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Verdi: Man and Musician By Frederick James Crowest Characters: 19126

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Verdi as a sacred music composer-Share in the "Rossini" Mass-Failure of a patchwork effort-Missa da Requiem produced-Splendid reception-Performed at the Royal Albert Hall-Structure of the work-Von Bülow's opinion-Divided opinions on its style and merit-Its character-Modern Italian Church style-Northern versus Southern Church music-Verdi's early compositions-E minor Quartet for Strings-L'Inno delle Nazioni-Its performance at Her Majesty's Theatre-Verdi's slender share in orchestral music-National temperament involved-Thematic method inconsistent with Italian national life.

Verdi must not be overlooked as a writer of sacred music. Hundreds of composers have contributed more freely than he has to the store of ecclesiastical music, and although strict Church musicians might contend that, from many points of view, any consideration of Verdi as a sacred composer would be unnecessary, yet, withal, there is ample reason for considering and comparing the religious, as distinct from the secular, musician in Verdi.

Like his great compatriot Rossini, who, towards the close of his career, composed a Stabat Mater that has provoked, perhaps, more criticism than any other piece of Church music, Verdi has signalled his later years with a sacred composition which has also been the subject of much discussion.

In order to do honour to Rossini, whose death was being deplored, some of Italy's sons conceived the notion of a grand Mass to be performed once every hundred years, on the centenary of Rossini's death, and nowhere else save at the Cathedral of Bologna. There was, at least, the charm of novelty in such an idea, and considering the period of time that was to elapse between the performances, the prospect of the music ever becoming hackneyed was certainly remote. But the greatest difficulty, the serious patchwork venture of such a mixed composition, does not appear to have entered the heads of the promoters. Thirteen numbers for a Mass were given out to the leading Italian composers, who entered into the spirit of the plan with an unanimity worthy of a better cause, and such numbers were duly completed; but when it came to the tacking together of these pieces, the result was a thorough Joseph's coat, as vari-coloured as that famous garment, and so unsatisfactory that the committee decided that it would never do, even for a once-a-century performance.

Then came the question of a way out of the difficulty. Who should be entrusted with the commission for a complete work? Now the thirteenth number-a lucky quantity on this occasion-was the Libera me in C minor, by Verdi, which so attracted the attention of Signor Mazzucato of Milan, that he begged Verdi to take upon himself the responsibility of composing a complete Requiem Mass. This suggestion seems to have clung to him, for, as all the world knows, he eventually gave us that magnum opus with which most amateurs in this country are already familiar. Strangely enough, Rossini's name dropped out of association with the new mass, which, when it was produced, was to honour the memory of Manzoni, Italian poet-patriot, who, full of years, joined the ever-increasing majority on 22nd May 1873.

The first performance of this Missa da Requiem took place in the church of San Marco at Milan on the 22nd May 1874, to mark the anniversary of the death of Manzoni, the composer's old friend, whom-to quote Verdi's own words-"I regarded so much as a writer, and venerated as a man-one who was a model of virtue and patriotism." Musicians and dilettanti from all parts of the world attended this notable performance, which Verdi conducted in person. There was an orchestra of one hundred executants, and a chorus of some hundred and twenty singers, while the soli parts were entrusted to Mesdames Stolz and Waldmann, with Signori Capponi and Maini; and since these musicians were leading performers, gathered from all parts of Italy, the effect of such a combined artist-effort was striking and enthusiastic indeed. The fine mass was splendidly performed, and as number after number was unfolded before the rapt congregation, its impressiveness and grandeur held every listener spellbound. The solemn beauty of the "Offertorium," "Sanctus" and "Dies Ir?" proved specially noticeable, and must have seriously suggested to the late Dr. von Bülow, who was present criticising the work, that beautiful part-writing was an art not altogether unknown to the Italian musician.

