Notes on the history of Verdi’s ‘Requiem,’ on the eve of a Choral Society performance

Verdi's veneration for the author Manzoni led to his famed "Requiem" ()
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The world will mark the bicentennial of Giuseppe Verdi’s birth in October 2013. New Yorkers can get a head start on celebrations on Friday, April 13, when the all-volunteer Choral Society performs the Verdi Requiem at Saint Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue.

The venue alone makes for a noteworthy event: Saint Thomas is a majestic space, with a soaring nave and an imposing, intricately wrought reredos. What’s more, Choral Society music director John Maclay has assembled a first-rate group of soloists: Mary Elizabeth Williams, Vanessa Cariddi, Nathan Carlisle, and Gustavo Ahualli, all fine singers with burgeoning reputations.

With its thunderous evocation of the Last Judgment and urgent prayers for deliverance, Verdi’s 1874 masterwork has a power that seems to transcend time and creed. Music from the Requiem was sung at the 1997 funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales and in September 2002 at Liberty State Park, against the backdrop of Manhattan’s maimed skyline. In 1943 and 1944, prisoners at the Theresienstadt concentration camp performed the Verdi Requiem for their captors, envisioning its “day of wrath” not in eschatological terms but as the historical moment when the Nazi state would be destroyed, as one survivor wrote, “for the cause of human justice.” (A documentary about these events, Voices of Defiance, is scheduled to be shown on PBS next year.)

All of this said, let one thing be clear: there is no such work as “the Verdi Requiem.” Verdi (pictured at left) composed the Requiem not because he was haunted by thoughts of mortality or visited by a stranger in black, as the play and film Amadeus would have us believe about Mozart and his mass for the dead. Instead, Verdi wrote it to honor a particular man and for a specific occasion, as his own title for the work made clear. In English, it is “Requiem Mass / for / the anniversary of the death of / Manzoni / 22 May 1874.”

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But who was Manzoni? And what moved Verdi, who claimed to be “as proud as Lucifer,” to attach another man’s name to his resplendent score?

Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873) was a writer and intellectual, best known today as the author of the sprawling historical novel The Betrothed (1827; rev. 1840). He came from an illustrious family: his mother, Giulia Beccaria, was the daughter of the philosopher Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794), whose works included Of Crimes and Punishment (1764). An early screed against capital punishment and the use of torture, the treatise was widely translated (once with commentary by Voltaire) and known to both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Beccaria and the brothers Alessandro and Pietro Verri of Milan founded a progressive journal, Il caffè, modeled on The Spectator, Addison and Steele’s British daily. Count Pietro Manzoni, Giulia Beccaria’s husband, was some thirty years older than his wife, and Manzoni’s biological father may have been a third Verri brother, Giovanni.

Given to wenching and gambling as a young man, Manzoni (pictured below) also spent time in Paris’s freethinking circles. He had already published several poems when, around 1811, he underwent a dramatic conversion. His intellectually rigorous Catholic faith would shape the rest of his life and career. Championed by Goethe, admired throughout Europe, he wrote tragedies (two new English translations have appeared in the past decade), an ode on Napoléon’s death and other poems, literary and philosophical tracts, and The Betrothed.

The Betrothed (in Italian, I promessi sposi) is set in Spanish-ruled northern Italy in the early seventeenth century. Its plot centers on the peasants Renzo and Lucia, whose intended marriage is disrupted by a nobleman who fancies Lucia. Even as Manzoni’s characters are swept up in the riptides of famine, plague, and war, their fates turn on germs of goodness and evil buried deep within the human soul. A priest and a nun are agents of oppression, while a repentant murderer and a warlord overcome with disgust at his crimes and converted by a saintly cardinal do works of justice and mercy.

Catholic ideology pervades The Betrothed, one reason why contemporary Italians tend to despise it. Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci delivered a withering critique of Manzoni’s “condescending benevolence” towards his proletarian characters. Yet Edgar Allen Poe, who reviewed The Betrothed in 1835, noted Manzoni’s sympathies for “the Romish Church” while also observing that he was “as much alive, as Luther himself, to the abuses of that church.” Indeed, the Catholic press of Manzoni’s day branded him “a revolutionary,” and today’s critics downplay the apparently sugary and pietistic aspects of his works. Most surprisingly, Verdi, who imbued Don Carlos, Aida, and other operas with his lifelong, ferocious anticlericalism, venerated Manzoni and The Betrothed.

