The Giuseppe Verdi Requiem

The world knows Verdi opera. But, Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) also composed other works. Specifically, Verdis Requiem is a popular piece of music.

Verdi originally envisioned a requiem performance in memory of the famous Italian composer Giachino Rossini (1792-1868). When that didn’t work out, Verdi composed an entire Messa da Requiem.

The Verdi Requiem is dedicated to Verdi’s friend and political ally – Alessandro Manzoni. The Betrothed (original Italian – I promessi sposi) by Manzoni is an Italian classic. Interestingly, the Dies Irae section is considered to be more operatic than liturgical even though the requiem lyrics are sanctioned church texts.


Discover The Verdi Requiem:


Why did Verdi Compose His Requiem?

In 1868, Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) was involved in a Requiem project dedicated to the life of the Italian composer Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868). The work was conceived by Verdi and involved the collaboration of 13 friends and colleagues of Rossini. The project goal was to honour G. Rossini with a traditional form of Catholic commemoration – the Requiem Mass – Messa da Requiem. The plan was that each composer would compose one part of the Requiem. G. Verdi was to compose the final 7th section – the Responsorium.

The Requiem was to be performed one year after Rossini’s death in 1869. Unfortunately, due to numerous difficulties, misunderstandings and complications, the Requiem was not performed until 120 years later. But, that is a different story!

Giuseppe Verdi Requiem
Giuseppe Verdi Requiem

On the other hand, as results confirm, Verdi was not an individual who gave up easily.

Five years after the Rossini Requiem fiasco, Giuseppe Verdi’s dear friend, Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) passed away. And this time, Verdi took it upon himself to compose the entire Requiem himself. In doing so, Verdi:

  • chose to incorporate his previously composed 7th section
  • negotiated the terms of the performance
  • personally conducted the premiere at San Marco Cathedral in Milan on May 22, 1874 – exactly one year after Mansoni’s death.

Who Was Alessandro Manzoni?

Many people in the English speaking world have never heard of Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873). On the other hand, Manzoni is popular and very well known in Italy.

Alessandro Francesco Tomasco Antonio Manzoni:

  • born in Milan (March 17, 1785)
  • at age 6, began attending a school in Milan (October 13, 1791)
  • at age 11, moved to a school in Lugano (April, 1796)
  • at age 16, completed schooling and returned to Milan (1801)
  • at age 18, moved to Venice to join his father (October, 1803)
  • at age 20, traveled to Paris to join his mother (April 12, 1805)
  • at age 22, returned to Milan (February, 1807)

If you would like to discover more details about Manzoni – his life and times, we recommend the Casa del Manzoni website (a new window will open).

During Manzoni’s childhood and youth, Italy became the battleground between the Austrian Hapsburgs and Napoleonic France for control of the European continent.

At the time of Manzoni’s birth, Milan was under Austrian Hapsburg rule. During Manzoni’s childhood, Milan became the capital of the Cisalpine Republic (1797-1802) and Lugano a major centre within the Helvetic Republic (1798-1803). These were officially “client states” and unofficially “puppet states” of the French Republic (1792-1804) with Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) their King.

In 1804, when Manzoni was coming of age, the French Republic was declared the French Empire (1804-1814/5). By 1805, Milan, the city of Manzoni’s birth, and Venice, the city where his father lived became part of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy (1805-1814). Just as the new Napoleonic Empire and Kingdoms were being declared, the young Manzoni moved to Paris (1805-1807) at a time when this city was undergoing a cultural and economic rebirth.

Alessandro Manzoni Timeline – A Prelude to the Verdi Requiem
Alessandro Manzoni Timeline – A Prelude to the Verdi Requiem

In short, Manzoni’s childhood and youth were spent being a part of the Italian struggle for self-determination between Austrian and French rule. And, it was this that Manzoni and Verdi had in common – they were both involved in the struggle for Italian identity, independence and unity.

Manzoni’s novel, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), is compulsory reading in the Italian high school curriculum and has been translated into multiple languages and adapted into several films. The novel takes place in the Lombardy region of present-day north-west Italy in the 17thC – at the time of Spanish Hapsburg rule. The events and themes of the novel deal with many of the social, sexual and religious inequalities of the time.


Is there a Verdi Messa da Requiem Performance to Watch?

The video clip below is from the 2nd section of the Verdi Requiem – Dies Irae.