The pent-up interest in the score was, however, soon to give vent. In order to afford many others an opportunity of hearing the mass, and of expressing their feelings spontaneously, Verdi permitted it to be performed three times at La Scala Theatre, undertaking, good-naturedly, to conduct the first performance. Then on Monday, the 25th May, the theatre was crammed with an audience which-no longer restrained by sacred surroundings-shouted applause from beginning to end of the work. Several of the numbers were encored, and more than once the vast crowd of people rose en masse crying, "Viva Verdi!"

In 1874 (4th June) the work was given in Paris, at one of the Salle Favart "Matinées Spirituelles," when the same solo singers as at Milan rendered the mass superbly. Later on it was brought to England, and a memorable performance of it took place at the Royal Albert Hall, when Verdi himself wielded the baton. This was on Saturday afternoon, 15th May 1875. The soloists were Madame Stolz (soprano), Madame Waldmann (contralto), Signor Masini (tenor), and Signor Medini (bass), who were supported by the powerful choral and instrumental resources for which this great music hall is famous. The exact complement of the band was 150, while the chorus numbered some 500 to 600 singers. Upon making his appearance Verdi, as may be imagined, received a tremendous ovation, for he had not been in London since 1847, when he attended the production of his opera I Masnadieri at the Royal Italian Opera. The master proved a good conductor, his style and method as a chef d'orchestre being as firm and assuring for his forces as it was attractive and instructive to the audience that watched his beat. The performance was in every sense a success, and marked with all that enthusiasm which the presence of a great artist always provokes, albeit the effects realised in Milan and Paris were, it was generally admitted, not attained in so vast a hall. The numbers that seemed to please most were the "Lachrymosa dies illa," the "Agnus Dei" duet, and the double chorus "Sanctus."

From this and subsequent renderings of the Requiem, the general English public have formed whatever judgment it may now entertain of the work. These opinions are not necessarily correct, since they are based, as unscientific opinions about music generally are, upon the attractiveness rather than on the intrinsic worth of the music as Church or ecclesiastical art-work.

The Mass is comprised in the following seven numbers:-

"Requiem" and "Kyrie" for quartet and chorus.

"Dies Ir?"-in four parts, solo and chorus, with trio for soprano, contralto, and tenor.


"Sanctus"-fugue, with double chorus.

"Agnus Dei"-duet and chorus, soprano and contralto.

"Lux ?terna"-trio for soprano, tenor, and bass.

"Libera me"-soprano solo, chorus, and fugue finale.

These combine to make up a fairly perfect example of the modern Italian grand mass.

The late Dr. Hans von Bülow declared this work to be a monstrosity, and when it was performed at the Paris Opéra Comique, although the enthusiasm quite equalled that evoked at Milan, the opinion in the foyer was divided as to whether the mass was a sacred or a secular work! Here was a serious blot for a great man's composition which aimed at being sacred, both in intent and tone. Fearlessly the purists persisted in their charge that the work was purely secular and operatic in style. Other alleged defects of the mass were subsequently discovered. For instance, one writer declared that "there are more than a hundred mistakes in the progression of the parts." Was all this true?

When, at the age of sixty-one, Verdi surprised the musical world (which, up to that time, had known him only as an opera composer) with a composition for the Church, anxiety was great to catch the ravishing melodist as a creator of ecclesiastical music. This done, it was possible to admit that the style of the great Requiem was elevated, even pathetic, in its religious expression, replete with youthful fire. Soli, ensembles, and choruses were, by their masterly polyphony, adjudged worthy of Mendelssohn himself. Some ground for such praise really existed, for here and there Verdi, in the Requiem, even approaches Mozart in depth of feeling, while his manner of expression is allied to the modern classical school.

