Verdi's Requiem – the Italian master's only composition of musical drama that is not an opera – has gone down in the history of music as the most theatrical version of the traditional Catholic Mass for the Dead. It was written as a result of circumstances in the composer's private life: at the turn of the 1860s and 1870s Verdi lost a great many people who were dear to him. His father, his close friend and collaborator the librettist Piave, and his brilliant fellow-countryman and predecessor in opera Rossini all died one after the other. This mournful list was completed by the death of the poet and writer Alessandro Manzoni, who was for Verdi "a model of virtue and patriotism", and for whom the composer had a profound respect both as a man and as an author.
Manzoni's death was also the direct cause of the writing of the Requiem. "I am deeply saddened by the death of our Great Man!", Verdi wrote the following day. I will go and visit his grave with the idea of proposing something in reverence of his memory". What he proposed was a vast Requiem mass, first performed on 22 May 1874, the anniversary of Manzoni's death, in St. Mark's Cathedral in Milan, and conducted by the composer himself. A few days later the "Requiem" was repeated at La Scala with enormous success, and subsequently in Paris, Vienna, St Petersburg, and other cities.
Verdi impegnated the traditional structure of the Catholic mass with purely romantic expression. The Requiem is close in style to Aida, on which the composer was working at the same time. The intimate circle of musical images, characterised by bright and clear delineation, and the musical theatre forms (ariosos, duets, trios and quartets) endow the work with features of operatic expressiveness. It is on account of this that the Requiem has become firmly established in the repertoires of theatres and concert halls.
Verdi divided the text of the Catholic mass into seven movements.
№1 Requiem aeternam (Eternal Rest) acts as a prologue. The choir pronounce the words of the prayer in an undertone. The sorrowful sighs grow into a gentle, clear melody. Its heartfelt sound is in contrast to the steadfast, energetic passage “Te decet hymnus» ("You are Worthy of a Hymn"). Kyrie eleison (Lord, Have Mercy) begins with a broad sweeping phrase by the tenor, who is gradually joined by the other soloists and the choir. The calm, tranquil ending particularly emphasises the tragic nature of the following movement.
№2 Dies irae (Day of Wrath) is the most important and most broadly developed part of the work, and the one that portrays the most conflict. The sombre poetry of the medieval hymn, written at a time when plague epidemics were carrying off tens of thousands of human lives, inspired Verdi to create a stunning portrayal of the Day of Judgment. The main theme of the movement returns several times during the work, fulfilling the function of a kind of "memento mori". The episodes that make up the movement are most reminiscent of operatic scenes. Tuba mirum (Тhe Wondrous Trumpet) grows from the music of the "Dies irae", and is no less powerful. It begins with an extensive symphonic introduction: menacing fanfares that come ever closer against the background of a drum roll. Might these not be echoes of the numerous European revolutions of the 19th century, or the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71, which was a "rehearsal" for the First World War? At the moment of highest tension the choir enters with its sternly majestic phrase, which comes to an abrupt and unexpected end, to be replaced by a muffled, dying away bass solo in the rhythm of a funeral march.
Whereas the passages up to this point have been predominantly choral, the soloists subsequently take centre stage, creating a gallery of human images that react to the trials of life in various ways. The real highlight of the second movement is the Lacrimosa (Lachrymal), a sorrowfully tranquil quartet with the choir. This concluding episode with its wonderfully beautiful melody is one of the most heartfelt passages in all Verdi's music.
A lighter atmosphere reigns in the three following movements. №3 Offertorio (Offering of Gifts) is a decoratively contemplative quartet for the soloists. №4 Sanctus (Holy) is a massive, skilfully constructed polyphonic piece, a hymn to the spirit of creation. №5 Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) is a restrained, remote duet for the female soloists, variations in an old style on an unusual theme in the spirit of medieval ecclesiastical chants.
The moods of the first movement gradually return in the comparatively short №6 Lux aeterna (Eternal Light), constructed on a contrast of light and shade. №7 Libera me (Rescue me, O Lord) is the epilogue to the Requiem, grandiose in scale. It opens with a passionate, expressive recitative by the soprano soloist, followed by the main themes of the Dies irae and Requiem aeternam. However, Verdi does not end his composition with the traditional prayer for eternal rest. The Requiem is completed by a monumental fugue with a heroic, strong-willed theme – a hymn to the fortitude and might of the human spirit.