Verdi’s Requiem is, some say, his greatest opera: passionate emotions in a deeply powerful sacred drama of life and death itself.
Giuseppe Verdi is one of the best-known and best-loved opera composers of all time, famous especially for La traviata, Rigoletto, Il trovatore and Aida, as well as the stirring chorus ‘Va, pensiero’, which comes from his opera Nabucco.
In fact, Verdi wrote almost nothing but opera, and his Messa da Requiem (Requiem Mass), although a piece of sacred music, is full of opera-like drama and emotional power. It was premiered in a church, but only three days later, it was also performed at La Scala opera theatre in Milan, with singers from Aida as the soloists.
Verdi wrote the piece in 1873 as a memorial to Alessandro Manzoni, an Italian author whose novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) was (and is) widely acclaimed, not only as a masterpiece of literature but also as one of the foundations of the modern Italian language; a vital force in establishing the identity of the Italian nation, which had only come together as a single country in 1861. Italy was aflame with nationalist fervour, and Manzoni was a national hero whom Verdi admired with a respect verging on awe.
Verdi wasn’t a religious man, but he had already written one movement of a Requiem mass five years earlier, as a tribute to another great Italian opera composer, Giacomo Rossini, and he returned to that movement, the ‘Libera me’, as a starting point for his Messa da requiem. Rossini’s own music — his Petite messe solennelle — was also a source of inspiration, as was Mozart’s Requiem, but Verdi’s Requiem is on a much grander scale, to the point where some have described it as his greatest opera!