Verdi's Requiem and Benedict's Rule

By Heisey, Daniel J. | Sacred Music, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Verdi's Requiem and Benedict's Rule


Heisey, Daniel J., Sacred Music


In 2001, to begin a year commemorating the centenary of Giuseppe Verdi's death, Italy's president, Carlo Ciampi, attended in Parma's cathedral a performance of Verdi's Messa da Requiem. (1) It was an emphatic way to begin a celebration. Verdi's Requiem is, to say the least, not "easy listening" music, and in it one finds a lapsed Catholic's passionate struggle with the mystery of faith, and also of doubt's role in the struggle. "If Verdi never developed a sense of the love of God," wrote one critic, "nonetheless he possessed a convincing fear of God." (2) It has become cliche to refer to the Requiem as "Verdi's greatest opera," but as David Rosen has observed, it "lies somewhere between the poles of opera and symphony," adding that no less a critic than Francis Toye saw it as an oratorio. (3) It is worth recalling that at the root of the word "oratorio" is the Latin word for prayer.

As with opera, Verdi's Requiem has the power of catharsis, and it is a jaded listener indeed who comes away from it without even the beginnings of transformation. A good working definition of opera is Dame Kiri Te Kanawa's description of it as "a moulding of fantasy and illusion," (4) and given that characterization, Verdi's Requiem cannot be classified with Verdi's operas, or even as operatic. Rather, it reveals contours of the ultimate reality. Sacred music is meant to have a role in one's spiritual life, in particular, fortifying the peregrination through this world to the next. This essay will consider the struggle of ongoing conversion, so profoundly communicated by Verdi's Requiem and discursively described in the monastic rule of Benedict of Nursia, a guide for more and more lay people. (5) Both Verdi's Requiem and Benedict's rule affirm the precarious nature of the soul's daily struggle, an aspect of the spiritual life we will explore below.

First, though, we must acknowledge that Verdi's Requiem, as with such works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Gabriel Faure, may not now be experienced by Roman Catholics within an ordinary liturgical context. Since 1903, with Pope Pius X's Motu Proprio, Tra le Sollecitudini, orchestral compositions based upon liturgical texts are not to be used during a typical Mass. Notable exceptions have been funerals or memorial services for public figures, such as that in January, 1964, in Boston for President John F. Kennedy. (6) The state of music used in Catholic churches around 1900 is beyond the scope of this brief essay, but suffice it to say that Pius X wanted to avoid the ever-changing taste in secular music influencing the music of the church. He may have meant to refer to operatic compositions, but with one exception he steered clear of naming a particular composer. Robert Greenberg believed that in this motu proprio Pius X had condemned Verdi's Requiem, albeit waiting two years after Verdi's death to do so, (7) but the only composer Pius X mentioned by name, and that favorably, was Palestrina. Even so, Greenberg is right that the kind of music the pope sought to promote clearly was not that of Verdi's Requiem; instead, Pius X endorsed the liturgical use of Gregorian chant. Pius X, expanding his range, believed that Renaissance music of the kind written by Palestrina pleasantly complemented Gregorian chant.

Still, Pius X would have been aware of Verdi and his music. As did Wagner in the newly imperial Germany, Verdi dominated the musical scene of the recently united Italy. Greenberg may be right that even Pius X would have paused before crossing swords with a national treasure such as Verdi, although the pope had no qualms confronting the modernist intelligentsia of the day. George Martin correctly noted that "all of Verdi's published sacred works fall foul of the requirements [of the motu proprio] in some way, but this probably would have neither surprised nor disturbed him as there is no evidence that he wrote them for use in churches." (8) Unfortunately, Martin undermined his astute observation by declaring that "Motu Proprio" was the title of the pope's document, a title Martin said "can be translated as 'on the proper form. …

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