NPR

Verdi's Requiem: An Opera In Disguise

Giuseppe Verdi poured operatic drama into his Requiem, written in 1874 in memory of his friend Alessandro Manzoni. (Getty Images)

Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem is a conductor's dream come true. Few pieces in the repertoire offer the drama of opera and the thrill of wonderful symphonic writing combined with stellar, virtuosic solo moments. But Verdi's Requiem does all that and more.

We usually think of requiems and religion in the same context, but this is a mass written by an agnostic in memory of a dear friend and public hero. When poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni died on May 22, 1873, Verdi was too grief-stricken to attend his funeral, and the entire country mourned the loss of one of its leading cultural icons.

Verdi went to the mayor of Milan and proposed composing a memorial in the form of a requiem, to honor the memory of Manzoni. The mayor agreed immediately and Verdi's Requiem was performed on the first anniversary of Manzoni's death, in a church that prohibited applause. That must have been a strange reception to such a mammoth new work.

The progression of the piece tells the ultimate dramatic story, from profound loss in the subdued key of A minor at the start to sheer terror at what lies ahead on judgment day in the Dies Irae section. This is the dominant movement of the piece: It splits off in different directions, but always returns to the crushing hammer blows of the bass drum and orchestra blaring full tilt. Even though I know it's coming up, the return of the Dies Irae always takes my breath away. Terror indeed, with no escape.

As an opera composer, Verdi was always conscious of dramatic effect. He calls for four additional trumpets, stationed antiphonally in the hall, to evoke our archetypal images of the call into the next world. Those trumpet fanfares are a stroke of pure genius, and I long to conduct the piece one day with 20 trumpets situated throughout the concert hall.

Verdi's writing for the four vocal soloists is incredibly impressive: varied, challenging, virtuosic and personal, all at the same time. He wrote these solos for singers he knew — a soprano with a fabulous high C and a mezzo with gorgeous legato. This personal touch is something we feel inherently during these solos.

There are so many transcendent moments: the Lacrymosa that palpably weeps; the uplifting Lux Aeterna, scored angelically for three flutes; and the Libera Me. The text reads, "Save me, Lord, from eternal death," and the music brings the return of the Dies Irae terror and then ultimate resignation as the words die out into uncertainty about what lies ahead.

Verdi's dramatic gifts are on full display in this work. His vibrant questioning and self-confidence throughout the piece result in true magic.

I've always had my heart set on Brahms' Requiem for my memorial some day, but I may have to rethink my plan.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Next weekend, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra ends its season with a four-night performance of Giuseppe Verdi's "Messa da Requiem."

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: It is a soaring funeral mass written by a man known for his romantic operas, but he seems to have traces of both romance and religious feeling.

Marin Alsop is the musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being back, maestra.

Ms. MARIN ALSOP (Musical Director, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra): Great to see you, Scott.

SIMON: And why did you choose to end the season with Verdi's "Requiem"?

Ms. ALSOP: Well, it does sound a little bit morose, doesn't it, to end a season with a requiem. But at the end of the day, one has the feeling of rejuvenation from this piece. It's a spectacular work, very dramatic, very big in scope. And like everything Verdi wrote, it has a human story to it.

SIMON: The version we're listening to now, new release on the Resound label, Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Let's listen to a bit.

(Soundbite of music, "Requiem")

Ms. ALSOP: You know, from this very simple almost understated beginning, it merges one of the great dramatic works of all time.

(Soundbite of choir singing "Requiem")

SIMON: Do we know what inspired - and maybe that is exactly the right word -what inspired Verdi to write this? Because I gather, accounts say that he was not notably religious.

Ms. ALSOP: No, I mean, that's almost the irony in it. I mean, he was completely unreligious in his life. But when the great Italian writer and iconic figure, Alessandro Manzoni, passed away, Verdi was extremely distressed. I mean, he couldn't even bring himself to attend his funeral. And he wanted to do something to pay tribute to this colleague of his. He'd worked on several libretti with him. And he went to the mayor of the city and said I'd like to write something. And, of course, Verdi was incredibly famous and they said by all means.

SIMON: Of course. And even for someone who's not a believer, death will inevitably stimulate thoughts of what we amount to?

Ms. ALSOP: And in a way I think that the text of the requiem mass is one of the great stories of all time. You know, I mean, it brings up every existential question that we grapple with. You know, is there a life after death? What will happen at the moment of judgment? Is there a judgment day? All of these incredibly powerful stories.

(Soundbite of music, "Requiem")

Ms. ALSOP: When the Dies Irae starts, I mean, I remember hearing this piece for the first time - I didn't know it. I mean, I was a kid. And when the bass drum began, I think I screamed out loud. It was so, you know, just bone-crunching, terrifying.

(Soundbite of music, "Requiem")

Ms. ALSOP: It just, I think it should take your breath away, you know, like someone's just punching you.

(Soundbite of music, "Requiem")

SIMON: I gather it's a huge production.

Ms. ALSOP: There are a lot of people in this piece. The choir can never be big enough. So, we're collaborating with the Washington Chorus and I think we have upwards of 120 people. We were only limited by the amount of people we could squeeze on the stage. And it's a big orchestra. It has four additional trumpets who play antiphonally from the balconies, you know, that moment when the trumpet sounds and...

SIMON: So, they're not on stage, they're in the balcony.

Ms. ALSOP: No. We have four onstage as well. But then, you know, he asked for this surround sound, Verdi, of the trumpets calling it. I mean, it's so, it's absolutely spine-chilling.

(Soundbite of music, "Requiem")

Ms. ALSOP: I mean, he doesn't shy away from the thought that this is not going to be a pleasant experience.

SIMON: Well, I mean, but that's part of what music does for us, isn't it? I mean, it's cathartic that way too?

Ms. ALSOP: I think so. I mean, you know, everyone will hear this piece differently. That's the incredible thing about music. It's not prescribed. And this piece has so much variety that I think it's a work that everyone can attach to differently and fall in love with different sections, because it's not as though it's all about terror and fright. There are incredibly joyous and uplifting moments.

You know, in order for something to really be terrifying, there has to be that glimmer of hope.

(Soundbite of choir singing "Requiem")

SIMON: Let me get you to talk about the end of the piece, because I think it's startling and will unsettle some people.

(Soundbite of choir singing "Requiem")

Ms. ALSOP: Doesn't really feel like things are going to be OK at all, does it, at the end?

(Soundbite of choir singing "Requiem")

Ms. ALSOP: You hear that soaring soprano above everything. You know, you hear this incredible drama. And the fact that it just dies away with a liberame.

(Soundbite of music, "Requiem")

SIMON: Is it wrenching to conduct?

Ms. ALSOP: I think it needs to be wrenching to conduct to affect a compelling performance. But, of course, my role as conductor is always a balancing act, because if I get too caught up in the emotion, you know, I can lose track of the bigger architecture, and that's my responsibility. But I think none of us can escape the power of this music, especially when we think of the people that we've lost or we may lose and our own mortality. I mean, there's nothing more powerful than that.

SIMON: Marin, thanks so much.

Ms. ALSOP: Oh, it's a pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which ends its 2010-11 season with Verdi's "Requiem" June 9 through 12. You can hear more of Verdi's music and read Maestra Alsop's essay about "Requiem" at NPRMusic.org.

(Soundbite of choir singing "Requiem")

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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