This Week in Music History: The premiere of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem (1874)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark.

This week? Gioachino Rossini’s death inspired Verdi to launch an ambitious project involving twelve Italian composers to create a requiem in his honor. The project was eventually aborted, but Verdi’s musical tribute to Rossini survives in the Libera Me of his Messa da Requiem, a grandiose work composed in honor of another idol…

Like most requiems, Verdi’s Messa da Requiem began with an ending.

“A great name has disappeared from the world!”

The great opera composer Gioachino Rossini died in November 1868, and Giuseppe Verdi—the great opera composer of his own generation—was deeply moved. But, when Verdi wrote the above in a letter, he was also thinking about another Italian artistic titan.

“When the other one who still lives is no more, what will we have left?”

“The other one?” He was referring to Alessandro Manzoni, a poet and novelist of about Rossini’s age, best known for The Betrothed. But for now, Verdi’s attention was mainly focused on his dear, departed fellow composer.

Portrait of Alessandro Manzoni by Francesco Hayez, 1841
Portrait of Alessandro Manzoni by Francesco Hayez, 1841

Verdi hit upon an original idea with which to mark Rossini’s life. On the first anniversary of his death, he proposed, a requiem mass would be performed. It would be written jointly by Italy’s leading composers, with Verdi contributing one movement himself—as it transpired, the final movement, Libera me (above).

As if that project weren’t unusual enough already, Verdi had some rather specific stipulations. For a start, rather than getting paid, the composers and performers would be expected to contribute financially to the project. After the performance, the score “should be sealed and placed in the archives… from which it should never be taken,” except perhaps for anniversaries. Oh, and Verdi would quit the project immediately if anyone foreign or unartistic became involved.

Casting an eye over Verdi’s demands, it’s perhaps surprising that the Messa per Rossini project got off the ground at all. But a fairly promising start was not enough to make it happen. The project gave up the ghost fairly slowly, but seems to have been consigned to an unmarked grave by August 1871.

Photographic Portrait of Gioacchino Rossini by Etienne Carjat, 1865
Photographic Portrait of Gioacchino Rossini by Etienne Carjat, 1865

By then, however, Verdi had written his own Libera me. “Deliver me, O Lord” says the text… and yet Verdi’s music lingered unperformed.

Then, on May 22, 1873, Alessandro Manzoni died.

And this time, Verdi decided to write the whole thing himself. He had already written the ending.

Things went far more smoothly this time. He met his own deadlines, and the first performance did indeed take place on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death—May 22, 1874—at the church of San Marco in Milan. Unlike the plan for the Rossini requiem, further performances were permitted: three more immediately took place at La Scala. The reaction was positive from almost everyone, with Hans von Bülow one of few exceptions. An “opera in ecclesiastical costume,” he called it. Referring to a sacred work by a leading opera composer, this is surely one of music history’s least imaginative insults.

Chiesa di S. Marco, Milan
Chiesa di S. Marco, Milan

The troubled genesis of Verdi’s Requiem is now a matter for the history books. The ends of Rossini and Manzoni, and the conclusion of the Messa per Rossini project, proved to be the beginning of a work which remains very much alive—above all, thanks to its spectacular Dies irae, that unforgettable whirlwind of wrath and fear that still reverberates today.

It’s so thrilling, in fact, that it even seems to have terrified Herbert von Karajan, albeit only briefly. Watch closely at 1:41.

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