How did Giuseppe Verdi, notably not a church-going man, come to write one of the most revered and performed requiems of all time? It’s kind of a funny story. The name and the texts are steeped in religious significance, and most often, a Requiem Mass or Mass of the Dead is heard in the context of funerals or memorial services.
It turns out though, it’s a little more complicated than slapping the composer with an atheist label. Like many musicians of his time, (he lived between 1813 to 1901) Verdi spent much of his upbringing working in the church. As a child, he would make the long walk to service every Sunday to fulfil his job as an organist. The church was where he discovered music and art, and while as an adult he chose not to attend the services, we can still catch glints of Verdi’s spirituality in his writing. It was his wife, the Italian operatic soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, who gave him the label he is now know for: “a doubtful believer”.
Verdi had an unusual reason for penning his version of the traditional religious requiem. He was not moved by images of the dead or plagued by crushing thoughts on his own mortality; instead, he was deeply moved by the death of another artist, the writer and intellectual, Alessandro Manzoni. Manzoni’s most famous work, the historical novel scattered with Catholic ideology The Betrothed, happened into Verdi’s life when the composer was a teenager. Verdi carried it with him (literally and metaphorically) for most of his artistic life. When they finally met, Verdi was beside himself, writing “I would have gone down on my knees before him if we were allowed to worship men. They say it is wrong to do so, and it may be, although we raise up on altars many that have neither the talent nor the virtue of Manzoni and indeed are perfect scoundrels.”
Of course, then, when Manzoni died in 1873, Verdi could not join the throngs of grieving fans; he was simply too grief-stricken to mourn with the rest of them. Instead, he went to the mayor of Milan and proposed the Requiem we now know – a musical memorial for the man who had spoken to a nation through his work. It was “premiered”, if we may use that term, on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death in a church that proscribed applause. The drama, the pathos; performed to a room of silence.
Megan Steller is an artist manager, writer, producer, and friend of the MSO. Join her in Hamer Hall before each performance of Verdi’s Requiem for a special pre-concert talk.