02 Mar 2017

Program Notes: Verdi’s Requiem

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Program Notes: Verdi Requiem
Program Notes provided by the O‘ahu Choral Society


Messa da Requiem
Giuseppe Verdi

  1. Requiem
  2. Dies irae
  • Offertorium
  1. Sanctus
  2. Agnus Dei
  3. Lux aeterna
  • Libera me

Text and Translation

I. Requiem and Kyrie

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine;
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion,
et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem.
Exaudi orationem meam:
ad te omnis caro veniet.

Quartet and Chorus:
Kyrie eleison.
Christe eleison.
Kyrie eleison.

I. Requiem and Kyrie

Grant them eternal rest, O Lord;
and may perpetual light shine upon them.
A hymn in Zion befits you, O God,
and a debt will be paid to you in Jerusalem.
Hear my prayer:
all earthly flesh will come to you.

Quartet and Chorus:
Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ, have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.

II. Sequence

Dies irae, dies illa,
solvet saeclum in favilla,
teste David cum Sibylla.

Quantus tremor est futurus,
quando judex est venturus,
cuncta stricte discussurus!

Tuba mirum spargens sonum,
per sepulcra regionem,
coget omnes ante thronum.

Mors stupebit et natura,
cum resurget creatura,
judicanti responsura.

Mezzo-soprano and Chorus: 
Liber scriptus proferetur,
in quo totum continetur,
unde mundus judicetur.

Judex ergo cum sedebit,
quidquid latet apparebit:
nil inultum remanebit.

Dies irae, dies illa,
solvet saeclum in favilla,
teste David cum Sibylla.

Soprano, Mezzo-soprano and Tenor: 
Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus,
cum vix justus sit securus?

Solo Quartet and Chorus: 
Rex tremendae majestatis,
qui salvandos salvas gratis:
salva me, fons pietas.

Soprano and Mezzo-soprano: 
Recordare, Jesu pie,
quod sum causa tuae viae:
ne me perdas illa die.

Quaerens me, sedisti lassus;
redemisti crucem pacem:
tantus labor non sit causas.

Juste judex ultionis:
donum fac remissionis
ante diem rationis.

Ingemisco tamquam reus,
culpa rubet vultus meus;
supplicanti parce, Deus.

Qui Mariam absolvisti,
et latronem exaudisti,
mihi quoque spem dedisti.

Preces meae non sunt digne,
sed tu, bonus, fac benigne,
ne perenni cremer igne.

Inter oves locum praesta,
et ab haedis me sequestra,
statuens in parte dextra.

Bass and Chorus: 
Confutatis maledictis,
flammis acribus addictis,
voca me cum benedictis.

Oro supplex et acclinis,
cor contritum quasi cinis:
gere curam mei finis.

Dies irae, dies illa,
solvet saeclum in favilla,
teste David cum Sibylla.

Solo Quartet and Chorus: 
Lacrymosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favilla,
judicandus homo reus.
Huic ergo parce, Deus.

Pie Jesu Domine:
dona eis requiem.

II. Sequence

The day of wrath, that day will
dissolve the world in ashes,
as David and the Sibyl prophesied.

How great will be the terror,
when the Judge comes
who will smash everything completely!

The trumpet, scattering a marvelous sound
through the tombs of every land,
will gather all before the throne.

Death and Nature shall stand amazed,
when all Creation rises again
to answer to the Judge.

Mezzo-soprano and Chorus: 
A written book will be brought forth,
which contains everything
for which the world will be judged.

Therefore when the Judge takes His seat,
whatever is hidden will be revealed:
nothing shall remain unavenged.

The day of wrath, that day will
dissolve the world in ashes,
as David and the Sibyl prophesied.

Soprano, Mezzo-soprano and Tenor: 
What can a wretch like me say?
Whom shall I ask to intercede for me,
when even the just ones are unsafe?

Solo Quartet and Chorus: 
King of dreadful majesty.
who freely saves the redeemed ones,
save me, O font of pity.

