Welcome to Feature Fridays! Each week, Music Library staff highlight an item from our collection. This week, student assistant Emily Brignand reviews the Verdi Requiem.
The Messa da Requiem, more famously known as Verdi’s Requiem, is a Catholic funeral mass musical setting for an opera orchestra including four soloists (soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass) and a chorus.
The inspiration began with Giuseppe Verdi’s admiration of Gioachino Rossini, a great Italian composer who made a name for his operas. After Rossini died in 1868, Verdi gathered several Italian composers to collaborate on a Requiem in memory of Rossini. However, tensions with the scheduled conductor, Angelo Mariani, and struggles with the organizing committee that abandoned the scheduled premiere marked not only an end of a friendship but also the result of an unperformed composition until 1988.
Even though the Requiem dedicated to Rossini never came to life, Verdi never gave up on composing. In fact, he was constantly tweaking and playing around with the last movement, “Libera Me.” It was not until 1873 when Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni passed away that Verdi returned to completing a Requiem all by himself. Verdi saw Manzoni as a great novelist and, more importantly, a humanitarian and leader in Italy’s movement towards unification and independence. This brings us the Verdi Requiem we know and listen to today, with a revised version of “Libera Me” originally in the composition for Rossini.
This Requiem includes seven movements: “Requiem,” “Dies Irae,” “Offertorio,” “Sanctus,” “Agnus Dei,” “Lux Aeterna,” and “Libera Me.” The second movement, “Dies Irae,” is the most well-known; it rings a bell even to an average music listener, with nine sections in the movement lasting around 40 minutes. The violent percussion and dramatic vocals in the explosive introduction are one of the most recognizable phrases in classical music. Verdi was a pioneer in contributing his operatic and adventurous style to his music and breaking musical boundaries during the Romantic Era — passionate emotions meeting the drama of life and death.
Throughout the Requiem, Verdi’s careful and sensual touch on the dynamics and melodic lines carries the emotion of mourning and yearning for peace. The fifth movement, “Agnus Dei,” is simple yet moving. Having this short acapella segment not only accentuates the thunder-like, powerful impacts of the reprise of “Dies Irae,” but the unison line in octaves also stands out with its calmness and lullaby sound before the orchestra softly rejoins.
“Lux Aeterna,” the sixth movement, combines the three lower voices with shimmering string tremolos to deliver a great sense of eternal light and mystery. The final movement, “Libera Me,” the legacy of the Requiem for Rossini, comes in with an assertive pleading for salvation and echoes from the choir. Then, following the reprise of “Dies Irae” and “Requiem Aeternam” is the gradual simmer with layers of choral parts into a peaceful fugue.
The Verdi Requiem is an impressive work of art, but due to the length of the piece and the size of the needed ensemble, it is rarely performed in concert. However, you are in luck if you read this before April 20, 2022, because the Chamber Choir of American University is performing the Requiem, joined by five other university chamber choirs across Washington D.C. and Virginia, at 7:30 pm at the Strathmore Concert Hall. This performance commemorates the 20th Anniversary of the concert-drama Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín, a production documenting the astonishing story of courageous Jewish prisoners at the Theresienstadt (Terezín) Concentration Camp; they raised their voices to resist the Nazis’ torture and human degradation during World War II. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased at The Defiant Requiem Foundation. If you cannot join us on April 20, you may also watch a trailer for the documentary, listen to the recording of the Requiem from the Music Library, and/or learn more about the foundation and its efforts to honor the Terezín legacy.