Sunday 5 April

Verdi's Requiem

Giuseppe Verdi
Requiem (1874)

1 Requiem and Kyrie
2 Dies irae
3 Domine Jesu
4 Sanctus
5 Agnus Dei
6 Lux aeterna
7 Libera me

Verdi did not feel the death of Alessandro Manzoni, the Italian novelist and poet, any less keenly because Manzoni was a very old man. It was a grievous blow. Verdi had long had a reverence, almost amounting to idolatry, for the eminent writer. He had admired him from a distance and, when a meeting was finally arranged, he was moved to the depths. ’How shall I describe the extraordinary, indefinable sensation I felt in the presence of your ‘saint’?’ he wrote to Countess Clarina Maffei. ‘I would have gone down on my knees if one could worship men.’

Earlier, Verdi had tried to explain what it was he felt about him. Manzoni, he said, had written ‘not only the greatest book of our time but one of the greatest books that the human mind has produced [I promessi sposi]. It’s not just a book, it’s a consolation to humanity. I was 16 when I first read it. Since then … if anything my experience of men has made me admire it all the more – because it’s a true book … Oh, if artists could but understand that ‘true’, there would be no more composers of the future or composers of the past, no puristic, realistic or idealistic painters, no poets Classic or Romantic, but true poets, true painters, true composers.’

This was Verdi’s creed as an artist, and the Requiem he wrote as a tribute to Manzoni and performed in 1874 on the first anniversary of the writer’s death is the fruit of it – whatever the critics’ subsequent attempts to reduce it to a category, labelled theatrical or operatic. The Requiem is true, before it is anything else. Verdi could only respond to the liturgy as the dramatist he was and by using the personal language he had evolved while composing a score of operas. But the sound-quality, texture and whole feel of the work is as unique and as different from La traviata or Don Carlos as they are from each other. And perhaps none of the works written before it had been so perfectly fashioned, so consistently strong in inspiration, so lofty in aim and achievement (even if the gaiety of the ‘Sanctus’ may at first disconcert the non-Italian). The Requiem used to be called ‘Verdi’s greatest opera’. Why not? As a sneer the remark is meaningless; as a splendid compliment it is not far short of the truth. What is the text of the ‘Dies Irae’ if not operatic?

Verdi’s Requiem is certainly not religious in an orthodox way. Neither is Brahms’ A German Requiem, nor Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts. Even in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis God is, in a sense, the projection, the creation of human fears and longings. Like Berlioz, Verdi was a humanist who retained a poignant regret for his childhood beliefs. But he had little use for the historical church (listen to the Grand Inquisitor’s scene in Don Carlos or the gloomy, brutish music that accompanies the procession of condemned heretics in the same work); and the criticisms that emanated from the Catholic hierarchy when Manzoni died did not dispose Verdi any more gently towards it. ‘Not a Catholic in the political and strictly theological sense of the word – nothing could be further from the truth,’ was Boito’s verdict. As Verdi’s wife Giuseppina remarked, ‘the science, the sophisms, the metaphysical subtleties of the theologians and the learned of all the religions of all the ages strike vainly against the mystery of death.’ It is too big a subject to be left to the clergy.

James Craig Annan, 'A Venetian Requiem', 1894

James Craig Annan, 'A Venetian Requiem', 1894

Death and fear pervade the work. As someone who, in D’Annunzio’s phrase, ‘wept for all’, Verdi could express humanity’s feelings about it with ample authority. Hell, he knew, was something human beings can carry in themselves, and inflict on others. And death was in the air: Manzoni palpably a dying man some years before his long life ended in 1873; Rossini dead in 1868 (Verdi’s ‘Libera Me’ originated as a movement contributed to an abortive project for a mass in his honour); Verdi’s father dead, followed by his beloved father-in-law and benefactor Antonio Barezzi. The Requiem is, among other things, the passionate protest of a man who rebels against the outrage that is death. Boito experienced a similar feeling when he watched Verdi on his death-bed: ‘Never have I had such a feeling of hatred against death, of contempt for that mysterious, blind, stupid, triumphant and craven power … He too hated it, for he was the most powerful expression of life that it is possible to imagine.

Note by David Cairns

Giuseppe Verdi

Verdi revolutionised Italian opera, finding a powerful musical expression for such themes as abduction, murder, premature death and seduction in early mature works like Rigoletto and La traviata and, in later life, brilliantly translating Shakespeare’s Othello and Falstaff to the operatic stage.

