CULTURE: Passion, Fervour, Anguish and Awe in the Face of Death; Choirs from around the West Midlands Are Combining for a Performance of Verdi's Requiem at Symphony Hall Next Month. Christopher Morley Looks at the Background to This Operatic Religious Masterpiece

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Byline: Christopher Morley

There was a time not so long ago when some diehards found it fashionable to sneer at the great operatic composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) for bringing music of the theatre into the sacred precincts of the church.

The offending work was his setting of the Roman Catholic Mass for the dead, the Requiem he wrote in 1874 in memory of the great 19th century Italian author Alessandro Manzoni. It is a work full of passion, fervour, anguish and, above all, a touchingly human awe in the face of death, all expressed in the most vivid musical terms. For many years it seemed to be destined to be the ageing composers last major work, until the miraculous appearance of Otello and Falstaff in 1887 and 1893 respectively.

Orchestration in the Requiem is colourful, even garish at times, with offstage trumpet fanfares as the composer paints a picture of the terrors of the Day of Judgment and the fear of eternal damnation. Choral writing covers a vast spectrum, ranging from hushed tones of supplication, through sturdy academic fugues (Verdi showing his detractors his proud technical pedigree), to arresting dramatic outbursts.

And at the heart of this moving masterpiece lie the four soloists, soprano, alto, tenor and bass representing us, the audience, frail members of humanity who stand trembling on the edge of eternity.

Perhaps it is this very fearfulness, this admission of wavering faith, which once so upset Catholic orthodoxy.

When the soprano soloist begs for deliverance in the concluding Libera Me (a setting Verdi originally wrote for a composite Requiem for Rossini in 1869, each movement supplied by a different Italian composer at Verdi's own suggestion), she speaks for us all. Vocal virtuosity - the technical demands are immense, including a desperate (but in this context, necessary) climb to a no-holds barred top C - serves to represent the most pressing human trepidation.

Verdi's Requiem struck an immediate chord with audiences. Premiered under the composer's baton at the Church of San Marco in Milan on May 22 1874, and repeated in the renowned La Scala Opera House three days later, it was given multiple performances throughout Europe during the next year. …