Verdi and his Requiem
Who was Giuseppe Verdi?
Born in 1813, Giuseppe Verdi was a prolific Italian opera composer. If you haven’t heard of him, you’ll definitely know some of his pieces. Selections from his operas have been used in The Godfather, Pretty Woman, Babe, and plenty more films and TV shows. Katy Perry even wore a dress embroidered with his La Traviata to the Grammy’s in 2017.
But here are a few things you may not know about Mr Verdi and his life:
- Not just a musician, he was also a member of local politics and a farmer. He was a big foodie and a real advocate for local produce. He even sent local ham as a gift to his friends across the world. His farming wouldn’t have been so successful if he wasn’t a shrewd businessman who made sure he was properly paid for everything and used growing funds to invest in farmland.
- He wasn’t born yesterday. Well actually, according to the entry in the baptismal register in his home town, he was! Because of this poor record keeping we can’t be sure the exact day he was born, but he celebrated his birthday on 9 October.
- Something of a child prodigy, Verdi was the official paid organise of his local church by the age of 8.
- A big fan of Shakespeare, three of his operas are based on the bard’s works – Macbeth, Otello and He said, “I prefer Shakespeare to all other dramatists, not excepting the Greeks.” High praise.
- Verdi’s second wife was called Giuseppina. Yes, that made them Giuseppe and Giuseppina. She was a soprano and they lived together for a long time before they were married – the scandal!
- He established the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti – a retirement home for musicians. The 2012 film Quartet starring Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly is set in an English retirement home based on this, where every resident is a former professional musician, and these four perform a rendition of Verdi’s Rigoletto
- As famous in death as in life (if not more so), Verdi’s funeral remains the largest public event in Italy’s history. There were 900 singers involves, plus the orchestra of La Scala, and tens of thousands of mourners in the funeral procession. The country declared a period of national mourning, too. Crikey.
What of his music and that famous feud with Wagner?
Despite the Requiem we are performing being one of his most famous and enduring pieces, Verdi was first and foremost an opera composer.
Opera was (and arguably still is) a notably Italian genre and Verdi was proud of this heritage. In faxct, after Italy was unified much of his music began to be re-interpreted as having hidden revolutionary and nationalistic messages. But we can’t say these were intentional. He did, however, move away from the traditional structures of composers before him and was an early advocate of big choral numbers in opera – sung in unison as a symbol of solidarity.
This pride in Italy’s musical history and output, and a determination not to be overpowered by Germanic style, sparked the feud with the German composer Wagner. Verdi said:
“Our young Italian composers are not good patriots. If the Germans, proceeding from Bach have come to Wagner, they do so as good Germans, and all is well. But when we, the descendants of Palestrina, imitate Wager, we are committing a musical crime and are doing a useless, nay, harmful thing.”
We shouldn’t really call it a feud though, as it was entirely one sided. Wagner is never known to have said a word about Verdi. Awkward. But if we just pretend for a moment that there was a feud, what might it have looked like in the concert hall? This video gives us a pretty good idea.
But the Requiem isn’t an opera. What do we know about that?
Verdi wrote his Requiem in 1874. It’s not an opera, but it’s just as dramatic as one, with the music expressing the emotion in the text. It’s written for huge forces: four soloists, a double choir, and a large orchestra. Written by him as a free artist, not a hired commission, it’s still theatrical but Verdi considered it to be serious music. He said he was “no longer a clown serving the audience, beating a huge drum and shouting ‘Come on! Step right up!’”.
Whether you’re familiar with the work or new to Verdi, here are some interesting facts:
- It was written in what some have called Verdi’s ‘retirement period’. Around this time his correspondence lacked music musical content, instead he wrote a lot about crops, livestock, soil and manure. However, after the Requiem he went on to write Otello and Falstaff when he was 80. Hardly retiring.
- This wasn’t the first Requiem he wrote. He composed selections for Rossini earlier, but it was abandoned. The Libera me made it into this Messa da Requiem
- Verdi conducted the premiere in Milan, then performances Paris, London, Vienna, and Cologne. Most of them sold out, except the Albert Hall where it was considered too Catholic to be overwhelmingly popular with audiences.
- In Verdi’s day, women were not allowed to perform in Catholic rituals such as a Requiem, but Verdi had always intended (and did) use soprano soloists and female chorus. The rebel. Anyway, this may have hindered its reception. Critics were divided, as usual.
- The Requiem was performed by prisoners at the Terezin concentration camp, under the pretence of a cultural organisation in the Ghetto.
- Excerpts were features at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Hear Verdi’s Requiem, performed by Royal Northern Sinfonia and Chorus plus over 200 musicians from the North East, at Sage Gateshead on Sunday 28 November.