weighed my forces) to propose something to honor his memory.
He kept his word. Shortly thereafter he asked Ricordi to negotiate a proposal to the Mayor of Milan. Verdi would write a Requiem mass in Manzoni's honor, to be performed on the first anniversary of the poet's death. The city of Milan would absorb the costs of rehearsal and performance; Verdi himself would pay for publication of the score and parts, and would retain rights to the work after the first performance. Milan's Mayor agreed to the terms of the arrangement, and thus unfolded the circumstances of the work variously known as Messa da Requiem, Manzoni Requiem, or simply the Verdi Requiem.
Another death, another tribute, and the genesis of a masterpiece
As is so frequently the case with large works like this, the full story of composition is rather more complicated. When Gioachino Rossini died in 1868, Verdi suggested that a group of leading Italian composers collaborate in a composite Requiem to honor Rossini. Verdi's segment of the traditional Latin text was the Libera me. The group effort was eventually abandoned, but Verdi retained the music he had written for the abortive project. That movement, which dates from 1869, was the launching pad for his own Requiem.
The concept of starting point is important. Verdi was familiar with Requiems composed by Mozart (1791), Cherubini (one in 1816 and a second in 1836) and Berlioz (1838); he was also an admirer of Rossini's Stabat Mater (1832, revised 1842), to which he took a conscious bow in the 1869 version of the Libera me. Between Manzoni's death and the premiere of the Requiem in Milan on 22 May, 1874, Verdi revised the Libera me extensively. Only his introductory recitative and closing fugue bear a recognizable resemblance the original Rossini memorial.
Verdi's Requiem consists of seven movements, of which the Libera me is last. Thus in a sense he started from the end. But there is considerable evidence to support the theory that as much as two-thirds of the Requiem was already drafted when Manzoni died. Verdi must have known that his hero could not live forever; Manzoni was already 83 when the two met. The speed with which Verdi acted on the heels of his letter to Countess Maffei quoted above suggests that he had been thinking in terms of a tribute to Manzoni for a while.
From acorn to towering oak
Inevitably as he drafted segments, the scope of the Requiem grew to operatic proportions. The Dies Irae is the longest movement in the Requiem and its dramatic crux. At about 37 minutes, it constitutes approximately one-half the work's entire duration. Verdi's music encompasses a sufficient variety of emotions, text segments and scoring variations to make it roughly comparable to an operatic act. He suffuses the Dies Irae with vivid, unabashed theatricality that has an analogous impact to Michelangelo's Last Judgment frescoes. Indeed, the touchy issue of whether the Requiem is too dramatic -- "an opera in church vestments" -- has dogged this work since its premiere.
Rome's conservative stance notwithstanding, the Requiem was an immediate success and has remained immensely popular, for a host of good reasons. To begin with, the music is absolutely beautiful: melodious, dramatic, well-crafted. Second, Verdi achieved in the Requiem the mastery of orchestration that characterizes all his final operatic masterpieces. (Who would expect Verdi, as opposed to Wagner, to write such power into the brass parts in both the Dies Irae and in the Sanctus?) His sense of instrumental power works with his singers, rather than against them, and also with his text to deliver a forceful and convincing musical message. This is true for soloists and chorus. Both are given chances to shine unsupported by the orchestra, as in the a cappella "Te decet hymnus" choral segment of the opening movement, and the lovely octave unison duet for soprano and mezzo that begins the Agnus Dei. Years of working with librettists had honed Verdi's instinctive sense of inherent drama in the sung word. As so many writers have observed, in the Requiem text he had a powerful libretto indeed.
Comfort for the bereaved
Perhaps the most important factor of all in assessing the Requiem's artistic appeal and popular staying power and is that Verdi understood -- as had Brahms a scant half-dozen years before him -- that those who need comfort from a Requiem are the living. The message of his music is firmly grounded in the here and now, as opposed to the hereafter. True, the terror of the Dies irae and its four thunderclap chords recurs, reminding us periodically of the day of judgment. But Verdi mitigates that stress with passages of soaring, transcendental beauty and exquisite tranquility. Charles Osborne sums it up thus:
Verdi brought his dramatist's art to the Requiem. He had many times in his operas written death scenes, and music in which death is contemplated by one or more of the characters. In the Requiem, he was free to reveal something of his own attitude to death; and, predictably, gentle resignation and joyful anticipation of an afterlife were no part of his thoughts. Verdi's Requiem mass is not for the dead but for the living. The intensity and the compassion of his tragic view of the human condition are Shakespearean in stature; the prodigality of his technique deserves . . . to be called Mozartean.
Just as Manzoni's book I promessi sposi succeeded because it spoke to the Italian condition, so does Verdi's Requiem address with piercing accuracy the very soul of the people and country he loved above all else.
Verdi scored the Requiem for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, four bassoons, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, timpani, bass drum, quartet [soprano, contralto, tenor and bass] of vocal soloists, mixed chorus and strings.
Verdi, the Germans, and the Catholic Church
Verdi was known during his lifetime almost exclusively as a composer of operas, many of which had been subject to denunciation or outright censorship from Austrian officials and from Rome, the seat of the Papacy. Ironically, the most famous story surrounding the controversy at the time of the Requiem premiere involves neither Austria nor the Pope, but two Germans: conductor Hans von Bülow and composer Johannes Brahms. Bülow happened to be in Milan in May 1874. At the time he was still pro-Wagner, and thus by default anti-Verdi. Directly following the first performance, he published a rather blustery article accusing the Requiem of being an opera dressed in church attire. Brahms heard Verdi's Requiem within a year of its premiere and observed, "Bülow has made a fool of himself; this is a work of genius." To Bülow's credit, he wrote to Verdi nearly two decades later to recant his hasty judgment and apologize for the slight.
Bülow was not alone in his initial assessment, however, and Verdi continued to encounter opposition to his Requiem, particularly from the Catholic authorities. They objected that this and his subsequent sacred pieces were unsuitable for the church. There is no question that many of the Requiem's melodies are operatic; listeners having only a passing acquaintance with the Verdi canon will recognize the style and approach of Don Carlo and Aïda, and hear passages that clearly look forward to the Verdi of Otello. But a composer writes what he has to write, and one could argue plausibly that the Mozart of the Masses and the Requiem draws heavily on the technique and style of the Mozart of Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito, at least in the arias.
The real problem in the church's reaction to Verdi's Requiem, however, was the composer's frank opposition to organized religion in any guise. Verdi made no secret of the fact that he was no devout, practicing Catholic. To the contrary, during his lifetime he enjoyed (or suffered, depending on one's perspective) the reputation of being either atheist or agnostic. (Occasionally he modified his stance from the former to the latter to placate Giuseppina, his second wife.) Even in a society liberated from Austrian censorship, the Catholic Church still looked askance when concert performances of a Requiem Mass took place in a secular venue such as La Scala. Such was the case immediately on the heels of the Requiem's premiere in the Milanese church of San Marco.
Though it draws its text from the traditional Roman Catholic liturgy, the work is clearly written for concert performance and not as part of a church service. The Church did not take a definitive stand on the matter until 1903, two years after the composer's death, when it issued a papal encyclical that set forth formally its requirements for ecclesiastical music: "Music is a part of the liturgy and its humble handmaid." Neither Verdi nor his Requiem, nor any of his other sacred compositions was specifically named, but the target for the encyclical was clear.
© Laurie Shulman, 2019