Ultima Thule

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

Sunday, February 18, 2007

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.

David

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 --
and unafraid.

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
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."

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
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
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
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."

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

2 Comments:

At 5:54 PM, Anonymous pindar said...

David, I still can't believe that Aussiegirl, Helen, is no longer with us. I always read her blog with great interest, always learned something, and was always aware that she was a truly unique individual, combining acute thinking, witty and funny ways of writing, and, above all, a great depth of spiritual awareness. I know from her blog how deeply she loved music, seeing it, in its transcience, as life itself. She also loved poetry, and I've assembled some of my favorite poems here as my tribute to a shooting star. First is a poem by Tennyson.

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,
That brings our friends up from the underworld,
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.

Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.

Dear as remembered kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned
On lips that are for others, deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more.


Next is a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins.

FELIX RANDAL the farrier, O he is dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

Sickness broke him. Impatient he cursed at first, but mended 5
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears, 10
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!


The next is a strangely beautiful poem by Kenneth Fearing.

Requiem

Will they stop,
Will they stand there for a moment, perhaps before some shop where you have gone so many times
(Stand with the same blue sky above them and the stones, so often walked, below)
Will it be a day like this--
As though there could be such a day again--

And will their own concerns still be about the same,
And will the feeling still be this that you have felt so many times,
Will they meet and stop and speak, one perplexed and one aloof,

Saying: Have you heard,
Have you heard,
Have you heard about the death?

Yes, choosing the words, tragic, yes, a shock,
One who had so much of this, they will say, a life so filled with that,
Then will one say that the days are growing crisp again,
the other that the leaves are turning,
And will they say good-bye, good-bye, you must look me up some time, good-bye,
Then turn and go, each of them thinking, and yet, and yet,
And will that be all?
On a day like this, with motors streaming through the fresh parks, the streets alive with casual people
And everywhere, on all of it, the brightness of the sun.


God bless you, Aussiegirl.

 
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