Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Verdi's Requiem -- A Requiem for the living

By Aussiegirl

A few days ago I wrote of my emotions on hearing a concert version of the Verdi Requiem as I suddenly realized that under Muslim doctrine all this glorious beauty would be forbidden. I was moved to write a further piece about this music, truly one of the crowning achiements of even Verdi's stellar career. A Requiem at Easter time seems particularly appropriate.

True to himself as always, Verdi composed a Requiem for the living -- not the dead. Verdi was an agnostic -- and unafraid. In fact he relished telling the story of his younger days when as an altar boy he was roughly cuffed by the priest during a service because he had lost himself in the music of the organ. This assault so enraged the young Verdi that he rushed from the church uttering loud curses at the offending priest. Years later the church was hit by lightning, and the priest was killed. Verdi enjoyed telling the story with a glint in his eye. But this skepticism about the organized church did not detract from Verdi's deep spiritual understanding of the human soul, and he, perhaps like no other opera composer, plumbed the depths of human suffering and emotion, and in doing so, experienced them himself.

And so it was not surprising that Verdi approached the Requiem as he did all his operatic works -- as a drama. He carefully read the full text and imagined it and felt it in all its emotional impact. Verdi was in the habit of declaiming the libretti of his operas before he began to compose, reading the verses aloud and giving each phrase its dramatic import. Much time was spent in this fashion before he even put his pen to paper to compose the music.

The Requiem was composed upon the death of the great Italian author
Alessandro Manzoni, who died at the age of 89 in 1873. Manzoni was one of Verdi's heroes. And Verdi was not a man to have many heroes -- he was too much the realist, too honest and direct -- but of Manzoni he once said: "If it were meet to worship a man, I would worship at his feet."

When Manzoni died Verdi was too upset to attend the funeral, but a week later he visited his grave. He said of Manzoni's death: "Now all is over, and with him ends the most pure, the most holy, the greatest of our glories." He suggested to the mayor of Milan that he might compose a Requiem Mass in commemoration of the first anniversary of Manzoni's death.

The Manzoni Requiem is a concert piece and is never performed as part
of a church mass. He toured Europe with it to great acclaim.

Berlioz, Cherubini and Mozart used the traditional text of the Requiem Mass based on a medieval poem written by Thomas of Celano containing a terrifying vision of the judgement day (Dies Irae), which was calculated to terrify the listener into virtue. Verdi added an additional text, the "Libera Me", which although not an integral part of the mass, could follow it on solemn occasions and was occasionally set to music: "Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna, in die illa tremenda..." ("Free me, oh Lord, from eternal death, on that terrifying day...")

The addition of this text has the effect of changing the emotional impact of the Requiem in typical Verdian fashion. In the early sections, rather than reciting the entire text in order as Mozart had done before him, he
hammers the "Dies Irae" portion over and over, giving the composition an undertone of terror. But in the finale he ends the Requiem on a very human note of uncertainty and supplication, as first the soprano urgently pleads "Libera me Domine, de morte, in die illa tremenda..." Free me, oh Lord, from death, on that terrible day..." and
then the chorus joins in, and in an almost frightened whisper they intone together as one -- "Libera me, libera me, libera me...." And we, the audience, also find ourselves praying not only for the dead, but for ourselves, the living.

Verdi, like Beethoven, is a world unto himself, a world in which one can lose one's self -- and find the heart of humanity, God and truth. If you've never heard this monumental and ravishing work, I urge you to do so. There are many fine recordings available.

The following is an excerpt from George Martin's "Verdi: His Music, Life and Times":

"He [Verdi] succeeded, not only by the excellence of his music, but also by stirring in the audience the ancient feelings and fears of primitive man peering nervously into the night, trying to find his God and establish some sort of relationship with him. By the end of his Requiem Verdi has his singers and audience praying for peace and light, not for the dead, but for themselves, the living. .... In both Berlioz and Mozart the musical climax of the poem comes on "Rex Tremendae Majestatis", making the poem primarily one in praise of God. Verdi, on the other hand, emphasized the Salva Me which, with the constantly recurring Dies Irae, make the poem of an individual's terror on the day
of judgment. It is as though an angry God had come down in the
Holocaust and, standing on the altar, was pointing a fiery finger at "you, you, and you: damned"; while of the people some pressed forward, others knelt where they were, and all called out to Jesus: "Salva Me!"