Soprano and Mezzo-soprano: 
Recall, merciful Jesus,
that I was the reason for your journey:
do not destroy me on that day.

In seeking me, you sat down wearily;
enduring the Cross, you redeemed me:
do not let these pains to have been in vain.

Just Judge of punishment:
give me the gift of redemption
before the day of reckoning.

I groan as a guilty one,
and my face blushes with guilt;
spare the supplicant, O God.

You, who absolved Mary Magdalen,
and heard the prayer of the thief,
have given me hope, as well.

My prayers are not worthy,
but show mercy, O benevolent one,
lest I burn forever in fire.

Give me a place among the sheep,
and separate me from the goats,
placing me on your right hand.

Bass and Chorus: 
When the damned are silenced,
and given to the fierce flames,
call me with the blessed ones.

I pray, suppliant and kneeling,
with a heart contrite as ashes:
take my ending into your care.

The day of wrath, that day will
dissolve the world in ashes,
as David and the Sibyl prophesied.

Solo Quartet and Chorus: 
That day is one of weeping,
on which shall rise from the ashes
the guilty man, to be judged.
Therefore, spare this one, O God.

Merciful Lord Jesus:
grant them peace.

III. Offertorio

Domine Jesu Christe, Rex gloriae:
libera animas omnium fidelum
defunctorum de poenis inferni
et profondo lacu; libera eas de ore leonis;
ne absorbeat eas tartarus,
ne cadant in obscurum.
Sed signifer sanctus Michael
repraesentet eas in lucem sanctam.
Quam olim Abrahae promisisti et semini ejus.
Hostias et preces tibi, Domine, laudis offerimus.
Tu suscipe pro animabus illis, quarum hodie memoriam facimus.
Fac eas, Domine, de morte transire ad vitam,
quam olim Abrahae promisisti et semini ejus.

Libera animas omnium fidelum defunctorum de poenis inferni;
fac eas de morte transire ad vitam.

III. Offertorio

O Lord Jesus Christ, King of Glory:
deliver the souls of all the faithful
dead from the pains of hell and from the
deep pit; deliver them from the mouth of the lion;
that hell may not swallow them, and
that they may not fall into darkness.
But may the holy standard-bearer Michael
show them the holy light;
which you once promised to Abraham and his descendents.

We offer to you, O Lord, sacrifices and prayers.
Receive them on behalf of those souls whom we commemorate today.
Grant, O Lord, that they might pass from death into that life
which you once promised to Abraham and his descendents.

Deliver the souls of all the faithful dead from the pains of hell;
Grant that they might pass from death into that life.

IV. Sanctus

Double Chorus: 
Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelsis!
Benedictus qui venit in nomini Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis!

IV. Sanctus

Double Chorus: 
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth.
Heaven and earth are filled with your glory.
Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest!

V. Agnus Dei

Soprano, Mezzo-soprano, and Chorus: 
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem sempiternam.

V. Agnus Dei

Soprano, Mezzo-soprano, and Chorus: 
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest everlasting.

VI. Lux aeterna

Mezzo-soprano, Tenor and Bass: 
Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine,
cum sanctis tuis in aeternam; quia pius es.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis,
cum sanctis tuis in aeternam; quia pius es.

VI. Lux aeterna

Mezzo-soprano, Tenor and Bass: 
Let eternal light shine upon them, O Lord,
with your saints forever; for you are merciful.

Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them
with your saints forever; for you are merciful.

VII. Libera me

Soprano and Chorus: 
Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna in die illa tremenda;
quando coeli movendi sunt et terra:
dum veneris judicare saeclum per ignem.

Tremens factus sum ego et timeo, dum discussio venerit atque ventura irae, quando coeli movendi sunt et terra.

Dies irae, dies illa calamitatis et miseriae; dies magna et amara valde.

Requiem aeternam, dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna in die illa tremenda.

