Nabucco, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, Aida, Messa da Requiem, and Otello
Born: either 9 or 10 October (baptized 11 October) 1813, Roncole, Parma, Italy.
Verdi supposedly celebrated on the 9th.
Died: 27 January 1901, Milan
Verdi rapidly exhausted the musical resources of the small village where he was born and moved to nearby Busseto at the age of 10. Local funding enabled him to travel to Milan to study composition when he was 18. After being rejected by the conservatory there (the assistant to the head of the conservatory predicted “that he will turn out to be a mediocrity” [Phillips-Matz, 44]), he studied privately for several years before returning to Busseto. Here he served as town music director and wrote his first opera, moving back to Milan to prepare for the work’s premiere at La Scala in 1839.
The success of the first opera generated a contract for further works, but Verdi’s following piece, the last comic opera he was to write until Falstaff, failed. This, combined with the death of his wife and children, led him to renounce composition (or so he claimed later in life). Fortunately any such renunciation was temporary, and the success of his next composition, Nabucco (1842), sparked a period of intense productivity, with thirteen operas appearing in several countries over the next eight years. Of this batch, the most successful are I Lombardi (1843), Ernani (1844), Macbeth (1847), and Luisa Miller (1849). The works that are best known to opera lovers today begin with the amazing trio of Rigoletto (1851), Il trovatore (1853), and La traviata (1853). The first of these was written at a time of intense personal stress. Verdi was living with retired prima donna Giuseppina Strepponi (whom he later married) and was in the process of an ugly formal separation (that he initiated) from his parents. To make matters worse, Strepponi may have been pregnant at the time. Certain factors suggest that a child born—and immediately abandoned—a month after Rigoletto’s premiere was Verdi’s illegitimate daughter.
Verdi also had to deal with the problems of censorship. In Rigoletto, which is based on a famous play by Victor Hugo, Le Roi s’amuse (the King amuses himself), Verdi had to demote the libertine King to the level of Duke. In another instance, Un ballo in maschera, based on the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, was unacceptable in its presentation of regicide, so the King eventually became the governor of Massachusetts instead (one of the more bizarre plot changes in the history of opera).
After La traviata, Verdi became very selective in his commissions. Pacing himself more slowly (he became increasingly involved in the management of his estates and was active in politics for some time), he generated Les Vêpres siciliennes (1855), Simon Boccanegra (1857), Un ballo in maschera (1859), La forza del destino (1862), Don Carlos (1867), and what for many years was assumed to be his last opera: Aida (1871). But after an extensive hiatus Verdi was tempted back to the stage by the superb libretto for Otello provided by Arrigo Boito (1842–1918), himself the composer of the opera Mefistofele, which has a great part for chorus in the prologue (reprised in part in the epilogue). Otello premiered in 1887, Verdi’s 74th year, and was followed six years later by Falstaff, again on a libretto by Boito. These two works—considered by more than a few to be Verdi’s greatest achievements—are testament to a creative mind that was not only undiminished but actually enhanced by age and experience (this accomplishment is worth bearing in mind by those ready to jettison older workers).
As a young man Verdi explored a wide variety of genres and wrote many sacred choral works, but few early pieces survive. The primary focus of his mature professional life was opera, though he occasionally sampled other genres, especially in his later years. Non-operatic works include a string quartet (in e minor, from 1880) works for solo voice (including two sets of Sei romanze, from 1838 and 1845, as well as a late Ave Maria, from 1880, for soprano and strings), and, most important, compositions for chorus. His first collaboration with Boito was the choral/orchestral Inno delle nazioni from 1862, and his Requiem of 1874 is one of the foremost works of the entire choral repertoire. Other late choral works are his Pater noster (1880) and the pieces collected in 1898 as Quattro pezzi sacri (Ave Maria, Laudi alla Vergine Maria, Te Deum, Stabat Mater), which show the influence of Palestrina as well as the significance of sacred vocal writing at the close of his creative life. It is telling that, after the operatic fires had died, he returned to a genre that had occupied him in his earliest years as a writer.
The opera is based on the biblical story (II Chronicles 36) of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco) who enslaved the Jews and took them to Babylon where they remained in captivity for some time (they return in Ezra 1). The term “Babylonian Captivity” refers to this story; historians also use these words to describe the period in the fourteenth century when the papacy was based to Avignon in the south of France rather its traditional seat in Rome. And Verdi’s opera has led many to see the Italians’ relationship to their Austrian rulers as the same as those of the Jews to the Babylonians.
