George Bernard Shaw once remarked that “the English take a creepy sort of pleasure in requiems.” I can’t speak to the truth of this statement, but there’s no denying that requiems are among the most popular works in the orchestral/choral repertoire, in England and elsewhere. Composers as diverse as Haydn, Brahms, Berlioz, Dvořák, Saint-Saëns, Fauré, and Britten have assayed the form, each bringing their own unique sensibilities to the challenge of interpreting a liturgical service in musical terms.
Arguably, the two best-known examples of the requiem are those written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (considered by many to be the template for the genre) and Giuseppe Verdi. Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, which premiered in Milan in 1874, is based on the Roman Catholic funeral mass and scored for four soloists, double (sometimes triple) choir, and orchestra. Verdi composed the piece in memory of poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni, whom he greatly admired. It consists of seven major sections, within which are several sub-sections of varying and often contrasting moods. In order to heighten the inherent drama and poignancy of the liturgical mass Verdi brought to bear the skills and devices he’d mastered as a composer of operas: expressive orchestration, assertive rhythms, beautiful melodies, vocal pyrotechnics, and dramatic contrasts over an exceptionally wide dynamic range. Indeed, following the Requiem’s premiere many traditionalist critics complained that the music was far too “operatic” in style and not appropriate for the solemn subject matter. Fortunately for us, that view has not prevailed.
Undertaking performance of such a mammoth work, involving 300+ performers on stage, requires both abundant skill and a degree of intrepidity, traits which La Jolla Symphony & Chorus have amply demonstrated in their programming choices. Under the baton of conductor Steven Schick the musicians and vocal soloists render the complexities and subtleties of the piece with both confidence and sensitivity, and if it’s not sacrilegious to say so, the result is thrilling.
Contributed by arts and humanities producer John Menier
Watch Verdi’s Requiem.