Giuseppe Verdi completed his Requiem Mass in March 1873. From his letters we know he felt that with this composition, he had become a serious composer: “I am no longer a clown serving the audience; beating a huge drum and shouting, ‘Come on! Come on! Set up!’” he writes, a remarkable statement given that he was already the extremely successful composer of at least 25 operas. Nor did Verdi want his Requiem to be premiered in an opera house or a concert hall and thus be reduced to a mere performance. He insisted on a major church, and the Mass was finally presented in May 1874 in Milan’s San Marco Cathedral to an invited audience of Italian and foreign dignitaries.
Verdi himself conducted this premiere performance and another one three days later at La Scala. The Requiem was a huge success and was soon being performed in opera houses, churches and concert halls throughout Europe and America. It was so popular, in fact, that to Verdi’s horror it was even given in a sports arena in the Italian town of Ferrara, accompanied by a band!
Verdi composed his Requiem Mass with more than usual care. Uncharacteristically, he sequestered himself in his suite at the Hotel de Bade in Paris, refusing to hear any music or go to the theater until most of the writing was done. Once the soloists were chosen, he coached them himself. He knew that the work’s length of one and three-quarter hours, together with its musical and vocal difficulties, made enormous demands on the 200 performers it required. Most surprising was such deep immersion in the creation of a Christian mass by a confirmed atheist like Verdi. There is no question this was a highly meaningful work for him, and some of the reasons for his extensive involvement in it can be surmised from the circumstances of his personal and professional life in his middle years.
Verdi was going through a major life transition at the time he began the Requiem. This is a condition not uncommon among composers of requiem masses. Brahms, Dvorak, and John Rutter, for example, overtly and covertly used their requiems to mourn a beloved parent or child. One major loss in Verdi’s life at the time was of his great friend, the politician Alessandro Manzoni, whom he idealized as the fierce political champion of a just and unified Italy as well as a great novelist and stylist of the modern Italian language. But Verdi was experiencing other severe psychological losses at this time, the result of problems for which there could be no illusion of healing through mourning, no matter how painful. Verdi reached for the sacred because he felt caught between forces in his life that seemed out of his control and relationships that were beyond repair.
Verdi had overcome other serious, life-altering experiences in the past. His first wife and two children had died in 1840, leaving only his daughter Filomena. He later decided to marry Giuseppina Strepponi, but only after many years of having her as his mistress. She was a well-known singer whose tempestuous personality made her unpopular with the public. When Verdi courageously forged ahead with the wedding, it cost him his relationship with his parents, his good name, and some financial security.
But renewed success and a relatively happy marriage were his until his late fifties, when the edifice began to crumble through a new series of losses. First was the death of Manzoni, which to Verdi meant the end of the political dream that had inspired his greatest operas. His marriage to Strepponi was now under increasing strain and in danger of coming apart, due to his evolving love affair with Teresa Stoltz, the soprano who sang in the premiere performances of the Requiem Mass. Finally, the conductor Angelo Mariani, Stoltz’s longtime lover, who had been Verdi’s close friend for 20 years, died in 1873, leaving Verdi no hope of repairing their damaged friendship. For Verdi, there were no heroic solutions or easy absolution for his contribution to the pain and humiliation his friend had undergone and his wife was enduring. The passions of a new love were in full play. But Verdi, despite his youthful energy and healthy physique, was now 60 and facing the issues of aging without immediate hope of inner or outer comfort or repose. The personal drama he was facing was not only the death of a friend but the death of friendship, marriage, and hope for the future, combined with the start of an uncertain new relationship.
The Mass musically manifests the drama of these transitions in Verdi’s life. He uses the Latin text of his Requiem like the libretto of an opera about death and rebirth. The music abounds with a dramatic passion different from and beyond its religious meaning. The chorus seems mostly to represent the fearful and lamenting souls of the dead, while the soloists watch the dying process and plead for mercy and release from death. But Verdi, the master dramatist, has also used his requiem mass, a Christian religious form celebrating death and rebirth, to capture the drama of human love, loss, sacrifice and renewal, without appealing to a religious solution. Verdi’s dislike of religiosity is often evident in the Requiem, as the setting of most movements can be more easily appreciated as inspired by psychological drama rather than religious fervor.
The events in Verdi’s personal life that led to the creation of his Requiem Mass and its sumptuous form are complex but worth the telling. The story begins in 1868 with the death of the great composer Giacomo Rossini. Verdi proposed that Italian composers collaborate in writing a requiem mass to honor the dead genius, whom he called the “glory of Italy.” Verdi’s friend Mariani was a member of the organizing committee and had also agreed to conduct the “Rossini” mass. But because of tangled finances and conflicts of interest, the mass was never completed. Verdi held Mariani responsible for the failure, and in a series of letters over the ensuing years castigated him on all counts, refusing to be mollified by Mariani’s letters to him, filled with love and admiration. It is possible, however, that Verdi’s rejection of his friend was fueled by the fact that when Verdi first met Teresa Stoltz, she and Mariani were engaged to be married. As Verdi’s relationship with Stoltz developed into love, she broke off her engagement with Mariani.
Verdi and Stoltz were soon dining together every evening, but Verdi’s wife, Strepponi, made sure these dinner trysts took place at the Verdi home. She was aware of the evolving affair between her husband and Stoltz, and to protect her marriage she established a sisterly bond with Stoltz. Nevertheless (or because of these machinations) Verdi was increasingly restless, suspicious, and unable to control his temper with Strepponi. He refused to take her on his travels and hardly spoke to her. She, who had once been his closest companion, did all she could to meet his every whim.
Stoltz attempted to free herself from this triangle by leaving Italy. She moved to Russia and claimed that she was retiring from singing. Although her singing career did not end, her intimate relationship with Verdi was put on hold. She and Strepponi actually corresponded with much affection during these years. Verdi and Strepponi remained married, but after Strepponi’s death Verdi and Stoltz lived just a few houses apart and and took vacations together. They aged well, and when he was 87 and she 66 they were still exchanging love letters. In 1897 he gave Stoltz the autographed score of the Requiem Mass, inscribed to her as “the first interpreter of this composition.” Love conquers all!
— By Pilar Montero and Arthur Colman
Note: Much of the material for this article was researched using Mary Jane Phillips-Matz’s excellent Verdi: A Biography, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 1993.
Reprinted from The Society Page – The Voice of the San Francisco Choral Society, Summer 2003
— Pilar Montero & Arthur Colman