The Congress of Vienna (1814-15) redivided Italy after Napoleon’s rule had ended, with the result that Italy was a hodge-podge of territories, with the Austrians having the greatest power in the region. Slowly but surely the movement for Italian independence and reunification known as the risorgimento gained strength, until much of the peninsula was unified by 1861. Though Verdi was not in cahoots with the leadership of the risorgimento, sentiments expressed in his operas have led many to associate him with this movement. Certainly the cry “Viva Verdi” was widely perceived as a cover for
“Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia” (long live Victor Emanual, King of Italy).
“Va pensiero” came to represent Italian patriotism, and in some ways it came to represent Verdi himself. It was sung in his funeral cortège, and it was associated in Verdi’s own mind with the defining point of his operatic career. Although the following story is probably not completely true, it was authorized by Verdi and shows what he wanted to think, or came to believe, about “Va pensiero.”
According to this story, Verdi had renounced composition but one day ran into La Scala’s impresario, who gave him the libretto of Nabucco. At home, the unhappy Verdi threw the manuscript on the table; by chance it opened to the text of “Va pensiero” and Verdi found himself caught by the words and began to read. Although he tried to stick to his resolve not to compose, he was overcome in spite of himself, and Nabucco slowly took form. The opera, as we know, became his first great success and changed the course of his life (and the history of music).
Nabucco is advancing on the Temple in Jerusalem. Ismaele (the King of Jerusalem’s nephew) is in love with Fenena, Nabucco’s daughter. Abigaille, said to be Nabucco’s daughter but really a slave, is also in love with Ismaele. Nabucco and company enter the Temple. Zaccaria, the High Priest, tries to kill Fenena, but Ismaele stops him, and the Temple is sacked.
The Jews are captive in Babylon. Nabucco is off at war and Fenena is regent, but she has converted to Judaism. Abigaille discovers that she is a slave and decides to seize power. Confronting Fenena, she demands the crown, but just then Nabucco returns and takes it, proclaiming himself God. A clap of thunder strikes him mad, and Abigaille takes the crown.
Scene 1. Abigaille, acting as regent, plans to slaughter the Jews.
Scene 2. The banks of the Euphrates—our turn to sing at last! We are Hebrew slaves, singing “Va pensiero” about our lost homeland.
This chorus is unusual in being essentially an aria for choir. We sing almost entirely in octaves, breaking into harmony only rarely and frequently reiterating the dotted rhythm of the opening. The overall simplicity of construction (and thus the work’s ready memorability) was doubtless a factor in helping this selection achieve its symbolic status.
After our song, Zaccaria prophesies that we will be triumphant in the end.
Nabucco, in prison, converts to Judaism and then rushes to rescue Fenena from execution. The false idol is destroyed, and Abigaille, who has taken poison, dies.
This has one of the more complex plots in the operatic repertoire, in part because much of the important action takes place before or between acts. The opera was based on a (then) famous play, so it’s not just the librettist’s fault.
Before the Opera Begins
The old Count di Luna had two sons, of which the younger was said to have been bewitched by a gypsy. This gypsy was hunted down and burned to death. To avenge her, her daughter Azucena stole the younger son, intending to burn him to death as well, but by accident killed her own son instead. She then kept the Count’s younger son and raised him as her own. By the time the opera begins, the old count is dead and the new count is a grown man.
Scene 1. The Count’s palace; the chorus men are the count’s soldiers and retainers (no women around at this point). To while away the time, Ferrando (Captain of the Guard) recounts the tale of the past as he understands it (that the Count’s younger brother was killed by Azucena). The chorus men provide interjections at appropriate points in the story.
Scene 2. The noblewoman Leonora is loved by the Count, but she is actually in love with Manrico, Azucena’s “son,” the troubadour (trovatore) who has been serenading her. Leonora, the Count, and Manrico encounter each other in the palace garden, and the two men rush off for a swordfight.
Between the Acts
Manrico wins the swordfight but, inexplicably, cannot bring himself to kill the Count (who is, of course, unknown to everyone except Azucena, his brother). Not long thereafter there is a battle between the Count’s forces and Manrico’s, during which Manrico is believed to be killed, but Azucena searches for and finds him on the battlefield.
Scene 1. The gypsy camp. We are gypsies here, and open the act as the sun rises with the famous “Anvil Chorus,” sung while the male gypsies bang on anvils with hammers (Men: the orchestra will provide anvils, but you must bring your own hammers . . . just joking). Women supply the drinks and sing along; we all praise the “Zingarella,” the female gypsy, who brightens life for the male gypsy. Azucena interrupts with a description of a woman about to be burned at the stake (obviously her mother); we comment on the sadness of her song but then head away into town for food, reprising the Anvil Chorus as we go. After we are gone, Azucena reveals what happened many years ago but then claims the story is just “stupid words.” Manrico learns that Leonora, believing him dead, is about to join a convent, so he rushes off to find her.
