Choirs from around the West Midlands are combining for a performance of Verdi's Requiem at Symphony Hall next month. Christopher Morley reports.
There was a time not so long ago when some diehards found it fashionable to sneer at the great operatic composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) for bringing music of the theatre into the sacred precincts of the church.
The offending work was his setting of the Roman Catholic Mass for the dead, the Requiem he wrote in 1874 in memory of the great 19th century Italian author Alessandro Manzoni. It is a work full of passion, fervour, anguish and, above all, a touchingly human awe in the face of death, all expressed in the most vivid musical terms. For many years it seemed to be destined to be the ageing composers last major work, until the miraculous appearance of Otello and Falstaff in 1887 and 1893 respectively.
Orchestration in the Requiem is colourful, even garish at times, with offstage trumpet fanfares as the composer paints a picture of the terrors of the Day of Judgment and the fear of eternal damnation. Choral writing covers a vast spectrum, ranging from hushed tones of supplication, through sturdy academic fugues (Verdi showing his detractors his proud technical pedigree), to arresting dramatic outbursts.
And at the heart of this moving masterpiece lie the four soloists, soprano, alto, tenor and bass representing us, the audience, frail members of humanity who stand trembling on the edge of eternity. Perhaps it is this very fearfulness, this admission of wavering faith, which once so upset Catholic orthodoxy.
When the soprano soloist begs for deliverance in the concluding Libera Me (a setting Verdi originally wrote for a composite Requiem for Rossini in 1869, each movement supplied by a different Italian composer at Verdi's own suggestion), she speaks for us all. Vocal virtuosity - the technical demands are immense, including a desperate (but in this context, necessary) climb to a no-holdsbarred top C - serves to represent the most pressing human trepidation.
Verdi's Requiem struck an immediate chord with audiences. Premiered under the composer's baton at the Church of San Marco in Milan on May 22 1874, and repeated in the renowned La Scala Opera House three days later, it was given multiple performances throughout Europe during the next year.
A Requiem road-show, Verdi again conducting, came to London, via performances in Paris, in May 1875. The event was eloquently described by his wife Giuseppina in her journal:
"We could not get to know the country. Instead of taking many days off, we were obliged to give the greatest possible number of performances.
"In that distant hall, in the horse-racing season, in a city with a population of three million, the success of the first performance in the Albert Hall was simply not enough: it was necessary to repeat the Requiem the maximum number of times; the great mass of people who attended the fourth and final London performance proves the truth of what I say."
Verdi begins his Requiem in hushed, subdued tones, putting immediate pressure upon his choristers as they mutter their supplications at the lowest dynamic level (though one that requires the greatest clarity of diction). There are many unaccompanied choral passages throughout the work, putting demands upon intonation when instrumentalists re-enter.
But there is also searching writing for the soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and bass soloists, such as the "Pie Jesu" which ends the human suffering-depicting fresco which is the Lacrymosa, the cruelly exposing duet in octaves for soprano and mezzo at the beginning of the Agnus Dei, and the equally cruel exposure of orchestral cellos at the beginning of the Offertorio.
In compensation there are full-blooded episodes where sheer guts and colour convey the message: the apocalyptic Dies Irae, bass drum to the fore, the jubilant, shrilling Sanctus.
We arrive, though, at the concluding Libera Me, a dramatic closing scena where soprano soloist and chorus recall past moments in this huge petition for eternal salvation, and where Verdi, allegedly wavering on the edge of faith during his life, here conveys the fear of us all as we teeter on the abyss.
* Making Music choirs from across the West Midlands perform the Verdi Requiem, with the Chandos Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Lloyd, at Symphony Hall on Sunday (7.30pm). Details on 0121 780 3333.