The Messa da Requiem by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) was performed by approximately 140 orchestra and choir members of the Lviv Opera and Ballet on September 10, 1999 in Przemyśl, Poland. The performance was part of the VI Dni Muzyki Oratorijno-Kantatowej and performed at the Bazylika Archikatedralna. Myron Yusypovych conducted. For this viewing, Verdi Requiem tickets were/are not required!


What Are the Lyrics in This Verdi Requiem Performance?

The Dies Irae is the 2nd sequence in the Messa da Requiem – the Requiem Mass. It describes the Last Judgment when, at the end of the world, Christ will come in His glory to judge the living and the dead. We hear the trumpets heralding the Second Coming, as the choir describes the final days.

The Dies Irae lyrics in Verdi’s Requiem are sung in Latin. It is worthwhile noting that prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), all services in the Roman Catholic Church were conducted in Latin.

Dies irae

Dies iræ, dies illa
Solvet sæclum in favilla,
Teste David cum Sibylla.
This day is the day of wrath
The earth will dissolve in ash
As predicted by David and Sibylla.
Day of wrath and doom impending.
David’s word with Sibyl’s blending,
Heaven and earth in ashes ending.
Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando Judex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!
The coming will bring a great tremor
And, the Judge shall appear
To stringently examine all.
Oh, what fear man’s bosom rendeth,
When from heaven the Judge descendeth
On whose sentence all dependeth.
Tuba mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulchra regionum,
Coget omnes ante thronum.
The marvelous sound of the trumpet
Will resonate over the grave sites
Bringing everyone before the Lord.
Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth;
Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth;
All before the throne it bringeth.

Above, the first column has the original Latin lyrics, as performed in the video clip. The second column has an English translation made for this website. The third column is an approved Roman Catholic Church English language translation, which maintains the rhythm and rhyme of the original Latin version and is based on the translated work of William Josiah Irons (1812-1883).

Dies Irae – The Day of Wrath – The Final Judgment
Dies Irae – The Day of Wrath – The Final Judgment


What is So Special About the Dies Irae in Verdis Requiem?

The Dies Irae (The Day of Wrath) of Verdis Requiem describes the Final Judgement when Christ returns in His glory to judge the living and the dead. This section is the longest of the 7 sections that comprise the full Messa da Requiem.

“When the Requiem was composed, female singers were not permitted to perform in Catholic Church rituals (such as a requiem mass). However, from the beginning Verdi intended to use female singers in the work… when Verdi composed the Requiem alone, two of the four soloists were sopranos, and the chorus included female voices…
Gundula Kreuzer. (2010), Verdi and the German. Cambridge University Press.

Indeed, during the premier performance, the female singers were veiled in black. However, it should be noted that since the premiere performance took place in a Roman Catholic church, the San Marco Cathedral in Milan, this was in keeping with church doctrine of the time.

Verdi’s Requiem is often considered to be more operatic than spiritual. Indeed, this was one of the great controversies that surrounded the final rehearsals and premiere performance in the latter part of the 19th C.

“…the most famous story surrounding the controversy at the time of the Requiem premiere involves… two Germans: conductor Hans von Bülow and composer Johannes Brahms. Bülow happened to be in Milan in May 1874. At the time he was still pro-Wagner, and thus by default anti-Verdi. Directly following the first performance, he published a rather blustery article accusing the Requiem of being an opera dressed in church attire. Brahms heard Verdi's Requiem within a year of its premiere and observed, "Bülow has made a fool of himself; this is a work of genius." To Bülow's credit, he wrote to Verdi nearly two decades later to recant his hasty judgment and apologize for the slight.
Laurie Shulman, 2019 (a new window will open)

But, what is the significance of Verdi’s Requiem?

“The question ‘which is Verdi’s supreme masterpiece?’ is as difficult to answer as in the case of any great artist. But if it changed to ‘which work shows his genius at its most concentrated?’ then the answer must surely be the Requiem. Into it he poured all his purely musical resources that he had developed in the course of twenty-six operas, and which he could here exploit to the full without having to take into account the special données which a stage inevitably imposes.
Julian Budden (2008). 3rd ed. Verdi. Oxford University Press, p.334

Today Verdi's Requiem is performed in churches, theatres, philharmonic halls and outdoor stages to commemorate and remember those who have passed on and to provide comfort to those who remain. And, indeed, this was Verdi's intent!

Text by: Oksana A. Wynnyckyj-Yusypovych


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