Verdi’s Requiem: A quick guide

All you need to know about the masterpiece Verdi's Requiem

Giuseppe Verdi

Verdi’s Requiem is one of the most dramatic, and undoubtedly the most operatic, of its type ever composed.

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Any performance of the Verdi Requiem is always a grand occasion. So to get you in the spirit, here’s our quick guide to this unique work…

What spurred Verdi to write his Requiem?

Initially, it was the death of Rossini in November 1868. Giuseppe Verdi and several other Italian composers wanted to mark the event by joining forces in writing a collaborative Requiem for the great man – Verdi wrote the Libera Me movement. The resulting work was not a success, though, and was soon abandoned.

When did Verdi actually start his Requiem?

In 1873, Verdi was moved by the death of Alessandro Manzoni to write a complete Requiem by himself. For it, he retained the ‘Libera Me’ from the collaborative effort of five years earlier. His new work was first performed in Milan in May 1874, and soon enjoyed further performances across Europe.

Who was Alessandro Manzoni?

He was a leading Italian author, best known for 1827’s I promessi sposi (‘The betrothed’). The book was seen as an important symbol of the Italian Risorgimento political and cultural movement, with which Verdi himself was very closely connected.

Wondering what the lyrics of Verdi’s Requiem are in English? Read the English translation here

What makes Verdi’s Requiem so distinctive?

Above all, its operatic nature. It is a big-boned work performed by large orchestral and choral forces, and is characterised by dramatic arias and choruses, the most famous of which is the ‘Dies Irae’, complete with ferociously pounded timpani. Unsurprisingly, it is heard more often in the concert hall than in church. The overall message of the piece is bleak and foreboding – we’re all doomed, and there’s not much we can do about it.

Which recording of the Verdi Requiem should we try?

In the Building a Library feature in the July 2018 issue of BBC Music Magazine, reviewer Michael Tanner recommended conductor Claudio Abbado’s January 2001 performance with the Berlin Philharmonic (DVD; EMI 492 6949).

‘It is the sight of Abbado, exhausted and shattered by the piece he has just so marvellously controlled, that makes the final, devastating impression,’ wrote Tanner.

Anything else we need to know about Verdi’s Requiem?

The trumpet fanfares at the beginning of the Requiem’s Tuba Mirum section make and appearance (though in the wrong key) at the beginning of Take That’s 1995 No. 1 hit ‘Never forget’.

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