Libera me, Domine, quando coeli movendi sunt et terra;
dum veneris judicare saeclum per ignem.

Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna in die illa tremenda.
Libera me.

VII. Libera me

Soprano and Chorus:
Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death on that awful day,
when the heavens and the earth shall be moved:
when you will come to judge the world by fire.

I tremble, and I fear the judgment and the wrath to come, when the heavens and the earth shall be moved.
The day of wrath, that day of calamity and misery; a great and bitter day, indeed.

Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them.

Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death on that awful day.

Deliver me, O Lord, when the heavens and the earth shall be moved;
when you will come to judge the world by fire.

Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death on that awful day.
Deliver me.



A depiction of the first performance of Verdi’s Requiem at La Scala on May 25, 1874. This engraving appeared in Illustrazione Universale (Milan) that same year.

Giuseppe Verdi

“He went a little further, and saw a vast stretch of land, almost wild. That’s the place! he said to himself. He bought it and began by building a villa. Then he added a garden to the villa, a park to the garden, meadows to the park, woods to the meadows; and over the whole estate he dotted fine, beautiful farms — as many as the operas he composed!”1

Verdi loved the countryside of his childhood and returned as an adult to secure a home for himself. He bought a rundown house and hired local people to help him remodel the house and create an oasis around it. “I do all my writing in the country; somehow there everything comes at once, quite without effort, and I am more contented,”2 he said.

Verdi first learned music from the village organist, Pietro Baistrocchi, whose job he inherited as a teenager when Baistrocchi died. At 13, he began to compose music for church, theater, and the concert hall. In 1832, at the age of 18, Verdi left home for Milan to study counterpoint. His teacher, Vincenzo Lavigna, urged him to attend rehearsals of Haydn’s The Creation. When all three of the concertmasters fell sick at once, Verdi, who had been sitting quietly in a corner for weeks, went to the piano and conducted the rehearsal. He did so well that he was hired to conduct the concert itself.

In 1836, Verdi became maestro di cappella at Busseto and married his student, Margherita Barezzi. Their two children died in 1838 and 1839. The devastated couple moved to Milan for the production of Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio, which garnered a contract for three more operas. Tragically, in 1840, his beloved Margherita died. Verdi was overcome with grief and could not work. “I was convinced that I could find no consolation in my art and decided never to compose again,”3 he wrote.

Then a libretto, pressed upon him by a friend, awakened his creative spark. After the premiere of Nabucco in 1842, Verdi would spend the next 60 years in the public eye as Italy’s most lauded and revered composer. He also befriended his later life-partner, Giuseppina Strepponi, the soprano who premiered the role of Abigaille in Nabucco.

Through the years, Verdi spoke of earning enough money so that he could withdraw from his career in the opera houses and retire to his estate: “A time will come, and it’s not very far off, when I shall say: ‘Farewell, my public; have a good time; my career is over: I’m going to plant cabbages,’”4 he said. Fortunately for music, this time never came. Instead, Verdi founded La Casa di Riposo (The House of Rest), a nursing home for musicians. Verdi and Giuseppina Strepponi, his partner of 50 years, are buried there.

Requiem (1874)

“Young composers must remember that the human voice, apart from being the finest of all instruments, is not merely a sound; poetry is wedded to this sound, and poetry requires an ideal form of expression that is both lofty and always intelligible.5

The deaths of two men whom Verdi revered and Italians embraced as their greatest artists inspired him to compose a mass for the dead: Gioacchino Rossini (d. 1868), sometimes called “The Italian Mozart,” whom Verdi came to know while living in Paris; and Alessandro Manzoni (d. 1873), author of one of the 19th century’s greatest novels, I promessi (The Betrothed), and an ardent champion of Italian independence and unification. Verdi had not composed sacred works for 30 years, so he studied several requiems, such as those by Rossini, Mozart, Berlioz, and Cherubini — all based on the second-century Catholic mass for the dead.6 Verdi’s intent was not to compose ecclesiastical music but to pay tribute to cultural giants, so he did not include such traditional movements as “Gloria,” “Credo,” and “In Paradisum.” When critics complained that the Requiem was too operatic, his partner Giuseppina Strepponi wrote to a friend, “What I say is that a man like Verdi ought to write like Verdi, that is, according to his way of feeling and interpreting the text. It is clear that the religious spirit and the works that express it ought to bear the imprint of the epoch and of the individual. Which means I would disown a mass by Verdi made according to recipe A, B, or C!!”7

