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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008

Grant Them Rest, Oh Lord

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It was not false modesty that prompted Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) to write to then famous singer Maria Waldmann, inviting her to participate in the premiere of his 1883 Messa da Requiem. “You would gain neither reputation nor money from it,” he wrote, continuing that the work’s main attribute was simply that it commemorated a great man.

It might, Verdi added, “make history,” not due to “the merit of the music but because of the man to whom it is dedicated.” One supposes he had reason to doubt its lasting value, given its difficult birth. The piece had originally been conceived as a requiem mass to be performed on the first anniversary of the death of the Italian opera master Gioacchino Rossini—a work to be contributed to by several different composers. Verdi wrote a “Libera me” portion for this work, but it just never came off.

He had the same thing in mind when a man whom Verdi idolized, novelist and poet Alessandro Manzoni, died in 1873. But this time he would set about the task on his own. The result, often simply known as Verdi’s Requiem, has evermore been embraced as one of his finest achievements.

Verdi’s career as a composer had been one devoted almost exclusively to opera, and his Requiem reflects this. To some ears, the Requiem was too operatic in nature, especially given the solemnity of the subject matter, sounding less like church music than, say, his recently composed grand opera Ada. Such criticisms are no longer heard, for they lack validity. Proponents of such views have failed to grasp that Verdi’s Requiem is an utterly sincere work, its grief, sentiments and emotions close to Verdi’s heart and writ- ten in a style of which he was the supreme practitioner. Perhaps Verdi’s very religious wife Giuseppina summed it up best, writing after she heard the work for the first time: “I could find no words to tell of the general enthusiasm and the almost religious ecstasy of my own admiration for this man so blessed by God.”

Verdi’s Requiem has long outlived the occasion for which it was composed, and for good reason. It touches deeply. There are moments of serenity and repose (the opening “Requiem & Kyrie” is one of the most beautiful moments in all of music); of great power and dread (in the fiercely driven “Dies Irae” and “Tuba Mirum”); of profound tenderness (in the great tenor aria “Ingemisco”); and of beauty (in the “Lacrymosa,” wherein Verdi self-quotes from Act IV of his 1867 opera Don Carlos).

As the work of a man quite secular in his approach to life, having always savored the worldly delights accorded him by fame and fortune, the Requiem is simply an amazing achievement. But then again, cathartic moments can often bring forth in us things heretofore unrevealed.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra under Andreas Delfs, Milwaukee Symphony Chorus under Lee Erickson, tenor Mark Panuccio, bass Eric Owens, mezzo-soprano Carmella Jones, and soprano Jennifer Check perform Verdi’s immortal Messa da Requiem at Uihlein Hall on March 7-9.