Verdi Program Notes

The program notes are written by Rena Roussin, Musicologist-in-Residence.

After the 1871 Cairo premiere of his opera Aida, Giuseppe Verdi announced his retirement from opera composition. While he would eventually renege on his word and complete two additional operas (1887’s Otello and 1893’s Falstaff), his decision was understandable: after decades of tireless work, he had achieved arguably unprecedented heights of fame, both internationally and at home in his beloved Italy. A standard next step for retired Italian opera composers, at the time, was to write a sacred work. Indeed, before his retirement Verdi had already suggested the creation of a Requiem mass to honour his contemporary Gioachino Rossini, who died in 1868. Verdi completed the concluding “Libera me” movement and suggested that all of Italy’s most prominent composers each contribute one additional section. For numerous reasons, that project fell through, and it was not until 1873, after the death of Italy’s most prominent and influential novelist Alessandro Manzoni, that Verdi would ultimately choose to revise his earlier “Libera me” and join it to a full work in celebration of Manzoni, who was one of his heroes. The resulting Messa da Requiem would premiere on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death, on May 22, 1874, at the San Marco Cathedral in Milan. It would go on to be performed in many churches, and in concert halls all over the world. However, the premiere was likely one of the only times the work was ever sung in Catholic liturgy, as its 90-minute length and large-scale musical forces make it rather impractical for functional use in the Mass. As music critic Eduard Hanslick would note in 1880, the true “congregation” Verdi was composing for was the larger musical community. 

Verdi’s “congregation” has in fact had a long-running joke that the Requiem is the composer’s finest opera. In fact, Verdi took great care to not compose the piece like an opera: neither the liturgical language of Latin or the musical forms of the Requiem invoke opera. While the orchestral forces and virtuosic singing might invoke operatic style more readily than sacred music, Verdi also moved away from the forms of musical characterization and compositional idioms he employed so effectively in his operas. Nevertheless, there are many reasons why the joke has been so long-lasting and effective, as the music of the Requiem is inherently dramatic, interpreting at times quite vividly (and at incredible volume) a religious text about divine judgment and mercy. Musical depiction of these two concepts arguably drive the drama of Verdi’s composition, particularly through the piece’s famed, fiery “Dies irae” movement, which depicts the Day of Judgment. Verdi’s “Dies irae” music is ultimately the dramatic “motor,” to use Victor Ledere’s words, that gives form to this piece; Verdi brings the music back later in the broader “Dies irae” sequence, and even alters the standard textual and musical structure of Requiem masses to bring back the “Dies irae” in the concluding “Libera me” movement. This decision is particularly noteworthy because the conclusion of Requiem Masses are meant to be conciliatory and comforting. Verdi—who was a life-long critic of clerics and whose own religious leanings appear to have moved between agnosticism and atheism—instead suffuses this final movement with questions and doubt.  

Scholar John Rosselli writes that Verdi’s operas are built on the balance of “truth and theatre,” relying on both to create musical works that “ring emotionally true.” This insight is equally accurate and compelling when applied to Verdi’s setting of the Requiem mass. In Maestro Vallée’s words, Verdi uses the Requiem and its themes of judgment and repentance to offer “profound exploration of human nature. The Requiem delves into our innate fear of death, the unknown, and the apprehension of having lived an unfulfilled life. Despite offering glimpses of hope in its final notes, the Requiem masterfully conveys doubt and fear, making it timeless and universally resonant. It speaks to our innermost emotions, transcending religious beliefs.” Like Maestro Vallée, I am struck by the ways Verdi’s music speaks to fears we often hold both collectively and individually, beyond any one particular religious creed. Who, after all, doesn’t have some fear of the unknowability of death? Yet if Verdi’s music holds onto that fear into its very final moments, routinely interrupting moments of placidity, he isn’t content to end it there: he chooses, at the last moment, to end with light, with hope, with some long-fought for peace. But it is telling that that peace is only born from sitting with and learning from fear. A good performance of Verdi’s Requiem, Lederer writes, “could and should overwhelm.” Perhaps part of that overwhelm is because while the text of the Requiem mass is about death, Verdi’s music is a deliberately intense wakeup call to life—to its pain, its fears, its beauty, but above all, to its ephemerality, and therefore, the need to live it passionately and fully.


1 Victor Lederer, Verdi: The Operas and Choral Works (New York: Amadeus Press, 2014), 156-157.
2 John Rosselli, The Life of Verdi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 1-2.