Author: Wolfgang Stähr
ca. 6 minutes

Hard though it is to believe, the nineteenth century – otherwise a time of progress, of scientific advance, of inventions and revolution – became embroiled in a ruthlessly anachronistic debate about “true church music”.  The Catholic Church demanded it should contain nothing that was “unholy, secular or theatrical”, a demand that was tantamount to a declaration of artistic capitulation. Composers of sacred music were required to return to Gregorian chant as their source of inspiration or to adopt a timelessly elevated “church style” that meant that the artist would once again vanish beneath a shroud of anonymity. The result was a trial of strength between art and the Church.

In 1875 – the year after Verdi had completed his Messa da Requiem and superintended its first performances – his wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, offered a clear-eyed assessment of the agonizing debates that the new work had inevitably caused: “They have spoken much about whether the spirit of sacred music is more or less religious, about not having followed the characteristic ideas of Mozart, of Cherubini etc., etc. I say that a man like Verdi must write like Verdi, that is, according to his way of feeling and interpreting the texts. Then, if religions have a beginning, a development, modifications or transformations, etc., according to the times and according to the people, clearly the religious spirit and the works that express it must carry the imprint of the time, and (if you will) the individual.”

Verdi himself had greeted the inevitable debate about religious and musical correctness with a mixture of scorn and contempt, observing in a letter that he wrote shortly before completing the score: “I’m working on my Mass and doing so with great pleasure. I feel as if I’ve become a solid citizen and am no longer the public’s clown who, with a big tamburone and bass drum, shouts come, come, step right up, etc., etc. As you can imagine, when I hear operas spoken of now, my conscience is scandalized, and I immediately make the sign of the cross!! […] What do you say to that? Am I not an edifying example?”

Sincere beauty

In Vienna Verdi’s Messa da Requiem was heard for the first time at the Court Opera in June 1875. A total of four performances was given, providing the doyen of the city’s critics, Eduard Hanslick, with an excuse to dissect the work and address the awkward questions about truth, the Church and music: “Verdi is a born theatre composer. If he has shown in his Requiem what he can do on foreign soil, he remains, nevertheless, far stronger on his home ground. Not even in the Requiem can he deny the dramatic composer. Mourning and supplication, awe and faith – they speak here in language more passionate and individual than we are accustomed to hear in the church.”

And Hanslick goes on to defend Verdi, proposing a line of argument that does credit to the composer and that seems so familiar that it is almost as if he is quoting from Giuseppina Strepponi’s letter: “Religious devotion, too, varies in its expression; it has its countries and its times. What may appear so passionate, so sensuous in Verdi's Requiem is derived from the emotional habits of his people, and the Italian has a perfect right to inquire whether he may not talk to the dear Lord in the Italian language. We should be satisfied with a piece of modern church music if it expresses honest conviction  and sincere beauty. The question of specific churchly qualifications grows daily more dubious and immaterial.”

In any case, Verdi did not write his Messa da Requiem for the Church. As his friend and librettist Arrigo Boito observed in the wake of his death, “In the ideal, moral and social sense he was a great Christian. But one must be very careful not to present him as a Catholic in the political and strictly theological sense of the word: nothing could be further from the truth.”

Neither the idea that lay behind the Requiem nor Verdi’s motivation in writing it may be found in the Christian faith, still less in the Catholic creed. No, it is other truths to which Verdi’s Mass for the Dead attests: the authority of the artist, the cultural greatness of the Italian nation and unity and freedom, but also human dignity in the face of a crushingly superior power, a nameless fear and the lowering threat of the Last Judgement.

Two sources of inspiration

Anyone looking for the historical and conceptual origins of Verdi’s Requiem will find them only in the composer’s avowed aim of “glorifying Italy” and of organizing a patriotic commemoration, an aim that he pursued and consolidated through an astonishing series of interrelated events. The story of the Requiem has two beginnings, the first of which relates to the death of Rossini on 13 November 1868: “A great name has disappeared from the world,” Verdi lamented.

“His was the most widespread, the most popular reputation of our time.” At this historic moment and against the agitated background of the Risorgimento – the Italian movement for reunification – Verdi wrote to his publisher in Milan, Tito Ricordi, and proposed the idea of a Requiem that would be performed on the first anniversary of Rossini’s death: a Roman Catholic Missa pro defunctis that Verdi wanted to be written as a composite work by a team of Italian composers, of whom he would be no more than one among equals.

This highly unusual project was indeed completed by a total of thirteen composers. Verdi himself set the final “Libera me”, a movement for which he had expressed a particular predilection. He wrote to Ricordi on 17 August 1869: “My piece is completely finished and put into score. All that remains is for me to orchestrate it, a matter of a few hours’ work.” But plans to perform this collective piece in honour of Rossini dragged on for decades, with the result that it was not until September 1988 that the Requiem per Rossini was finally presented to the world of music at a concert by the Stuttgart Bach Academy.

Church music without a church

Verdi’s idealistic attempt to mark the death of a great Italian with a musical tribute of genuine profundity initially failed for entirely trivial human and bureaucratic reasons, although there remained the possibility that a performance could still be salvaged. But then, in 1873, fate intervened for a second time, persuading Verdi to begin all over again. This second trigger was the death of the Italian poet Alessandro Manzoni on 22 May. The author of the pioneering I promessi sposi, Manzoni had been described by Verdi as a “model of virtue and patriotism” and he worshipped him as a saint. Following a meeting with him in the summer of 1868 Verdi had admitted that “I would have knelt before him if it were possible to adore mortal men”.

Manzoni’s death again reminded the composer of the “need” to write a Mass for the Dead, a need that assumed the status of a patriotic imperative. Verdi duly completed his Messa da Requiem for the first anniversary of the death of “Saint Don Alessandro”. This time it was entirely his own work and no longer part of a joint commission, for all that it grew out of the initial version of his “Libera me” of 1869. Verdi himself conducted the first performance, as planned, in St Mark’s in Venice on 22 May 1874, together with the first of three further performances at La Scala later that same month. From the very outset his Requiem found its institutional home in both the opera house and the concert hall, a circumstance that also served to define the work from a musical point of view: tied to no particular date, to no particular occasion and to no particular death, it is church music without a church. As such, it has long since ceased to be described  as “the Requiem for Manzoni” but is known, rather, as “the Verdi Requiem”. Nor is this any accident.

Verdi wrote it as only Verdi had to. A “clown”, a “born theatre composer” and a musician occasionally dismissed in Germany as a “hurdy-gurdy man” used a language that was uniquely his own to tell of mortal fear and the end of the world, of human grief and divine punishment, of valediction and the immortality of the soul. What conclusions are we to draw from this? All except for one, which is that only an Italian can speak Italian with our dear Lord. 

Of course, the early history of Verdi’s Requiem and his patriotic mission in composing it might encourage such a misunderstanding. But quite apart from the fact that the legendary performances under Verdi’s Italian compatriots such as Victor de Sabata, Arturo Toscanini and Carlo Maria Giulini have fewer points in common than the ones that divide them, some of the most stirring and musically most radical performances of recent years have been conducted by non-Italians such as Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Valery Gergiev and Teodor Currentzis.