22 March 2008

The Harrowing of Hell: Reflection 4

Mantegna: The Harrowing of Hell

Patrick Comerford

Musical reflection 4: Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) is best known for his dramatic operas, including Rigoletto, La Traviata, Nabucco, Aida and Don Carlo. Barbara and I had a memorable evening last summer, sitting on the steps of the Arena in Verona for a breath-taking performance of Verdi’s Aida. It is impossible for us to imagine how central to Italian cultural identity this great composer is … at every interval, the applause was punctuated by enthusiastic cries of “Viva Verdi!” and these, in turn, drew their own applause.<

When Rossini died in 1868, Verdi proposed collaborating with a dozen other Italian composers in writing a Requiem for Rossini, and for this he wrote his Libera me. However, the premiere planned for Rossini’s first anniversary in 1869 was cancelled and the complete Requiem for Rossini only had its premiere in Stuttgart as recently as 1988.

But Verdi knew he had something worth working with in his Libera me. When the Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni died in May 1873, Verdi decided to write a full Requiem for Manzoni and set to work on it in Paris that June. With a revised version of his Libera me, Verdi’s new Requiem was performed on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death on 22 May 1874 n the Church of San Marco in Milan.

Despite Verdi’s supposed agnosticism, his Requiem is unmistakably and movingly religious. Throughout the Requiem, he uses vigorous rhythms, sublime melodies, and dramatic contrasts – as he did in his operas – to express the powerful emotions in his text. The terrifying, and instantly recognisable, Dies Irae, which introduces the traditional sequence of the Latin funeral Mass, is repeated throughout the Requiem, allowing Verdi to explore feelings of loss and sorrow as well as the human desire for forgiveness and mercy throughout the Requiem.

The last two verses of the traditional version of the Dies Irae are:

Ah! that day of tears and mourning!
From the dust of earth returning
man for judgment must prepare him;
Spare, O God, in mercy spare him!

Lord, all pitying, Jesus blest,
grant them thine eternal rest. Amen.

Verdi ends his Requiem returning to his original working of Libera me, which he introduces to interrupt the Dies Irae as the soprano cries out: “Free me, Lord, from eternal death ... when you will come to judge the world by fire.”

This is the fourth of five reflections on the Harrowing of Hell delivered on Easter Saturday, 22 March 2008, in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Dublin. Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College.

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