Verdi's final section plunges the singers and audience back into the personal drama as though someone had said the wrong thing and God had suddenly reappeared. The soprano is the soloist, asking to be freed from eternal death (Libera Me), and at the mention of judgment by fire, the Dies Irae begins to build up in the orchestra. Suddenly it bursts out in all its fury, terrifying and awful, and the broken suppliants almost sob their request for peace and light for the dead.

But then, as in the Dies Irae section, their thoughts turn to
themselves: Libera Me, Libera Me. .... Libera Me, they sing, calling on the magic of music and words to save them from the terror of the unknown. But magic, even in a group, does not answer an individual's fears. One by one they fall silent, drop their neighbor's hand and peer out into the night, alone. "Libera me", the soprano pleads alone, "Free me, Lord, from eternal death on that awful day." "Free me", each one breathes. "Free me".

.... The audience, whether it intellectually wants to or not, becomes emotional involved in the sheer rush of sound in the final figue and, like the chorus and soloists, asks for some
sort of emotional release. This Verdi, also quite deliberately, refuses to give it. There is no sudden burst into a sunny amen, no vision of a kind God or promise of intersession; there is only dwindling power and continued uncertainly. Such, said Verdi, is man's lot in life."

"No church gives such an answer; they all offer some happy solution to the quest for assurance that life and life after death have certainty and meaning. In this respect Verdi's Requiem is not a religious work and the Roman Church is quite right to ban it.

In not offering a clear solution Verdi reflected the increasing uncertainty of the end of the nineteenth century when Darwin and the new science were shaking traditional beliefs. And Verdi, who anyway had never held them, was far too honest an artist to fake an ending that he did not himself feel.

.... But even if the Requiem is agnostic in that it
does not offer a Catholic, Lutheran or Hindu resolution to the fears it raises, it is religious in the sense that it recognizes the fears and needs of man and suggests that there is some sort of Creator or Being with whom man ought
to develop a relationship."


At 12:24 PM, Anonymous Herb Meyer said...

What a lovely -- and timely -- reminder of both the glories that Western Civilization has created -- and the price we would pay should Western Civilization die.

Herb Meyer

At 1:26 PM, Blogger Scooters said...

Giulini, with Schwartzkopf and the great Bulgarian Bass Ghiaurov this recording was made in 1963 in London. https://open.spotify.com/album/7uHPG1fwmPkDFKibc3tSfl the sheer power of Ghiaurov is spine tingling, Schwartzkopf is on form. Geddit and Ludwig are strong. Search YouTube for Karajan 's film of the Requiem, superb soloists, Berlin philharmonic in 1967. Karajan was at his most' maestro on the edge' phase and way over the top but brilliant performances by Leontyne price, the great black diva whom Karajan, to his credit, mentored she sings the soprano part without a score, from memory. A young Pavarotti sans beard and looking trim shows his potential and once again, Ghiaurov sings bass, he was well established across the globe by then and IMHO no bass has yet sung Verdi better, and Ghiaurov died several years back. The film is brilliant, the colours, the haircuts, Pavarotti looks like a waiter and Ghiaurov looks uber 60's cool in his pompadour and 'Jacques Loussier' beard.. You can imagine him climbing behind the wheel of a Citroen DS or a Jensen Interceptor after the show.

I've sung the piece in the chorus twice and it never, ever fails to move me. Verdi's greatest work imo the Libera Me expresses more about the tragedy of mortality, in a few minutes of music than certain religions gave in their whole sordid reigns. It is the voice of God himself, but just... Just beyond the reach of man.

At 1:29 PM, Blogger Scooters said...

Oh, another bastion of civilisation and the greatest Human Requiem is Brahms. It's less accessible than Verdi, but if you get the chance, try and sing it. It is less devastating than Verdi and in its last movement, it comforts and forgives.

Again, I can't hear either if these works without floods of tears and I'm a dour calvinist Scot! God knows what it does to an Italian!!!!


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