Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Program notes: May 1 Masterworks Finale

The VSO brings its "Terezin Remembered" project and its 2009/2010 Masterworks Series to a close with a performance of Verdi's powerful Requiem. Whereas the evening Masterworks concert is sold out, we have opened the afternoon rehearsal to attendees. It begins at 2:30 p.m.; general admission tickets are $20. Get your tickets through the Flynn Box Office. Keep reading for program notes.

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

The remains of Alessandro Manzoni lay in state for several days in May of 1873 while Italy mourned. A huge throng including royalty and officers of state formed the funeral cortège that accompanied him to his final resting place in the cemetery of Milan. Absent was the one man who was to give Manzoni his greatest tribute: Giuseppe Verdi secluded himself with his grief over the loss of the poet-patriot he venerated so deeply. He said to his publisher Ricordi, "I shall come in the near future and visit his grave, alone and without witnesses and possibly (after much reflection and gauging of my own strength) make some proposal for the honoring of his memory."

Manzoni and Verdi met for the first time in 1868. By then, both men were national heroes. Italy was in the throes of an evolution which sought to return the state to the glorified national identity enjoyed during the Renaissance. It had been a long and impassioned effort led by powerful men with a variety of agendas, from the cool tactitian Cavour to the audacious Garibaldi and his personal army of “Red Shirts.” Manzoni strove to forge a national unity through the creation of the model for a modern Italian language, refining and establishing proper style and usage. With the publication in 1827 of his classic historical novel I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) he became a cohesive literary influence for a divided Italy. At age 76 he was made senator to the parliament of King Victor Emmanuel II in 1861, but even so spent most of his time in a reclusive semi-retirement in Milan.

Verdi became allied with Italian nationalism through Nabucco, his first critical success. He identified with ordinary people and proclaimed himself "the least erudite among past and present composers.” Verdi became a symbol of resistance to Austrian domination via a chorus in Nabucco entitled "Va, pensiero" which voices the longing of Jewish exiles for home. Italians empathized with this yearning for freedom, and the tune became wildly popular throughout the country.

Verdi virtually worshipped Manzoni, referring to him as "the Saint," and although notables from all over the world (Goethe, Byron, Balzac) visited the writer, Verdi shrank from invading his privacy. It took a conspiracy between Verdi's wife Giuseppina and their close friend the Contessa Clarina Maffei to inveigle Verdi into an audience with his idol. During a visit to Milan, the Contessa introduced Giuseppina to Manzoni. On her return home, Verdi met his wife at the train station with a carriage, and in a letter to the Contessa, Giuseppina recounts her strategy:

I told him very quickly, at breakneck speed, how you had received me...had gone out with me...Wishing to push on as fast as possible, I said with affected indifference: "If you go to Milan I'll introduce you to Manzoni. He expects you, and I was there with her [Clarina] the other day....

Phew! The bombshell was so great and so unexpected that I didn't know whether I ought to open the carriage windows to give him air or close them, fearing that in the paroxysm of surprise and joy he would jump out. He went red, he turned deadly pale, he perspired; he took off his hat and screwed it up in a way that reduced it almost to shapelessness. Furthermore (this is between ourselves) the most severe and savage Bear of Busseto had his eyes full of tears, and both of us, moved, convulsed, sat there for ten minutes in complete silence. Oh, the power of genius, of virtue and of friendship!

Verdi later went to see Manzoni, and on his next birthday the composer received a card which read: "To Giuseppe Verdi, from a decrepit Lombard writer."

Ironically, the original impetus for the Requiem had nothing to do with Manzoni at all. It was the death of the Italian opera giant Rossini that inspired Verdi with the need to create such a commemorative work. Between 1810 and 1830, Rossini established a body of music devoted to bel canto singing and purity of melodic line which offered sublime entertainment for lovers of vocal music. Italian opera enjoyed an unchallenged supremacy in Europe, and this was an enormous spiritual step for a country laboring to produce a national identity. When Rossini died in 1868, Verdi was moved to honor his memory by suggesting a salute from his contemporaries for this most famous representative of Italian national tradition. In a letter to his editor he suggested:

"I think that to honour Rossini's memory a REQUIEM MASS should be composed by the most distinguished Italian composers...and performed on the anniversary of his death.

I think that not only the composers, but all the artists engaged in the performance, should not only offer their services for nothing but should also contribute enough to cover the expenses involved. I do not think that we should accept help from any foreign hand, or any hand alien to art, however powerful. If this condition were not observed, I should immediately withdraw from the association...

This composition -- however good the individual numbers may be -- will inevitably lack unity; but despite this defect it will still serve to demonstrate how profoundly we all venerate the man whose loss is deplored by the whole world...

Initially, the idea got off to a roaring start. A committee was formed, and Verdi took on the composition of the closing section of the Mass, the Libera me, Domine. Then petty disagreements and rivalries began to take their toll, and it became clear that nothing would be finished by the appointed day of performance, the anniversary of Rossini's death. Verdi himself called the project to a halt, remarking to a friend, “Ah, men of talent are almost always overgrown boys...."

Later that year a colleague and professor from the Milan Conservatory wrote of his admiration for the Libera me, and a flattered Verdi responded that he had considered writing a Requiem himself and even had ideas for the Requiem aeternum and Dies irae. At heart, Verdi considered the effort involved in writing a Requiem as nonremunerative: the composers of Italian operas were practical musicians, creating when stimulated by contract or promise of financial benefit. In this Verdi was no exception, and to the professor he wrote: "I have no taste for useless things, and there are so many Messe da morto -- only too many!!! It is pointless to add yet another to the list." Three years later, Manzoni lay in state and a grieving Verdi had a personal use for a Requiem.

Exactly one year from the day of Manzoni's death, an orchestra of 100 and a chorus of 120 assembled in the church of San Marco in Milan. An audience from all over Europe spilled out of the modest structure, and members of the press (including Wagner champion Hans von Bulow) were forced to view from the organ loft. Von Bulow called the work “an opera in ecclesiastical garb.” In fact, the two female soloists were the composer's Aïda and Amneris from his latest operatic triumph, and the Requiem itself was an unabashedly operatic approach to sacred music. Needless to say, the public loved it.

The Requiem exhibits the musical mastery of Verdi's operas. As in Rigoletto or La Forza del Destino, there is displayed a formal balance within the various sections and between them. The work as a whole is unified through the use of repetitions or references to a driving motif, that element being the Dies Irae theme. As for the carping done by Verdi's critics (one noted "a certain overload of the sensuous and of ardent southern emotionalism”), listeners from all countries knew a genuine musical phenomenon when they heard it. The fact of the matter is that this was a personal homage paid by the agnostic Verdi to the devoutly Catholic Manzoni, and the last word in defense of her husband's effort was given by his wife Giuseppina:

They talk about the more-or-less religious spirit of Mozart, Cherubini and others. I say that a man like Verdi must write like Verdi, that is, according to his own way of feeling and interpreting the text. The religious spirit and the way in which it is given expression must bear the stamp of its period and its author's personality.

-- Hilary Hatch

Indra Thomas, soprano
Judith Engel, alto
Steven Tharp, tenor
Kevin Deas, bass