Verdi’s Requiem

Notes by TŌN clarinetist Ye Hu

A Failed Start
When composer Gioachino Rossini died in 1868, Giuseppe Verdi proposed to other Italian composers (including himself, a total of 13 people) that they jointly produce the Massa Per of Rossini. At that time, a special committee was organized which set the premiere date as the first anniversary of Rossini’s death. The plan for the venue was at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Bologna, where Rossini grew up. Verdi himself decided to write the “Libera me” section, and was able to finish on time. However, due to the slow progress of other composers, and the lack of support from the Teatro Comunale di Bologna, the plan to create the Massa Per of Rossini was unsuccessful.

In Memory of Manzoni
The Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni, who had a great influence on Italian Romanticism, was greatly admired by Verdi. When Manzoni died in 1873, Verdi had the idea to compose the Requiem in memory of Manzoni. That summer, Verdi completed more than half of the work in Paris, and in April of the following year, the Requiem was nearly finished. Verdi adopted the “Libera me” section that he composed for the Massa Per of Rossini for his new Requiem. On May 22, 1874, the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death, the Messa da Requiem had its premiere in the San Marco Church in Milan, conducted by Verdi himself.

Success and Criticism
The Requiem was quickly noticed around the world, which was unusual for religious music. The piece soon premiered in the United States, was conducted by Verdi seven times in Paris, and had three performances in London with a chorus of over 1,200. It was not met without controversy, though. The day after the premiere, Wagnerian conductor Hans von Bülow commented in a newspaper that the piece was “Verdi’s latest opera in ecclesiastical garb.” When Johannes Brahms heard Bülow’s criticism, he said, “Bülow has made a fool of himself for all time; only a genius could write such a work.” Years later, Bülow retracted his criticism and asked Verdi for his forgiveness. Verdi responded, “There is no trace of sin in you. Besides, who knows? Perhaps you were right the first time!”