Indisputably, however, Verdi's Requiem is an Italian mass, both in character and colour. Its prevailing features are identical with those of the Stabat Mater and the Messe Solennelle of Rossini. There is local colour, the atmosphere of which can never be dispelled; besides, too, comes a flood of luxuriant, entrancing melody, characteristic of the Italian operatic school. All southern nations, the Italians especially, love sound for the sensuous effect it produces. They love not laboured theoretical art. Is this admissible in Church music? Rapturous, unctuous music is not permanently strengthening and soul-raising. Emotionally, it carries to a great height, only to lead to a reaction, and to some lower estimate of music that cap

tivates but does not elevate. In the Requiem, there is abundant theoretical workmanship-more such evidence than is usually met with in modern Italian Church music; yet, although this was the studied purpose of the musician, it has not enabled Verdi to rid himself of characteristics which stamp southern musical art as plainly as they do the architecture and the person. Sensuous and exciting music is acceptable enough in its way, but it does not constitute good Church music. It is this character, inseparable from the Italian nature, that forbids an unqualified acceptation of the Missa da Requiem as a contribution to the store of best Church music. None but the wildest partizans could deny, however, that in this mass Verdi has given to the world some of the finest music he ever wrote; he has, moreover, furnished abundant proof of his scholarship as a theorist, showing that he really was able to do more than string tempting melodies together to please the capacities of the polloi.

While approved musical taste remains what it is, and does not degenerate, modern Italian Church music will not be highly regarded for use in the sanctuary. Northern and southern Europe are much wider apart in Church musical style than they are geographically; and all sound musicians know where to look for that style and expression which most nearly approach the ecclesiastical ideal. The stila fugata is nobler and sterner than the straightforward melody sumptuously accompanied, so that the Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven mass, and the oratorii of Bach, Handel, Mendelssohn, and Spohr, furnish a far more appropriate, and adequate, sacred musical manner than does anything that is Italian. With the Teuton style come mysticism and reverence; with the Italian passion and secularism, the latter ill-suited indeed to profound doctrines propounded at Church altars. A melody may be as ample a medium for religious expression as an eight-voice fugue; hence, it is not imperative that Italian musicians should practise writing oratorios on a wholesale scale before essaying Church music. It is not the medium, however, that we are contending against. Some of the greatest, grandest prayers have been expressed in simplest song. It is the colouring element, the atmosphere, pervading southern Church music which, being operatic, renders such music inadmissible by the side of German and English religious art. This objectionable feature stamps Verdi's Requiem from beginning to end. The score is impregnated with the world, and not with the cloister. The Italian worshipper must have movement and action, rather than reflection, even in his devotional music. As we think, the contemplative mood rather than the persuasive is the one to inspire, as well as to promote, a due appreciation of lofty things, and a religious service. This, Teuton music supplies, but the modern Italian article does not. The old Italian masters remembered the altar, not the stage, so that the masses of musicians like Palestrina, Marcello, Caldara, and Lotti are infinitely more reverent in tone and reach than their modern successors. Let it not be forgotten, en passant, that the Germans stand indebted to the Italians for the fugue, transmitted to them in some instances, in as fully developed a manner as could be desired, and in certain features unsurpassable in its completeness.

Giovanni Provesi

If Verdi's Requiem, however, does not attain to perfection as Church music, it is, nevertheless, a grand work, a masterpiece in originality and scholarly treatment that will always be listened to with admiration, whether in oratory or concert hall. Like Rossini's Stabat Mater, it will doubtless be rendered from time to time by choral bodies in quest of effective performing works; but no sound Church musician will ever seriously regard it as an example of what Church music should be, or is ever likely to become. Probably it will be one of the scores that, with his Third period operas, will best preserve Verdi's name, but it will never carry the maestro into the company of the world's great sacred composers.

Besides this contribution to sacred music, Verdi composed other works outside his universally known operas. He was not the busy, successful, creative musician at one bound. Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen he wrote several marches for a brass band, some short symphonies, six concertos, and variations for pianoforte, which he used to play himself; many serenatas, cantatas, arias, duets, trios, a small Stabat Mater, and some Church compositions. During the three years that he remained at Milan, he composed two symphonies, and a cantata, and upon his return to Busseto he wrote a mass, a vesper, and three Tantum Ergos, besides composing music to Manzoni's tragedies. In 1880 a Paternoster for five voices fell from his pen; and an Ave Maria for soprano solo is a cherished composition.