Scene 2. The convent, where the Count plans to abduct Leonora before she can take the veil. Manrico appears in time to stop him and escape with Leonora.
Scene 1. The men, as soldiers, are in the Count’s camp, and open the act by singing about their prowess in the coming battle. Afterwards, Azucena is recognized as the one who “killed” the Count’s younger brother. She is sent to be burned at the stake.
Scene 2. Leonora and Manrico are about to marry when he learns that his “mother” is to be burned at the stake, so he rushes off to rescue her.
Scene 1. Manrico has been captured and is in prison with Azucena. Outside the prison Leonora sings of her love for Manrico while the (offstage) male chorus, this time fulfilling the role of monks, sings a “Miserere” for Manrico’s soul. Leonora then makes a deal with the Count that she will marry him if he releases Manrico, but she secretly poisons herself to avoid this fate.
Scene 2. Inside the prison cell, Leonora comes to free Manrico but dies in his arms after the Count enters. The Count sends Manrico away to be killed. After his death, Azucena reveals that Manrico was really the Count’s brother.
This opera, which was actually not a success at its premiere, was based on La Dame aux camélias, a very famous contemporary novel and then play (supposedly based on a true story) by Alexandre Dumas fils. Alexandre Dumas père, by the way, was the author of The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Black Tulip, and other works. And while we’re on the subject of nineteenth-century French literature, two other famous works about courtesans (who played a bigger role in society than one might imagine) are Zola’s Nana and Balzac’s Cousine Bette.
Party at Violetta’s house; she’s the “traviata,” the “one who has gone astray” (she’s a courtesan). We, the chorus, are her hedonistic guests, fond of parties, drinking, and dancing. These are the subjects we sing about, happily joining in the drinking song begun by Alfredo, a young man from a good family who is an admirer of Violetta’s. After this song we are about to head into the ballroom to dance when Violetta cries out. Although she is suddenly feeling ill, she claims that the weakness was momentary when we express our concern. We leave, after which Alfredo confesses his love for her. Then he leaves and we return, since dawn is approaching, and sing our thanks and farewell to Violetta. Once we are gone she muses on the possibility of love but decides (temporarily, as it turns out) that she must remain free.
Scene 1. Alfredo and Violetta are living together in her country house. Violetta is visited by Alfredo’s father, who asks her to end the liaison for the sake of both Alfredo and Alfredo’s sister. Violetta decides to do so because she loves him, but will not tell Alfredo the real reason for her leaving him.
Scene 2. Alfredo tracks down Violetta at a party where she is with Baron Douphol, her protector. Violetta begs Alfredo to leave to avoid problems with the Baron, whom she pretends to love. Incensed, Alfredo abuses her in front of all the guests but is himself rebuked by his father.
Violetta is dying of consumption (the nineteenth-century name for tuberculosis; this being opera, we must suspend our disbelief that someone dying of a lung disease could sing so well). Alfredo’s father has finally revealed the true meaning of Violetta’s sacrifice to his son, who arrives in time for Violetta to die in his arms.
Aida was written on commission for the Cairo Opera House. When the opera had its premiere on Christmas Eve 1871, it was a cultural event of international proportions, fully deserving the acclaim it received.
Scene 1. The Egyptians are preparing for battle (again) with the Ethiopians. The Egyptian Radames loves Aida, born the daughter of the King of Ethiopia but now the slave of Egyptian princess Amneris, who also loves Radames (nothing like a good operatic love triangle; remember Nabucco?).
Scene 2. The investiture of Radames, who will lead the Egyptians into battle.
Scene 1. Our turn to sing. The battle has ended and the Egyptians are preparing for the triumphal ceremonies. The women open the act as Moorish slaves of Amneris, singing to her that after military victory comes love. We reiterate these sentiments after a lively dance. Aida then enters, and Amneris cruelly tells her that Radames has been killed (not nice). Perceiving Aida’s distress at this statement, she reveals that Radames is actually alive and that she, Amneris, is also in love with him. As a chorus, we are now transformed from foreign slaves into patriotic Egyptians (the men join in), singing in the distance while Amneris continues to taunt Aida with her servile position.