Verdi first read the novel as a teenager, when he also set to music Manzoni’s ode and choruses from his tragedies. In 1867, he wrote that The Betrothed was “one of the greatest [books] to emerge from the human mind” and “not only a book, but a consolation for humanity.” He added that his admiration for other works had waned when he revisited them.“But for that book, my enthusiasm is unchanged—indeed, the better I have come to know humanity, the greater [my enthusiasm] has become. And the reason why is that that book is true, as true as the Truth.”

In contrast to his logorrheic contemporary Richard Wagner, Verdi had no love for aesthetic blather. His remarks about art could be gnomic and opaque, and were, above all, few. One oft-cited example: “To copy the truth can be a good thing, but to invent the truth is better, much better.” Precisely what Verdi saw as the “truth” of The Betrothed—its vividly drawn characters? its masterful interweaving of individual destinies with the grand sweep of history?—is a mystery, like so much else about the reticent composer. A pragmatic man of the theater, he did not seem to share the metaphysical scruples about art’s ends and means that Manzoni set forth in lengthy and painstaking essays.

The two did not meet until 1868. Verdi’s wife Giuseppina called upon Manzoni first and described Verdi’s reaction to news of her visit in a famous letter.

He went red, he turned deadly pale, he perspired; he took off his hat and wrung it, nearly reducing it to a focaccia…. The most severe and savage Bear of Busseto had his eyes full of tears, and we two ... sat there for ten minutes in complete silence.

After Verdi met Manzoni, he wrote of him in terms nearly unique in his correspondence:

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.

Verdi had earlier described the warrior Giuseppe Garibaldi, too, as “a man to kneel before,” and this may explain in part his reverence for Manzoni. Like Garibaldi (not to mention Verdi himself), Manzoni was a nation-builder. His novel told of Italians suffering under foreign occupation. He spent years recasting its prose into Florentine Italian—the language of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio that he envisaged as the national language of a unified Italy. Just as Italy until 1861 was divided into petty states, its people as a rule spoke only their local dialects. (Today the Italian language is under attack by northern separatists and a monstrous influx of anglicisms, a situation that surely has Manzoni and Verdi spinning in their graves.)

When Verdi offered to write the Manzoni Requiem, he characterized it as “a need of the heart,” but he also saw it as a public, national act. In 1868, he had proposed a collective Mass in Rossini’s memory, with individual sections by the leading Italian composers of the time. That Mass was not performed until 1988, but Verdi’s movement, the “Libera me,” formed the kernel of the Manzoni Requiem. For Verdi, both Manzoni and Rossini—whose music did honor to Italy all over the globe—were his nation’s two “glories.” Contrary to his usual practice, Verdi himself conducted the premiere of the Requiem in Milan’s Church of San Marco and on a subsequent tour throughout Europe.

Joseph Calleja: Ingemisco (Verdi, Requiem) by MusikMatterz

Verdi and Manzoni were both patriots. Verdi’s music, no less than Manzoni’s words, became the language of Italy. But the two men diverged in matters of faith. Manzoni was a devout Catholic, whereas Verdi’s wife described her husband as “not much of a believer, even “an atheist.” Yet Verdi revered Manzoni and found “consolation” in The Betrothed. He admired Manzoni’s “virtue” and composed in his memory a Requiem of shattering impact. Could Verdi, like Manzoni, have undergone a conversion of his own?

George Martin, the author of several books on Verdi (including 2011’s superb Verdi in America), doesn’t think so. “Verdi wanted to communicate primarily with his fellow Italians, and they knew the Catholic Requiem,” he wrote by email. “So he took the familiar form but used it to convey something quite different from its usual message.” Martin argued in an earlier essay that the agnostic Verdi emphasized neither faith nor hope in his score, but instead “had the courage to peer into the unknown, and to be afraid.”

Across the gulf of belief, the musical titan of the young Italian nation paid homage to its literary giant in the Manzoni Requiem, while we in new generations and different lands go on mining its inexhaustible riches.