The Requiem opens with grief-laden voices that seem to have barely enough energy to sing the words “Requiem aeternam.” The dark tone momentarily gives way to a consolatory “Lux aeterna,” but then the “Dies irae” strips away the premature hope. Rather than representing mere dramatic gesture, Verdi’s Requiem reflects the human struggle to understand life’s impenetrable mysteries once childhood belief in church teachings is shattered, a conflict that engaged him throughout his lifetime.

Two large sections dominate the structure of the Requiem: the nine parts of the “Dies irae” (“Day of wrath”) which features the soloists in various combinations with each other and with the chorus, and the concluding “Libera me” for soprano soloist and chorus. These are the two most dramatic sections, full of sharp contrasts and descriptive writing. Repetitions of text and music help give them their sense of unity.

The “Dies irae” is based on a medieval poem in which a sinner pleads for salvation. Verdi gives the chorus a strenuous, chromatic line in octaves, sung full voice in the midst of a cataclysm of thunderous drums, lightening-strike chords, and plunging and climbing runs in the orchestra. The furious energy abates only for the second stanza, “Quantus tremor est futurus” (“How great a trembling there shall be”). Here the orchestra is soft and staccato as the chorus, sotto voce, stutters out its fright.

A brass fanfare builds into the blaze of sound that introduces the next stanza, “Tuba mirum spargens sonum” (“The trumpet scatters a marvelous sound”). These words, sung by the chorus in ringing tones, abruptly end with an unexpected modulation. Again the orchestra prefaces the next lines of text, “Mors stupebit et natura” (“Death and nature will stand aghast”), with a halting figure in the lowest instruments. Over repetitions of this figure, the bass soloist sings a short, gruff passage describing Judgment Day.

A long solo for the mezzo-soprano soloist follows for the next two stanzas, “Liber scriptus proferetur” and “Judex ergo cum sedebit” (“The written record shall be brought forth” and “When the Judge shall preside”). In reaction to the mezzo-soprano’s sobering description of the great book of all things to be judged, the chorus mutters “dies irae” on a single pitch. A whirling in the strings wells up into a furious reprise of the opening.

With “Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?” (“What can a wretch like me say?”), the perspective changes from that of a narrator to a first-person account by a penitent sinner. Verdi gives this lament to a trio of soloists (no bass). In a striking descant, the choral basses sing “Rex tremendae majestatis” (“King of majesty”). The third line of the stanza, “Salva me, fons pietatis” (“Save me, fountain of mercy”), embodies personal supplication as all four soloists and the full chorus sing an upwardly arching melody. The basses intervene with their menacing “Rex tremendae,” but the repetitions of “Salva me” continue until the phrase finally blooms with the combined forces of soloists and chorus.

The next stanzas, still in first-person perspective, are given to the soloists: a beautiful duet for soprano and mezzo (“Recordare”), a lyrical arioso for tenor (“lngemisco”), and a mournful aria for bass (“Confutatis”). The “Dies irae” returns with its original fury, only to disappear into the beautiful “Lacrymosa dies illa.” (“Tearful shall be that day”). The mezzo-soprano introduces the touching melody, which the chorus takes up. A progression of key changes makes a transition into the graceful prayer for eternal rest.

The four soloists sing the third movement, the “Offertorium,” in which the soprano’s delayed entrance delivers hopeful words about Saint Michael. A dignified march, “Quam olim Abrahae,” precedes and follows the tenor’s introduction of the “Hostias,” a passage of transcendent beauty.