Scene 2. The triumphal return of Radames, with Aida’s father in tow; Radames is to marry Amneris. But before the soloists take over, and while everyone is coming onstage, we (and the orchestra) are the musical center of attention. As Egyptians and priests we sing of the glory of Egypt twice, with our choral salutations framing the extremely famous orchestral interlude. Visually this is one of the greatest of all operatic spectacles, but even without the costumes, extras, movement, and props, the scene’s power and effect is felt by the audience. I’ve just seen Aida (July 2017) at the gorgeous National Theater (Národní divadlo) in Prague, and they managed to get 120 people (singers, dancers, ceremonial trumpet players, extras) onto a not-so-big stage for this scene. Even in an uninspiring production, as this one was, this scene is pretty amazing.
Moonlight on the Nile. Aida meets her father Amonasro, who wants her to get classified information from Radames to help the Ethiopians. Aida then meets Radames; they plan to flee, but her father confronts them. Amneris and her cohort overhear this but fail to capture Aida or Amonasro, who flee while Radames surrenders.
Scene 1. Radames is condemned to death.
Scene 2. The famous split stage: the temple is above while Radames is entombed below, having been sealed in to die. To his surprise he is joined by Aida, who has to decided to perish along with her love. The choral accompaniment here (we are temple singers, invoking the god Fthà) is Verdi’s stab at sounding Egyptian. He went to a lot of trouble to find out about music in ancient Egypt as he was writing the opera, but you know what? There’s pretty much nothing left. So we have a D-flat major key signature (five flats) that doesn’t sound at all like D-flat major because of all the slithery chromatic vocal writing that includes double flats on E and B and a C-flat thrown in for good measure. For the conclusion Verdi switches to six flats, and after some more chromatic fare we really do settle down to G-flat major, as Aida dies in Radames’s arms, poor Amneris prays for peace (for once the mezzo has a really meaty role, instead of the usual minor sidekick part that mezzos typically get), and the chorus intones the last words as the curtain gently falls.
Messa da Requiem
Verdi’s Requiem began with the death of Giacchino Rossini on 13 November 1868. Although it had been almost forty years since Rossini’s last opera, Guillaume Tell (1829), he was deservedly still revered as the composer of more than three dozen operas, including L’italiana in Algeri, La Cenerentola, Semiramide, and of course the sparkling Il barbiere di Siviglia. Verdi, the premier Italian opera composer of his time, wished to pay homage to the premier Italian opera composer of the preceding generation, and proposed a Requiem mass jointly composed by leading Italian contemporaries (this despite the fact that Verdi was probably agnostic or perhaps even an atheist). A committee at the Milan Conservatory handled assignments and logistics, and invitations were issued to a group of composers that included Antonio Bazzini, Raimondo Boucheron, Antonio Buzzolla, Antonio Cagnoni, Carlo Coccia, Gaetano Gaspari, Teodulo Mabellini, Saverio Mercadante, Alessandro Nini, Carlo Pedrotti, Erico Petrella, Pietro Platania, Federico Ricci, Lauro Rossi, and of course Verdi. Heard of any of them besides Verdi? I didn’t think so. Well, maybe Mercadante, who declined the invitation. The others, essentially unknown to the average music-lover today, were chapel masters for the most important Italian churches of the time. The problem, of course, was that these chapels were in the midst of a prolonged musical decline; the glories of their sixteenth-century musical lives were long past, and serious talent headed elsewhere for their musical careers.
This is not to say that there was no good Italian choral music written in the earlier nineteenth century. Rossini himself created his 1841 Stabat Mater (the most significant work pre-Verdi in the realm of Italian sacred choral music) as well as the Petite messe solennelle, and of course the chorus played a significant role in many operas, including Verdi’s. But sacred choral music was not in general a site for the efforts of major composers. This is true to a large extent across Europe, moving hand in hand with the falling prestige of religion. The healthy growth of amateur choral singing was only partial compensation for the loss of sacred musical patronage.
The composers of the Requiem for Rossini were assigned specific sections to write, with instructions including performing forces, key, and tempo for their part. In contrast to normal church music of the time, women were to be allowed to sing in church for the occasion (sad but true that they were normally banned from doing so). Verdi was to compose the “Libera me” that would conclude the work. The plan was for a performance exactly one year from the day of Rossini’s death, a common practice for unveiling monuments and the like. This did not happen, and the completed (and unperformed) mass lay undisturbed in the vaults of the Casa Ricordi (Verdi’s publisher) until 1986.
