Magazine article Commonweal

DE PROFUNDIS : Verdi's Searing 'Requiem'

Magazine article Commonweal

DE PROFUNDIS : Verdi's Searing 'Requiem'

Article excerpt

The hundredth anniversary of the death of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), widely commemorated in the music world this year, reminds us that he wrote what is generally conceded to be the greatest and most popular work of modern spiritual music, the Messa da Requiem (1874). Studded with mighty choral episodes and a terrifying "Dies Irae" ("Day of Wrath") movement, the Requiem has been called--only half jokingly--"Verdi's greatest opera."

Operatic or not, the Requiem is certainly Michelangeloesque, and its wild and sometimes savage emotions require interpreters of unusual majesty. Feverishly passionate conductors like Arturo Toscanini and Victor de Sabata made recordings that seem to take us through death and judgment in a thrillingly vivid way. In the stomach-tightening "Dies Irae," the orchestral strings slash violently, a booming timpani is slammed so loudly that the audience jumps, and the chorus wails in agony about the Day of Wrath. The presence of a mighty chorus makes the whole experience a shared one, rather than a lonely odyssey, a vision of multitudes being judged that hails back to Dante's Inferno.

Unlike earlier Italian religious music (such as works by Pergolesi or Rossini), Verdi's Requiem resists excerpting, and contains no "hits." Its moving solo airs for soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass are almost never performed out of context. The composer interwove these melodies so skillfully with orchestral and choral elements that the solo moments cannot stand on their own, despite their grandeur within the Requiem itself. Verdi's Requiem is more unified than any of his operas. Even the seamless final ones, Otello and Falstaff, do not entirely share this perfect continuity. Such organic composing is like the buildings of the great Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926), which also seem to be living, breathing things, indissoluble assemblies of creativity.

Unfortunately, an outstanding new 8-CD set from EMI France, with some of the best historical performances of Verdi (Les Introuvables du Chant Verdien or Verdi Vocal Rarities), does not contain excerpts from the Requiem, or from Verdi's other sacred works, such as his Quattro Pezzi Sacri. The latter, containing an "Ave Maria," "Stabat Mater," "Te Deum," and "Laudi alla Vergine," was written by Verdi in his eighties. It is not a blockbuster like the Requiem, but as recorded by conductors like Toscanini or Carlo Maria Giulini, it conveys deep tragic emotion. In 1896 Verdi wrote to his friend Boito that musical "Te Deums" were usually performed "at great, solemn, noisy celebrations for a victory or a coronation. …

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