A brilliant and uplifting fugue for double chorus follows. The “Sanctus,” which begins with a double fugue, is the most extended cheerful music in the composition. Verdi was not inclined to write pure fugues in the manner of his musical predecessors.8 He ends the movement with the melodic line stretching out part of the opening subject and the choral treatment reaching a rousing conclusion.

The haunting peacefulness of the “Agnus Dei,” sung by the female soloists and the chorus, is followed by the “Lux aeterna,” set for the lower three solo voices. Luminous harmonic changes, shimmering tremolos in the strings, colorful instrumentation, and subtle shifts of mood create a rare sense of mystery and, finally, wholeness.

The last movement, “Libera me,” begins with the soprano soloist’s plea to be spared from judgment. The chorus echoes her words in hushed chords until the raging “Dies irae” explodes on the scene once more. After the storm dies down, the gentle music that began the entire piece returns, but the orchestra’s part is now taken by the chorus and soloists a cappella, in a hushed and painfully touching passage.

This moment of magical stillness is shattered as the soprano cries out in terror, leading to a full-fledged fugue for the chorus. The subject of this fugue, with its odd intervals and dizzying changes of direction, has an almost jaunty rhythm that propels it through various melodic permutations and keys. Twice the soprano joins in and brings a gentler character to the music; but once the basses put a short, sinister fragment of the fugue subject to the words “dum veneris,” the music inexorably grows to its enormous climax.

The last bars of the work bring back for a third time the soprano soloist’s desperate call of “Libera me,” now an octave lower, nearly exhausted. The concluding C-major chord of this mighty composition offers only a shadow of hope.

The phenomenal success of the Requiem would have been a fitting end to an incomparable career. But Verdi, disillusioned by the lack of Italian political unity and indignant over Italy’s dwindling musical heritage, did not retire to tend his cabbage patch. He continued to write great music, including the operas Otello and Falstaff, and the choral work Quattro Pezzi Sacri (Four Sacred Pieces).

The 1944 performance of the Requiem by a chorus of 150 Jews in Terezín, a Nazi concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, is a fitting postscript to the history of this great work. With only a broken piano and one score, the inmates learned the powerful, inspiring Requiem and sang it for the only audience they had—their captors and fellow prisoners. Marianka May, one of the survivors, said, “This is our way of fighting back—we have a vision of high art. The Verdi Requiem is the pinnacle of defiance.”

— by Carol Talbeck, reprinted courtesy of the San Francisco Choral Society

  1. “Verdi (1879),” by A. de Lauzières-Thémines, in Encounters with Verdi, Marello Conati, editor, and Richard Stokes, translator. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y., 1984.
  2. “My First Interview with Verdi (1875),” by Blanche Roosevelt, in Encounters with Verdi, editor Marcello Conati, Cornell University Press, 1984.
  3. The Man Verdi,by Frank Walker, Alfred A. Knopf, N.Y., 1972.
  4. “An Interview with Verdi (1887),” by Gino Monaldi, in Encounters with Verdi.
  5. Verdi first conceived of the Requiemas a collaborative effort among Italy’s leading composers; it was to be performed on the first anniversary of Rossini’s death. Although Verdi was able to put together the “Rossini Requiem,” the logistics of assembling so many performers in one place at one time became prohibitive, and he sent back the scores to the composers. The Messa per Rossini was finally recompiled and performed in 1988, when Helmuth Rilling conducted it in Stuttgart. Manzoni’s death, four years after Rossini’s, inspired Verdi to compose an entire requiem mass himself.
  6. Quoted in many sources, among them the San Francisco Symphony program notes by Michael Steinberg, 1983.
  7. Reflecting on his early studies with Lavigna, Verdi said, “In the three years spent with him, I did not do anything but canons and fugues, fugues and canons of all sorts. No one taught me orchestration and how to treat dramatic music” (from The Man Verdi).