Fast forward to 22 May 1873, the day another major figure in Italian cultural life passed away. This time it was the writer Alessandro Manzoni (b. 1785), author of I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) and hands down the leading Italian man of letters, adored by his compatriots and loathed by the Austrians who had ruled Italy. His novel, published in 1827, took the peninsula by storm, racing through nine editions in four years. Although the book takes place in the seventeenth century, the political setting of Italian lands under foreign domination was the same as that of the time it was written, and Italians took the analogy to heart. Regardless of analogy, however, the novel is a great read, one of those deliciously thick nineteenth-century volumes where the good guys are busy getting into terrible situations, leaving you at the edge of your seat wondering how the author can possibly extricate them from the latest mess. Great fun.
Like all smart people, Verdi had learned from his bad experience, and set out this time to write a Requiem for Manzoni by himself (supposedly making his pledge at the author’s grave). He was not starting from scratch, as he already had his “Libera me” (which he revised), and he built the “Lacrycmosa” from a discarded Don Carlo duet. The orchestra was large but not huge: two flutes and piccolo (with the piccolo player switching to flute for the Agnus), two oboes, two clarinets, four bassoons, four horns, four trumpets (plus four more, “distant and invisible”), three trombones, ophicleide, timpani, bass drum, and five-part strings. The four part chorus (which splits into two for the Sanctus) is joined by SATB soloists (more than the usual number for a Requiem). And what is an ophicleide, you may be asking? It’s a “keyed brasswind instrument” (in the words of New Grove), first made in 1821 and given prominent parts by Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner, and others, including Verdi. These days its parts are usually played by a tuba, which, however, does not really capture the ophicleide’s sound, a cross between a saxophone and a euphonium.
The completed work premiered, with Verdi conducting, on 22 May 1874, the anniversary of Manzoni’s death. The soprano soloist was Verdi’s first Aida after that opera’s premiere, while the contralto was his favorite Amneris (Aida had debuted in 1871). The site was the Chiesa San Marco in Milan, which had the best acoustics.
The performance was part of an actual liturgical service (though without communion), with the plainchant bits sung not in Gregorian chant but in Ambrosian (multiple types of plainchant existed in the Middle Ages, and although Gregorian chant eventually became dominant, a few places remained holdouts; Milan was one of them). Despite this liturgical inauguration, the Requiem rapidly assumed its current position in concert rather than religious life. At the time, in 1874, it was generally assumed (including by Verdi himself) that the Requiem would be the composer’s final major work. His two great last operas, Otello and Falstaff, were “surprises,” in effect, coming more than a decade later respectively in 1887 (when Verdi was 74) and 1893, as he turned 80. There are fields, including musical ones, where achievement burns brightest at a young age. Classical music is fortunately not one of those.
The work has seven movements, as given below.
- Requiem e Kyrie
- Dies irae
- Agnus Dei
- Lux aeterna
- Libera me
Scholars disagree as to whether the work is “an opera in ecclesiastical garb,” as conductor Hans von Bülow called it, but it is certainly a dramatic work, and not just in the obvious spots (e.g., Dies irae). And it certainly demands operatic quality singing from its soloists. The opening movement combines the first two components of a Requiem mass, the Introit (“Requiem aeternam” etc.) and the Kyrie, which marks the entrance of the soloists. The challenge, of course, is to get the widely-varied dynamics right. Is any conductor ever satisifed with the opening whisper? The hushed A Minor opening moves to A Major with the text “et lux” (and light) and the movement ends in that key as well (visiting, of course, other places along the way)
The Dies irae is the longest movement, which makes sense given that it is the longest text, divided by Verdi into multiple sections:
- Dies irae
- Tuba mirum
- Mors stupebit
- Liber scriptus
- Quid sum miser
- Rex tremendae
The movement is the liturgical Sequence, and its dramatic text (“day of wrath...”) tends to call forth equally dramatic music from composers. After the quiet A Major ending of the opening movement, Verdi jolts any sleeping audience member awake with huge G Minor chords in the orchestra, a fortissimo dynamic indication, and the men’s rising chromatic line leading to the full chorus blazing away, with high G’s held against the chromatic descent, enlivened with twisting triplets. That phrase is immediately repeated, but now with that pounding off-beat bass drum giving an extra punch. Our syncopation begins with “solvet saeclum” (“in favilla” is a nice spot for that, too). Verdi being Verdi, of course, it’s soon time for a change, and things wind down (in terms of dynamics, though not in terms of tension) through our “cuncta stricte discussurus.”
And then, of course, comes one of the coolest things in choral music. Is there a choral singer alive who is not blissfully happy to be on stage as the distant trumpets begin their back and forth and around, building, building, ever building, until they are joined by the full orchestra and, of course, us, the icing on the cake, for the megalicious “Tuba mirum”? The gesture is reminiscent of the equally spectacular treatment of the same text in the Berlioz Requiem, with its spatially separate brass bands; Verdi very likely knew this part, as it was an excerpt in Berlioz’s orchestration treatise.
