Requiem Mass en masse

Currently I am down in Corpus for the last subscription concert of the year. As I have done in the past I wanted to write a bit about what we are playing.

This will be a very powerful performance I think, we are doing Giuseppe Verdi’s (Jonny Green…) Requiem. This is about as romantic a piece can get and still mantain a sacred stance. First how bout a bit about what makes up a requiem…

Requiems are Catholic (or some orthodox Lutheran, Episcopal) masses. They are called “Requiems” due to their opening line: “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.” (Give them eternal peace, Lord, and let perpetual light shine on them.) Otherwise they pretty much follow the standard liturgy:

Introit & Gradual (normal masses follow a liturgical calendar, Requiems are always fixed)

Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy on us)

Dies irae (Day of wrath)

Offertory (Doxology and sacrifice)

Sanctus (Holy, Holy Holy and Hossana in the highest)

Agnus Dei (Lamb of God)

Lux aeterna (Light eternal)

Verdi adds:

Libera me (Free me from eternal death)

Actually what I find incredible, and really interesting is that most Christian church services (Catholic, Protestant, Unitarian…all of them) follow this format in service still today. The texts may be different, but not always. I think of Jordan’s family church House of Prayer…Sunday service is word for word the same as above (well except the Dies irae).

Back to Verdi…he wrote this work for a famous poet: Alessandro Manzoni (d. 1873) and added the Libera me in response to the death of Rossinni (Rossinni died before, and Verdi wrote the movement before the requiem). Verdi truely was a genius in how he used the music to fit the emotion tied to the text. I can only point out a bit of it as pretty much the entire peice is one amazing transition after another.

The Dies irae is an instantly recognizable theme (though this section actually has several other movements). Verdi definitly makes you feel the wrath. I have a base drum about 4 feet away from my ear playing as loud as is possible through the whole thing.

Probably my most favorite moment in the piece is the Tuba mirum (part of the Dies irae) It helps to have the entire text:

Tuba mirum spargens sonum The trumpet scattering its awful sound

per sepulchra regionum, through the graves of the Earth

coget omnes ante thronum. drives all before the throne.

The music here has a 300 piece double choir, and 8 trumpets. 4 of the trumpets are in the 3rd balcony facing the orchestra split into two groups, one on each side of the hall. It starts with a somber call and builds into a quadruple forte torrent screaming at you and it is so loud you have no choice but to submit. This section is one of the loudest unamplified moments in classical music (on stage my ears literally ring, and it is louder than any rock concert I have been to). I know some of my readers are not religious, but if you are this is one of the most powerful experiences you can have. It is truly amazing, even from a secular standpoint.

In the Dies irae, the Lacrymosa begs for the forgiveness of the guilty man’s sins. The music here weeps for (your) soul, and beckons to you. All this while sounding like the theme from Godfather, it is almost comical, but ends up being very wonderful. When we play it I think of it like Verdi is calling for us to forgive Don Corleone. It ends the Dies irae section with an amazing modified plagal (IV to I) cadence AMEN that has an amazing color.

The Offertorio is a wonderful moment, though impossibly hard for the cellos (I hope they pull it off tonight…) Here the message is the love for Jesus and God, so the theme is a exquisite lyrical exposition that screams Itallian. For each line of text, the mood changes slightly, yet it is so subtle you can’t really tell, you just get the impression of change. It is fantastic.

Sactus’ are almost always fugues in the classical repertoire and Verdi definitly follows this form. It is a very difficult movement, as counterpoint is incredibly thick, but the music, text and mood call for a very light airy sound.

Verdi surrounded a standard text with a true masterwork and created a piece that secularly cannot be denied as one of the most wonderful compositions every produced. From the religious standpoint, if more church services where held in such wonderful musical settings, I could promise you there would be more people in church. The trick here (and this goes for EVERY choral piece) is to read the words before, and during the performance. Composers alway write the music to the text, so just sitting in and listening to the work does a real injustice to the composer and musicians performing it.

Well I guess that is about it. Sorry for the music lesson, now get out there and listen (and read about) to classical music!


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