With one notable exception, Verdi, having taken to vocal composition, never left it for essays in the realm of instrumental music. This exception is a Quartet in E minor for strings, which has been played on more than one occasion at the Monday Popular Concerts. It must be admitted to be an unequal work-the first and last movements having but little interest, while the second and third are more spontaneous and attractive. It is not likely to become a classic, however, nor will interest attach to it so much for its merit and worth as for its being the single piece of chamber music with which the English public are familiar from the pen of the famous Trovatore master. But for an enforced leisure this quartet might never have been written. Verdi was at Naples superintending the rehearsal of one of his operas, when suddenly one of the principal singers was seized with an indisposition. This brought matters to a standstill; when, not to be idle, Verdi set about the composition of this quartet.

All these early compositions, save the symphonies, the tragedies, and quartet music, are lost, but as they were probably more adapted for civic archives, as samples of youthful industry, rather than as inspirations of genius, this is not to be greatly deplored. It remains to be added that-with Auber (France), Meyerbeer (Germany), Sterndale Bennett (England)-Verdi (Italy) wrote the cantata "L'Inno delle Nazioni" for the International Exhibition of 1862; but the work was not performed at the Exhibition because of some expression of feeling on the part of the late Sir Michael Costa. The final rejection of it by the Commissioners gave rise to much comment at the time. It was subsequently given at Her Majesty's Theatre, 24th May 1862, and repeated the following Tuesday.

The scene is supposed to be the interior of the new Crystal Palace on the opening day, when people of all nations are assembled under the wondrous roof.

Musically its form is a solo rendered by one of the people, to which the whole gathering join in universal chorus.

"The cantata," we are told, "was admirably got up and performed. The solo part was magnificently sung by Mdlle. Titiens; and the chorus, two hundred and fifty strong, included the most eminent members of the company. On the first night the reception of the performance was enthusiastic. The whole piece was encored, and repeated with increased spirit and effect. Signor Verdi was called for several times, and when he presented himself, led forward first by Mdlle. Titiens, and then by Signor Giuglini, he was received with reiterated acclamations." [60]

In the instrumental department of music Verdi has accomplished, as indeed he has attempted, but little. This is in keeping with the habit of his countrymen. Italians possess neither the industry nor the application requisite to plan and build a vast orchestral conception. They bask under an azure sky, while other men slave in the privacy of their closets and studios. It is reserved for the Teuton, with all his wondrous plodding, to frame and make grand tone-poems, lavish with ideal intent and richest colour, which become subjects of admiration and wonder the more it is realised that orchestral resource alone is the agent employed. The southern climate does not conduce to exertion and serious application; and the Italian, necessarily, wants some rousing to enter the lists with the weather-bound Teuton, in the construction of laborious examples of art demanding the exercise of the highest orchestral study and exposition. Further, Italians have an instinctive tendency towards vocal music. They can create it as naturally as they sing it, and it is no concern to them to write a melody, or sketch a lightly-contrived orchestral piece in the snug corner of a café, or behind the sheltering blind of a sun-pierced osteria. Fugue, canon, double counterpoint, charm not the Italians. They don't catch the meaning of the term development in theoretical art, and if they succeed in a distinct rhythm, simply harmonised, with a well-balanced period, the musical desire is satisfied. Without development there can be no such thing as a great orchestral structure. A theme must be taken and worked out in the wondrous Beethoven fashion ere anything instrumental worth the name of a symphony or overture can be evolved. All this means musical patience and application, which Italians have not; otherwise overtures to Italian operas would be something else than melodies of the opera, announced to the audience at the outset, in order to acquaint them with choice tunes that are to follow.

[60] Illustrated London News, 31st May 1862.

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