Messa da Requiem
The author and poet, Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873), was one of the leading and most revered writers in Italy and a personality of tremendous prestige. Verdi had read his “I promessi Sposi” and was deeply impressed by the author’s breadth of vision and humanitarian principles. A letter from Verdi’s wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, to Countess Clara Maffei, in which Strepponi thanks their mutual friend for having introduced her to Manzoni, reveals how much Verdi really idolised the writer: “The fatigue and the excitements of the past days have raised my blood-temperature up to 80 degrees and I arrived at home with a terrific headache. […]. Verdi picked me up at the train station of Alseno. […]. Later, on our way home I mentioned casually: Next time you are coming to Milan I will introduce you to Manzoni, he’s expecting you. Calara and I went to see him these days. Puff! The bomb had exploded! […] The colour of his face changed between red and white, he took off his hat and wrang it with his hand until it nearly turned into powder. […] Then (this is just between you and me) the eyes of the severe and proud bear from Busseto filled with tears and we both sat in dead silence for the following ten minutes. […]. Now Verdi is lost in thought over a letter to Manzoni and I have to laugh remembering, how embarrassed and humble I felt when you introduced me to him. I am happy to see even the great ones twirl their moustache and scratch their ears in search for the right words to approach such a colossus.” The only one who could possibly outshine Manzoni in Verdi’s heart was Giochino Rossini. When he died in 1969 Verdie suggested a Requiem to be written by Italy’s finest composers, each one undertaking one section, without any remuneration. The work was to be introduced to the public in bologna, the spiritual hometown of Rossini, but its realisation soon was doomed to failure by jealousies and endless disagreements. Verdi put aside his already finished Libera me and started to work on “Aida”. Still, the Libera me remained in the back of his head and the wish to finish the Requiem is clearly expressed in a letter from 1871 to the director of the Conservatory of Milan. The right occasion soon presented itself: after the death of Alessandro Manzoni in 1873, which had deeply affected Verdi, the composer offered to complete the Requiem for the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death. Remembering well the failure of the previous project Verdi took great care not to make too early announcements and this time did not rely on any non-committal promises. The world premiere took place under the direction of the composer at St. Mark’s Church in Milan on May 22nd 1874 and was a great success. All singers were closely connected with the world premiere of “Aida”: Teresa Sto,lz and Maria Waldmann had been the first Aida, respectively Amneris, in Cairo, tenor Giuseppe Capponi was scheduled to create Radames, but had to be replaced in the last minute, and Ormondo Maini (rather a bass-bariton than a bass) was the first Amonasro at the Scala. After three performances at the Scala of Milan Verdi took his Requiem on tour through Europe. “An opera in a clerical robe”, was the verdict of Hans von Bülow. Others, called it “Verdi’s greatest opera.” This is the essence of what has been most frequently criticised about Verdi’s Requiem: that it is too theatrical, too “secular” and actually an opera composed to a religious libretto. According to the rules of musical science the Requiem is not a sacred work in the usual sense. But then, Verdi was not a religious man – dramatic expression was the musical language where he could communicate best and which he spoke to perfection. The Requiem’s character was not intended to be that of a real mass, but of a public tribute to the memory of a great man. The fitting comparism to the Sistine Chapel has repeatedly been brought up: this is not an intimate and consoling chamber work – for its dimensions are too big and its gestures too powerful – this is a magnificent musical fresco, which overwhelms us with its greatness and shattering intensity in both its beauty and terror. More than any other of the composer’s works the Requiem testifies that for Verdi the heart of musical expression was always the sung word, the direct contact with the human voice.