After that we get to take a breather while the bass, singing “Mors stupebit,” provides the introduction to the alto’s solo, “Liber scriptus.” We pop in a little “Dies irae” every now and then, so we have to pay attention, but all eyes (ears) are on the soloist. Interestingly, this movement started life (and made it through the premiere) as a choral/orchestral fugue. Verdi discarded that original in favor of the solo for a performance in London in 1875, and that’s how it’s been done ever since.
When the soloist is finished, the attention is back on us, as our soft “dies iraes” intensify to a full-blown repeat of earlier “Dies irae” material. Then we get a real rest during the solo SAT trio of “Quid sum miser.” We’re back for the “Rex tremendae” with all four soloists, which comes to a peaceful conclusion before the solo duet for soprano and alto, the “Recordare.” Then it’s the tenor’s turn (“Ingemisco”), followed by the bass “Confutatis.” When he’s done, we sing another quick and loud “Dies irae,” repeating some of our opening material. All these repeated “Dies irae” sections? They’re not part of the original Sequence text. Verdi’s just throwing them in because, well, you know, they’re pretty dramatic, and if anyone understood theater, it was Verdi.
The movement draws to a close with the “Lacrymosa,” (a minor-mode “Eensy-weensy spider”) with full chorus and all soloists. I don’t know about you, but I love that little sobbing grace note on “lacrymosa DI-es illa” (m. 647), and in general this slithery movement is a good sing. And that great descending B-flat Minor scale (m. 681)—wow! Verdi finally brings this longest of movements to a peaceful close. “Dona eis requiem, amen” (grant them rest, amen) moves to a Picardy third, taking us, finally, into B-flat Major to end the movement.
At this point we are almost an hour into the piece (and at the point where many performances insert an intermission). I never thought about this when I was younger, but now that I’m older I’m much more aware of what it takes to perform a work of this size. A very large group of musicians, usually more than 200, is gathered together and intensely focused on moving together at precisely the same moment with precisely the same dynamic and precisely the same pitch and precisely the same pronunciation. And an audience, much larger still, is intensely focused on the unfolding of this process and waiting to see how this work will be interpreted and what new (or old) wonders will be revealed on hearing a beloved piece live and fresh and always new. It’s really quite miraculous.
And of course we’re not done yet. People have much longer attention spans than they are given credit for, and we’ve got a good forty-five or so minutes left. The chorus finally gets to sit down for a rest while the solo quartet gives us a benign Offertory in A-flat Major. And then we’re up again for another great sing, the Sanctus (now in F Major) that opens with trumpet fanfare, and then fleetly presents this joyful text as a fugue for double chorus. Hosanna in excelsis indeed! This is the only movement without soloists, and it’s right smack in the center of the seven movements.
The quiet, gently moving C Major Agnus Dei follows, a set of variations for soprano and alto soloists and the chorus, and it’s always a challenge. The pitches are easy enough; we’re often in octaves, and it’s basically the same melody (at least for the women) over and over again to match the three-fold text, but the danger of going flat on the descending melodic line is omnipresent, and of course it’s soooooo easy to sing softly on high notes, isn’t it? I’m always a little relieved when it’s over.
One more choral rest while the ATB soloists sing the “Lux aeterna” (the Communion for the Requiem mass, now in Bb) and then it’s off to the races for the “Libera me.” Technically speaking, this is not part of the Requiem mass proper. Rather, it is a Responsory performed during the “Absolution” that follows the Requiem mass and is said over the coffin. Obviously, Manzoni’s coffin was not present for Verdi’s premiere (nor would Rossini’s coffin have been around years earlier), and in fact, Requiems do not usually set this text (e.g. Mozart, Berlioz, though some Italian ones do). Instead, they usually end with the “Lux aeterna.” But guess what? “Free me from eternal death on that dreadful day etc.” offers much greater potential for dramatic writing than “may eternal light shine upon them.” I think we can all be pretty happy that Verdi went against convention here.
The unaccompanied soprano soloist (who’s had an entire movement to rest before she sings) gets things going with her rapid-fire delivery of the opening text, and then we get to do the same thing in choral recitative twice, once on an Eb-major triad and then down a whole step. Then we turn things back over to the soprano for a dramatic rendition of the next portion of the text. She’s in C Minor, but brings her part to conclusion with an ethereal shift to C Major, followed by a long pause. And then we are back in with—the “Dies irae” music, from the beginning of that movement! But this time the “dies irae” words are part of the Responsory text; Verdi’s not taking any liberties here. And those words are followed in the Responsory by the same text that opens the Requiem mass, “Requiem aeternam” etc. Verdi obligingly brings back the music with which he opened the mass, but transforms it, as we now have a soprano soloist doing the heavy lifting with the melodic line. Except, of course, she must be feather-light when she sings the octave leap to high Bb that concludes this section. (We must remember that, in reality, Verdi is extracting music from the “Libera me” to use earlier in the Requiem, since the last movement was written first).
