from an Irishman’s Diary (Irish Times 19th Oct 22)
One of the most curious compositions in music history was a requiem for Rossini by 13 of his fellow composers. Arising from a proposal by Verdi, who contributed a Libera Me, the Requiem was completed and a first performance planned for 1869. This was stymied by a falling-out among the many parties involved: it took 111 years for the actual premiere to take place following rediscovery of the manuscript in the archives of Ricordi, publishers of the operas of Verdi and many other Italian composers.
Out of the ashes of this fiasco arose one of the most affecting, powerful and frequently performed of requiems, the great Verdi Requiem. Frustrated at the failure to honour Rossini, his creative impulse found a catalyst in the death in 1873 of Alessandro Manzoni, author of arguably the greatest Italian novel, I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed). This extraordinary book, set in Italy during the Thirty Years War and a major outbreak of plague in Milan, was also notable for helping to crystallise a unitary Italian language from the linguistic diversity of the newly unified Italy. Manzoni was influential in many aspects of the shaping of modern Italy, including contributions to liberal Catholic philosophy.
Verdi was a great admirer of Manzoni and a part of the tribute to Manzoni is the use of Catholic requiem form by an ardent critic of organised religion. He began the composition almost immediately when travelling to Paris and completed the rest of the Requiem, including a reworked version of the Libera Me from the Rossini Requiem. He conducted the first performance in Milan to huge acclaim in 1874 on the anniversary of the death of Manzoni. Powerful, lyrical and operatic, this dramatic and deeply affecting work has been among the most prominent expressions of grief and yet the vibrancy of human life. George Bernard Shaw admired it greatly, classing it as an imperishable monument to Verdi’s work and arranging for the Libera Me to be sung at his funeral.
More at home in the concert hall than the church, the Requiem is not only a firm choral and audience favourite, but has iconic status as a public expression of grief and remembrance, as seen with the performance by the Metropolitan Opera in New York for the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Perhaps the most affecting instance of its centrality to the human experience was the series of 16 performances in the Theresienstadt/Terezín concentration camp in 1943 and 1944. Terezín was devised by the Nazis to present an acceptable front to the horror of the “final solution”. The inmates of Terezín developed an extraordinary musical landscape with the most limited of means. A key figure was Rafael Schächter, a gifted Czech musician who crafted scores and produced a range of operas, including The Bartered Bride, The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro, accompanied on a battered piano.
The contrast between the majesty of the music and the moral squalor of the Nazi regime was highlighted by the transport of many of the chorus to death camps after each concert. With each diminished and subsequently refreshed group, he continued to direct the Requiem up to the final tragic performance. This was ordered by the camp commander for a visit by the Red Cross to the camp, with Adolf Eichmann and several other senior SS officers present.
Acutely aware of the travesty that this represented, Edward Krasa, a survivor of this last iteration noted another interpretation: “the requiem was a code. It talks about the end of the world and what happens to those who commit evil. Even as they were facing their own destruction, the Jews in that choir were telling the Nazis how the Third Reich was doomed.”
Given the impact and centrality of the Verdi Requiem in musical and cultural life, it is fitting that the first Irish performance since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic should be dedicated to the families and friends of those who died during the pandemic. The very many deaths in Ireland, particularly among our loved ones in nursing homes, caused much heartbreak and must be remembered and provide a stimulus for change. This deeply humanistic masterwork catches this vision beautifully by opposing conflicting sections seamlessly, the double-chorus Sanctus represent a consoling vision contrasted with the individual terror of death in the agonising Libera Me. Soloists, Our Lady Choral Society and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra under the baton of Proinnsias Ó Duinn will perform this tribute in the National Concert Hall in Dublin on Friday, October 21st at 8pm (nch.ie).