Further thoughts on Verdi's Requiem
In April 2003 Helen sent this email to her internet friend veritas about the Requiem that she loved so much. Half of the email are quotes from George Martin's book, but the quotes only strengthen her own ideas about this magnificent work. Half a year later she attended a performance at Kennedy Center, and her impressions and thoughts about that performance I have already posted below. By the way, this portrait of her beloved Verdi was her favorite -- in it she saw virility yet sensitivity, a flair and appetite for life, great intelligence -- in Matthew Arnold's words, Who saw life steadily, and saw it whole -- everything that she felt in his music.veritas -- I mentioned Verdi's Requiem the other day --- indulge me while I
ramble -- as promised -- my little exigesis on the Verdi Requiem -- a
Requiem for the living -- not the dead -- as Verdi was an agnostic --
Unlike Berlioz, Cherubini and Mozart, all of whom 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
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."
This has the effect of changing the emotional impact of the Requiem in
typical Verdian fashion. First -- he hammers the first line of the
"Dies Irae" portion over and over giving the whole section an undertone
of terror -- rather than the way Mozart did it which is to recite the
whole text in order. Then -- he ends the whole Requiem on a note of
uncertainty and supplication as first the soprano pleads urgently
"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
in an almost frightened whisper ---- "Libera me, libera me, libera me...."
From George Martin's Verdi: His Music, Life and Times:
"He [Verdi] succeeded, not only by the excellence of his music, but
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
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
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,
in the Dies Irae section, their thoughts turn to themselves: Libera Me,
Libera Me. .... Libera Me, they sing, calling on the magic of music
words to save them from the terror of the unknown. But magic, even in
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
emotionally involved in the sheer rush of sound in the final fugue 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
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
suggests that there is some sort of Creator or Being with whom man
to develop a relationship."
Well -- that's about it --- I hope you enjoyed your trip through Verdi
land at least as much as I enjoyed musing on it. Like Beethoven, a
world unto himself, in which one can lose one's self -- and find the
heart of humanity, God and truth.
All the best -- Helen