Operatic in its earth-shaking intensity, Verdi’s majestic Requiem is an unforgettable concert experience, returning to the NJSO stage for the first time since 2010. The walls will tremble to “Dies Irae,” while “Agnus Dei” provides heavenly consolation. In both intimate solo passages and towering choral settings, Verdi’s melodic gifts remain unsurpassed, 140 years after the Requiem’s first performance.
JACQUES LACOMBE conductor
MARIANNE FISET soprano
JANARA KELLERMAN mezzo-soprano
RUSSELL THOMAS tenor
PETER VOLPE bass
MONTCLAIR STATE UNIVERSITY CHORALE
Heather J. Buchanan director
NEW JERSEY SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
This program will be performed without an intermission.
The April 3 concert is sponsored by the Horizon Foundation for New Jersey.
BY LAURIE SHULMAN, ©2014
For Music Director Jacques Lacombe’s perspective on these pieces and the way the program fits together, click here for a PDF of the notes as they appear in the printed program book.
Born: October 10, 1813, in Le Roncole, near Busseto, Parma, Italy
Died: January 27, 1901, in Milan, Italy
Premiered: May 22, 1874, in Milan; the composer conducted.
NJSO premiere: 1951–52 season; Samuel Antek conducted.
Duration: 84 minutes
Italy as we know it today did not come into being as a political entity until the second half of the 19th century. From the Middle Ages through the post-Napoleonic era, the Italian peninsula consisted of a group of small city-states. Diverse in their size, governmental organization and culture, they ranged from the papal states of Rome to the Kingdom of Naples; from the duchies of Tuscany, Parma and Modena to the northern regions of Lombardy and the Veneto.
The 19th century was a period of political consolidation for Italy. Under the leadership of men like Giuseppe Garibaldi and Count Camillo di Cavour, a political movement that became known as the Risorgimento (“resurgence”) gathered momentum. The result was the establishment in 1861 of an independent, unified republican state ruled by Vittorio Emmanuele II as constitutional monarch. By 1870, Italy had annexed both Rome and the Veneto, yielding a political map that approximates present-day Italy.
A political novel becomes a best-seller
After centuries of domination by Spanish, French and Austrian oppressors, Italians worked toward unification and reacted to its consummation in much the same way that the American colonists did in securing their independence from England. A seminal literary work appeared in 1827 to fire the patriotic sentiments of Italian citizenry, then under Austrian rule. Written by the poet Alessandro Manzoni, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) is closely tied to and identified with the Italian Risorgimento. Its subject matter was Spanish oppression of Lombardians in the early 17th century. Manzoni’s contemporaries had little trouble extrapolating from the novel’s situation to apply its prescription for a free, independent Italy to their own circumstances.
Hero worship: Verdi meets his idol
The book sold remarkably well, prompting its author to revise it several times between 1827 and 1840, when he published a definitive version. Nearly 170 years later, I promessi sposi remains the best-selling novel in the Italian language. One of its most heartfelt admirers in the mid-19th century was Giuseppe Verdi, whose own music had become a vehicle for Italian patriotism. Verdi’s reverence for Manzoni bordered on hero-worship; he regarded the poet as the brightest star in the firmament of Italian artistic genius. When their mutual friend, Countess Clarina Maffei, arranged for the two men to meet in 1868, the composer was awed. To the Countess he wrote: “What can I say of Manzoni? How to describe the extraordinary, indefinable sensation the presence of that saint, as you call him, produced in me?”
Verdi was firmly established in his own career by this time, and he had no need to feel inadequate in the presence of another great artist; however, he was by nature a modest man who was deeply moved by the honor the aging Manzoni had thus accorded to him.
Honoring the memory of a great man
Manzoni died five years later, on May 22, 1873. Verdi was too grief-stricken to attend the funeral—“I have not heart enough to be present,” he wrote to his publisher Giulio Ricordi—and sent another letter to Countess Maffei, advising her: “I shall come soon to see his tomb, alone and without being seen, and perhaps (after ulterior reflection, and after having weighed my forces) to propose something to honor his memory.”
He kept his word. Shortly thereafter he asked Ricordi to negotiate a proposal to the mayor of Milan. Verdi would write a Requiem mass in Manzoni’s honor, to be performed on the first anniversary of the poet’s death. The city of Milan would absorb the costs of rehearsal and performance; Verdi himself would pay for publication of the score and parts and would retain rights to the work after the first performance. Milan’s mayor agreed to the terms of the arrangement, and thus unfolded the circumstances of the work variously known as Messa da Requiem, Manzoni Requiem or, simply, the Verdi Requiem.
Another death, another tribute and the genesis of a masterpiece
As is so frequently the case with large works like this, the full story of composition is rather more complicated. When Gioachino Rossini died in 1868, Verdi suggested that a group of leading Italian composers collaborate in a composite Requiem to honor Rossini. Verdi’s segment of the traditional Latin text was the Libera me. The group effort was eventually abandoned, but Verdi retained the music he had written for the project. That movement, which dates from 1869, was the launching pad for his own Requiem.
