For most of us approaching classical music, we usually think of requiems and religion in the same context. But the Messa da requiem is in fact a mass written by the notably agnostic Verdi in memory of a dear friend and public hero – poet and novelist Alessandro Mazoni.
The story goes that when Mazoni died on May 22, 1873, all of Italy mourned and Verdi himself was too grief-stricken to attend his funeral. Instead, he went to the mayor of Milan and proposed composing a memorial in the form of a requiem, to honour his friend’s memory. The mayor agreed and Verdi’s Requiem was performed on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death in 1874.
We cannot possibly imagine how unusual this work must have been for its time – not least of which because the first performance took place in a church that prohibited applause, and at a time where women were not permitted to perform in Catholic Church rituals (such as a requiem mass). Verdi, however, had his wish: full orchestra, chorus with female voices, and four soloists – two of whom were female sopranos.
One might think that with such full forces we would be witnessing a full-blown religious mass, but instead, the Requiem is a far more personal token of remembrance. With a combination of the exhilarating high melodrama of the operas Verdi was so well known for, thrilling symphonic writing and incredibly intimate moments of respite and reflection, this work is direct, incredibly powerful, but ultimately life-affirming.
My first memory of the work was in fact not in a performance of my own, or via recording – but as a 16 year old: witnessing (along with 2 billion others around the world) soprano Lynne Dawson and the BBC singers performing the central section of the ‘Libera Me’ at Princess Diana’s Funeral in 1997. You can hear (and watch, but please excuse the quality) Lynne’s spine-tingling performance here. Even performing the work years later, I still remember how disarmingly beautiful and haunting it was – and yet it is the only section of the work completely without instrumental accompaniment. Just the beauty of human voices.
Please join me and my wonderful colleagues for this unforgettable, and deeply meaningful work.