One more long pause and then the soprano is back with another fast, repeated-note rendition of the “Libera me” text. At the beginning of the movement everything was on C until almost the end, but here she starts on Db and inches ever higher before swooping down to middle C, at which point the altos begin one of the all-time great choral fugues. Verdi is hardly the first name that pops into mind when the word “fugue” appears, but this one is terrific, with plenty of dynamic changes, sequential motion, chromatic play, and contrasting articulation to keep us on our toes. We have the fugue to ourselves for a while, and then the soprano joins back in.
The dynamic play throughout is especially incredible. We pull way back, for example, with the soprano re-entry at 262, but then build and build and build to that great high B natural at 292 (chorus sopranos doubling the solist there). But we’re not done yet, for we have our sequential “movendi sunt” rising higher and higher to another B natural (m. 304). The word here is “heaven,” so this is text painting, and then we fall down much lower and softer for “terra,” earth. Speaking of high notes, Verdi wanted a tuning of A = 435, thus a smidgeon lower than the more usual A = 440 (slight consolation for sopranos).
More fugal entries (m. 312), this time in stretto, and soft, and we remain soft when the soprano comes in again and takes over (Lord, Lord, free me...). And then basses get us going on “Dum veneris” (pick-up to 367) and we begin our final build to our fortissimo, homorhythmic, accented “Domine, Domine” (Lord, Lord, free me...). We are joined by the soprano as she soars to the climax of the entire piece on her high C, and then we all fall to a C Minor cadence. The brief aftermath is almost consistently soft, slowing down and dying away—deliver me, deliver me, deliver me—libera me, libera me, libera me. Magically, at the very end, Verdi raises the Eb to an E natural; we are delivered into C Major. All will be well.
A Personal Note
The Verdi Requiem was the first really large choral work I ever sang, and it remains my favorite work by the composer. It was for the spring concert the end of my freshman year in college, and it was one of the many works I discovered that year that made it impossible for me to consider any life other than one in music. Although I’d sung in choirs before then, the diet of fourth-rate choral dreck that made up my high school’s vocal fare was, shall we say, uninspiring. Exposure to Palestrina and Gabrieli and Copland and Ives and Verdi quite literally changed my life. I can only wish similar experiences for everyone.
The suggestion that Verdi write Otello came from music publisher Giulio Ricordi over dinner in the summer of 1879, accompanied by the recommendation that Boito provide the libretto. The very next day Boito visited Verdi, and a mere three days later he provided a draft of libretto, with the full version following thereafter. But Verdi was noncommital, and began to compose only in 1884. It was his first new opera since Aida (1871), and Verdi was at the height of his musical powers and his theatrical influence, with everyone helping to further his progress. The first Desdemona came to stay at Sant’ Agata (Verdi’s villa) so that the part could be tailored to her voice; the baritone who wanted to play Iago offered to lower his usual fee; a special bass drum and trumpets were manufactured to Verdi’s specifications, and so on.
For a while the opera was to be titled “Jago” (the spelling Verdi used for Iago), both in recognition of Iago’s major role and in deference to Rossini, who had written his own (now essentially forgotten) Otello. But Otello it became, and the piece was a huge success from the moment of its February 1887 premiere at La Scala. Verdi bought a plot of land in Milan with the money he earned, and Boito’s architect brother designed a rest home for musicians thereon, the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, which Verdi later declared was the favorite of all of his (Verdi’s) works.
Although one can still perceive various “set” pieces throughout the work, they are more closely integrated into the composition than ever before in Verdi’s output. And for those of us not enamoured of the “oom-pah-pah” accompaniment in some of the composer’s earlier operas, his treatment of the orchestra in Otello is sheer brilliance.
Boito cleverly dispensed with all of Shakespeare’s first act, so the opera opens not in Venice but rather in Cyprus, under Venetian control at the end of the fifteenth century, the time of the opera. As in other late Verdi works, the opera dispenses with an overture and plunges immediately into the action: a storm at night, with the chorus describing the perilous attempt of the ship bearing the Moor Otello, the new governor of Cyprus, to land. The vessal narrowly avoids being dashed on the rocks, and Otello arrives safely, declares a victory over the enemy (the Turks) and heads off to the castle to join his wife, Desdemona (described by Verdi as “not a woman, but a type. She is the type of goodness, resignation, self-sacrifice.”)
