Allow me to share a story.
Some years ago, while I was still teaching at the University of Kansas, a colleague stopped by my office to chat. I was kicking back with some music on my headphones at the time; curious, she asked what I was listening to.
I explained I was listening to Verdi’s Requiem, because it had been “that kind of day.”
She responded that she didn’t know the piece—she was a somewhat recent convert to classical music. She went on to explain that she did know Mozart’s Requiem, and liked it great deal, “because it’s so apocalyptic.”
I chortled. “Mozart? Apocalyptic? Oh… no, no, no. Here. You have to listen to this.”
I handed her the headphones and fired up the “Dies Irae” movement.
It was an unadulterated joy watching her eyes bulge out of her head as those mighty opening chords came crashing in. Better still was the moment a few seconds later, when the thundering bass drum announces The Day of Judgment… and things start to get really out of hand. She turned to me and blurted out, in the wonderful booming voice of someone listening to very loud music on headphones, “HOLY SHIT!!”
You have to love a work of religious music that leads the listener to blaspheme.
* * *
Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem is one of the greatest of great choral masterpieces—a work that explores universal issues of life and death, and the relationship of humankind to God. And it does so through a kaleidoscope of emotions that touches on grief, anger, and terror… but also joy, hope, and fulfillment.
Of course, it is most widely known (as my friend discovered) for its big dramatic sections, particularly the “Dies Irae” and “Libera Me” sections that present terrifying visions of the Day of Judgment.
And in honesty, one of my favorite moments as a performer came some years back while singing the mighty “Dies Irae” in a performance with the Minnesota Chorale and Minnesota Orchestra, under the direction of Osmo Vänskä.
It came in the “Tuba Mirum” section… where Gabriel’s trumpet announces the End Times. A single trumpet began a call from the back of the Hall, and over several measures the sound gradually swelled as more trumpets joined the call, until finally the entire brass section was blasting out at full volume. Suddenly, the chorus comes in, riding over everything, as we balefully announce that all are called before the Throne of God for Divine Judgment.
And we were freakin’ loud.
It was a wall of sound… sound that became a physical force that literally pressed against the audience. They were all collectively leaning back in their seats.
And then, abruptly, we cut off. The sound ends.
In that microsecond of delayed reverb, I could feel an inward, collective gasp as that wall of sound suddenly vanished, and that accumulated sonic pressure was instantly released.
And that moment, empty of all sound, was one of the most profound silences I’ve ever experienced.
At that moment, people weren’t thinking about things they had to get done around the house, mentally going over work projects, reading program notes, or even analyzing that musical cadence. They were having a primordial musical experience… one beyond words. We had their undivided attention.
We had them.
It was a pure a musical moment as I’ve ever experienced.
* * *
But for all that, I don’t want to give the impression that Verdi’s Requiem is a non-stop screamfest. Not at all—it is far richer and complex than that, conveying a wide range of emotions and moods that reflect on issues of loss, hope, sorrow and remembrance. In fact, much of the musical material is lyrical and intimate, which adds depth to the work and throws the dramatic sections into greater relief.
Take, for example, the “Lacrymosa” section, which is contained within the fearsome “Dies Irae.” This section showcases Verdi’s genius for crafting lyrical melodies that perfectly fit the human voice. It is a marvel of gentle simplicity, and I cannot imagine a more eloquent expression of sorrow. In many ways this quieter section packs much more of an emotional wallop than the fiery moments that came before. The opening of the “Dies Irae” is Divine Judgment on a Divine Scale; the “Lacrymosa,” however, is an intimate, human-sized moment that anyone who has lost a loved one can instantly relate to.
And similarly, Verdi’s Requiem is not wholly grim, either. The “Sanctus” seems to take as its point of departure Psalm 100: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord!” It is a song of praise that is the very embodiment of joy. For the chorus, it is a wonderfully challenging, multi-faceted fugue, and one that is hugely challenging to pull off. But fortunately, Verdi is so good at writing for voices that it comes together beautifully. Once it’s actually in your voice… it’s just plain fun.
And of course, the Requiem brims with serene, heartfelt music, too… for example, the “Agnus Dei.” It is a gorgeous, loving prayer that asks for God to gaze upon the dearly departed’s soul with mercy. Cast as a duet for soprano and mezzo with accompaniment from the chorus, the “Agnus Dei” floats serenely across the Hall—and never goes louder than a mezzo-piano. It is exquisite.
Curiously, Verdi saves his quietest, most penetrating music for the very end of the work, the “Libera Me.” How unlike a Grand Finale this is! Certainly, this movement includes some of the most agitated music of entire work, as the soprano soloist and chorus desperately beg that on that Day of Judgment, that we are granted God’s mercy and spared: “Deliver me, Lord, from eternal Death!” But Verdi refuses to end the work in a dramatic cry of despair. Instead, in the last few moments, there is a sense of acceptance, and trust in God’s mercy. The fear is transformed into hope, and with hushed voices we finish our prayer. It is sublimely quiet, and fades into nothingness… a silence as powerful as the anguished cries that came before.
What is so remarkable about Verdi’s Requiem is how skillfully it all comes together. In describing this range of emotions, it is possible to conclude that the Requiem is disjointed and all over the map. Not so—Verdi was unparalleled at telling a story. And that is certainly the case here, where brings the disparate parts together to create a powerful dramatic arc.
This isn’t a drama in a literal, narrative sense, but in an emotional sense. Leave off the words for a moment, and follow the emotional journey of the music itself: The hushed silence of the first few pages give way to cries of anger and fear, and a demand for answers. Sorrow returns, but is interrupted by laughter in remembrance of good times long past; buoyed by these happy memories, a warm sense of nostalgia takes over. And finally, in the last movement, all these emotions are gathered up together—the musical and emotional climax of the work is a fearful cry to heaven that finally gives way to peace.
Verdi creates a clear emotional journey through all the stages of grief; it is a journey that I think we all can relate to. It is why this work honoring the recently deceased is ultimately life-affirming and inspiring.
* * *
One final word. Verdi’s Requiem is a communal experience that needs to be experienced live. For one, there are those wonderful musical effects. I don’t care how good your sound system is—it simply cannot replicate the experience of physically experiencing them in person.
But more to the point, this is a public-minded work of art. This is quite a contrast from, say, Brahms’ A German Requiem, which often gives the impression of a person grieving alone and in private (it has been suggested that this is an expression of German cultural ethos). That is not what Verdi is after… his Requiem is a public, communal expression of grief and, ultimately, hope. To fully experience Verdi’s profound, spiritual journey, it should be shared with others.
On February 27-28, the Minnesota Orchestra and Minnesota Chorale will be performing these works under the direction of Roberto Abbado, joined by soloists Julianna Di Giacomo, Anke Vondung, Jean François Borras, and Riccardo Zanellato. And I am thrilled to be taking part.
But I have another performance coming up, too—a joint concert of portions of the Requiem with the incredible Minnesota Youth Symphonies under the direction of Manny Laureano on April 26. The soloists for this performance are Sofia Ardalan (soprano), Susan Sacquitne Druck (mezzo), John deCausmeaker (tenor), and Nathan Petersen-Kindem (baritone). I’m thrilled for a chance to work with young musicians, which can shape a lifetime of musical understanding. Plus, Manny and the band are damn good. Tickets are available here.
I hope you will join me at these concerts, so that we can share this journey together.
[Note: If you’re interested in my thoughts about how the performances with the Minnesota Orchestra went, click here to read my review.]