Keyboard and other musical studies in Le Roncole and nearby Busseto nurtured the boy’s natural talent; however, he failed to gain a place at the Milan Conservatory. Undeterred, Verdi studied privately with Vincenzo Lavigna and duly became Maestro di Cappella in Busseto. His first marriage ended tragically with the death of his wife in 1840

By then Verdi had completed his first opera, Oberto, which was performed in 1839 at La Scala, Milan. A series of works was commissioned by the illustrious Milanese theatre, including Nabucco and I Lombardi. Their public success led to further commissions elsewhere, with new works created for Venice, Paris, London and Florence. His international profile was enhanced with the triumphant first productions of Rigoletto (1851), Il trovatore (1853) and La traviata (1853). In 1859, Verdi married the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi.

Vincenzo Baldini's set design for act five of Luisa Miller, 1849

Vincenzo Baldini's set design for act five of Luisa Miller, 1849

After the censors refused to allow the theme of regicide in Un ballo in maschera (1859), Verdi’s work was championed by Italy’s nationalist movement. By coincidence the letters of his name stood as an acronym for ‘Vittorio Emanuele, Re D’Italia’, allowing partisan opera fans to cry ‘Viva Verdi’ in support of both the composer and Italy’s future king. Between the composition of Aida (1871) and Otello, created for La Scala in 1887, Verdi wrote little for the stage. He broke off his retirement, however, to fashion his Requiem Mass in honour of Alessandro Manzoni. The success of the Requiem and Aida confirmed Verdi’s position as one of the world’s leading composers, attracting honours and adding to his considerable income. His final opera, Falstaff (1892–3), was immediately recognised as a masterpiece.

Composer profile by Andrew Stewart

Gianandrea Noseda
LSO Principal Guest Conductor

Gianandrea Noseda is one of the world’s most sought-after conductors, equally recognised for his artistry in the concert hall and opera house. He was named the National Symphony Orchestra’s seventh Music Director in January 2016, beginning his four-year term in the 2017/18 season. In September 2018, his contract was extended for four more years through to the 2024/25 season. In 2019, Noseda and the NSO earned rave reviews for their first concerts together at Carnegie Hall in New York. The 2019/20 season sees their partnership continue to flourish with twelve weeks of concerts at the Kennedy Center – including performances of Beethoven’s nine symphonies – the launch of a new recording label to be distributed by LSO Live and their first overseas tour together to Japan and China in March 2020.

Noseda also serves as Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Principal Conductor of the Orquestra de Cadaqués, and Artistic Director of the Stresa Festival in Italy. In the 2021/22 season, Noseda will become General Music Director of the Zurich Opera House, where he will lead his first Ring cycle. From 2007 to 2018, Noseda served as Music Director of the Teatro Regio Torino, where his leadership and his initiatives propelled the company’s global reputation.

During the 2019/20 season, Noseda will be a guest conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Filarmonica della Scala, Orchestre National de France, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Philharmonia Zurich, Rotterdam Philharmonic, Tonhalle Orchestra and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.

Noseda has an extensive discography of over sixty recordings for Chandos and Deutsche Grammophon, among others. He is closely involved with the next generation of musicians through his work as Music Director of the Tsinandali Festival and Pan-Caucasian Youth Orchestra, which just concluded its inaugural season, as well as with other youth orchestras, including the European Union Youth Orchestra.

A native of Milan, Noseda is Commendatore al Merito della Repubblica Italiana, marking his contribution to the artistic life of Italy. In 2015, he was Musical America’s Conductor of the Year, and was named the 2016 International Opera Awards Conductor of the Year.

The LSO was established in 1904 and has a unique ethos. As a musical collective, it is built on artistic ownership and partnership. With an inimitable signature sound, the LSO’s mission is to bring the greatest music to the greatest number of people.

The LSO has been the only Resident Orchestra at the Barbican Centre in the City of London since it opened in 1982, giving 70 symphonic concerts there every year. The Orchestra works with a family of artists that includes some of the world’s greatest conductors – Sir Simon Rattle as Music Director, Principal Guest Conductors Gianandrea Noseda and François-Xavier Roth, and Michael Tilson Thomas as Conductor Laureate.

Through LSO Discovery, it is a pioneer of music education, offering musical experiences to 60,000 people every year at its music education centre LSO St Luke’s on Old Street, across East London and further afield.

The LSO strives to embrace new digital technologies in order to broaden its reach, and with the formation of its own record label LSO Live in 1999 it pioneered a revolution in recording live orchestral music. With a discography spanning many genres and including some of the most iconic recordings ever made the LSO is now the most recorded and listened to orchestra in the world, regularly reaching over 3,500,000 people worldwide each month on Spotify and beyond. The Orchestra continues to innovate through partnerships with market-leading tech companies, as well as initiatives such as LSO Play. The LSO is a highly successful creative enterprise, with 80% of all funding self-generated.

Image: Ranald Mackechnie

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Thursday 9 April 2020 7.30pm BST
Stravinsky's Ballet Music

The Firebird
The Rite of Spring

Sir Simon Rattle conductor