We then meet Iago, the lynchpin of all the action. He is Otello’s ensign, but hates him because Otello promoted Cassio rather than Iago to be the new Captain. Iago starts stirring up trouble immediately in conversation with the Venetian gentleman Roderigo, who is in love with Desdemona. Meanwhile, we, the chorus, start a bonfire and sing our “Fuoco di gioia” ( fire of joy) number.
Iago then plys Cassio with drink in the marvelous “Brindisi” drinking song, where Cassio gets progressively drunker and we get to laugh at him. Iago insinuates to Roderigo that Cassio is after Desdemona as well. Montano, the previous governor of Cyprus, comes to call Cassio to the watch, but Cassio begins to fight with Roderigo and then with Montano. Aroused by the ensuing commotion, Otello arrives on the scene and strips Cassio of his command. Desdemona appears as well; everyone else leaves and Otello and Desdemona share a gorgerous love duet, ending with a call for “un bacio,” a kiss, to conclude the act.
Act II opens with Iago telling Cassio that he should get Desdemona to intercede with Otello to restore his position. Cassio heads off to ask Desdemona, and Iago sings his famously dark “Credo”: “I believe in a cruel God...” Otello appears, and Iago begins to suggest that something fishy is going on between Desdemona and Cassio. Desdemona then receives a chorus of praise from women and sailors (not in Shakespeare) and then asks Otello to forgive Cassio. He refuses and indicates that he has a headache. Desdemona offers to bind his head with her handkerchief; he refuses and it falls to the ground. Iago takes it from his wife Emilia (Desdemona’s attendant); it was Otello’s first love token to his wife and Iago know he can put it to good use. After everyone else leaves, Iago tells Otello that Cassio has been talking in his sleep about Desdemona, and that Cassio has been seen with Desdemona’s handkerchief as well. Furious now, Otello swears an oath of vengeance with Iago.
In Act III Desdemona again tries to plead for Cassio while Otello demands to know where the handkerchief he gave her is; she says she doesn’t know and he begins to threaten her and calls her a courtesan. After she leaves, Iago shows up, tells Otello to hide himself, and engages in (distant) conversation with Cassio, where Otello sees Cassio holding up the dreaded handkerchief, which Iago has planted in his room. After this “proof” of Desdemona’s infidelity, Otello decides to suffocate Desdemona and appoints Iago captain. A delegation from Venice now arrives with the ambassador Lodovico, who bears instructions for Otello to return to Venice and Cassio to take his place. Otello then abuses Desdemona both verbally and physically in front of everyone to general consternation, while Iago urges Roderigo to kill Cassio so that Otello (and Desdemona) must remain on Cyprus.
The final act opens in Desdemona’s bedchamber that night. She sings Shakespeare’s famous “Willow Song” and follows this with her “Ave Maria” prayer (not in Shakespeare). She then goes to bed. Otello comes in, wakes her up, accuses her again of adultery, and then smothers her. Emilia knocks at the door and enters with the news that Cassio has killed Roderigo. Desdemona makes a final declaration of her innocence before dying (yes, we must suspend our disbelief that someone who has just been smothered can keep singing). Otello cries that she was Cassio’s mistress. Emilia knows this is untrue and calls for help, with Cassio, Lodovico, Iago, and Montano all arriving. Emilia reveals Iago’s treachery; Montano says that Roderigo’s dying words confirm this. But the villain escapes as Otello realizes what he has done. Stabbing himself, he reaches for Desdemona as he dies, seeking one final “bacio” as the curtain falls.
There are many, many, books on Verdi, in many languages (especially Italian). Julian Budden’s three-volume work, The Operas of Verdi (Oxford University Press, 1978–81) is a good place to start. The most extensive English-language biography is by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz (Verdi: A Biography, Oxford University Press, 1993); a shorter one comes from Frank Walker (The Man Verdi, reprint edition, University of Chicago, 1982). Other works of interest include Verdi: A Documentary Study (edited by William Weber, with lots of pictures; published by Thames & Hudson); and The Verdi Companion (edited by William Weaver and Martin Chusid, W.W. Norton, 1979). Although there are two books on the Requiem and one on his opera choruses of the 1840s, there is no single book devoted to Verdi’s choral writing. This is a real lacuna when one considers the significance of the chorus in his operas as well as the importance that sacred vocal music had for his later years.
Revised July 2016; July 2017