The concept of starting point is important. Verdi was familiar with Requiems composed by Mozart (1791), Cherubini (one in 1816 and a second in 1836) and Berlioz (1838); he was also an admirer of Rossini’s Stabat Mater (1832, revised 1842), to which he took a conscious bow in the 1869 version of the Libera me. Between Manzoni’s death and the premiere of the Requiem in Milan on May 22, 1874, Verdi revised the Libera me extensively. Only his introductory recitative and closing fugue bear a recognizable resemblance the original Rossini memorial.
Verdi’s Requiem consists of seven movements, of which the Libera me is last. Thus, in a sense he started from the end. But there is considerable evidence to support the theory that as much as two thirds of the Requiem was already drafted when Manzoni died. Verdi must have known that his hero could not live forever; Manzoni was already 83 when the two met. The speed with which Verdi acted on the heels of his letter to Countess Maffei quoted above suggests that he had been thinking in terms of a tribute to Manzoni for a while.
From acorn to towering oak
Inevitably as he drafted segments, the scope of the Requiem grew to operatic proportions. The Dies Irae is the longest movement in the Requiem and its dramatic crux. At about 37 minutes, it constitutes approximately half of the work’s entire duration. Verdi’s music encompasses a sufficient variety of emotions, text segments and scoring variations to make it roughly comparable to an operatic act. He suffuses the Dies Irae with vivid, unabashed theatricality that has an analogous impact to Michelangelo’s Last Judgment frescoes. Indeed, the touchy issue of whether the Requiem is too dramatic—“an opera in church vestments”—has dogged this work since its premiere.
VERDI, THE GERMANS AND THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
Verdi was known almost exclusively as a composer of operas, many of which had been subject to denunciation or outright censorship from Austrian officials and from Rome, the seat of the Papacy. Ironically, the most famous story surrounding the controversy at the time of the Requiem premiere involves neither Austria nor the Pope, but two Germans: conductor Hans von Bülow and composer Johannes Brahms. Bülow happened to be in Milan in May 1874. At the time he was still pro-Wagner, and thus by default anti-Verdi. Directly following the first performance, he published a rather blustery article accusing the Requiem of being an opera dressed in church attire. Brahms heard Verdi’s Requiem within a year of its premiere and observed, “Bülow has made a fool of himself; this is a work of genius.” To Bülow’s credit, he wrote to Verdi nearly two decades later to recant his hasty judgment and apologize for the slight.
Bülow was not alone in his initial assessment, however, and Verdi continued to encounter opposition to his Requiem, particularly from the Catholic authorities. They objected that this and his subsequent sacred pieces were unsuitable for the church. There is no question that many of the Requiem’s melodies are operatic; listeners having only a passing acquaintance with the Verdi canon will recognize the style and approach of Don Carlos and Aïda, and hear passages that clearly look forward to the Verdi of Otello. But a composer writes what he has to write, and one could argue plausibly that the Mozart of the Masses and the Requiem draws heavily on the technique and style of the Mozart of Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito, at least in the arias.
The real problem in the church’s reaction to Verdi’s Requiem, however, was the composer’s frank opposition to organized religion in any guise. Verdi made no secret of the fact that he was no devout, practicing Catholic. To the contrary, during his lifetime he enjoyed (or suffered, depending on one’s perspective) the reputation of being either atheist or agnostic. (Occasionally he modified his stance from the former to the latter to placate Giuseppina, his second wife.) Even in a society liberated from Austrian censorship, the Catholic Church still looked askance when concert performances of a Requiem Mass took place in a secular venue such as La Scala. Such was the case immediately on the heels of the Requiem’s premiere in the Milanese church of San Marco.
Though it draws its text from the traditional Roman Catholic liturgy, the work is clearly written for concert performance and not as part of a church service. The Church did not take a definitive stand on the matter until 1903 (two years after the composer’s death), when it issued a papal encyclical that set forth formally its requirements for ecclesiastical music: “Music is a part of the liturgy and its humble handmaid.” Neither Verdi nor his Requiem, nor any of his other sacred compositions was specifically named, but the target for the encyclical was clear.
Rome’s conservative stance notwithstanding, the Requiem was an immediate success and has remained immensely popular, for a host of good reasons. To begin with, the music is absolutely beautiful—melodious, dramatic, well crafted. Second, Verdi achieved in the Requiem the mastery of orchestration that characterizes all his final operatic masterpieces. (Who would expect Verdi, as opposed to Wagner, to write such power into the brass parts in both the Dies Irae and in the Sanctus?) His sense of instrumental power works with his singers, rather than against them, and also with his text to deliver a forceful and convincing musical message. Both soloists and chorus are given chances to shine unsupported by the orchestra, as in the a cappella “Te decet hymnus” choral segment of the opening movement and the lovely octave unison duet for soprano and mezzo that begins the Agnus Dei. Years of working with librettists had honed Verdi’s instinctive sense of inherent drama in the sung word. As so many writers have observed, in the Requiem text he had a powerful libretto indeed.
Comfort for the bereaved
Perhaps the most important factor of all in assessing the Requiem’s artistic appeal and popular staying power and is that Verdi understood—as had Brahms a scant half-dozen years before him—that those who need comfort from a Requiem are the living. The message of his music is firmly grounded in the here and now, as opposed to the hereafter. True, the terror of the Dies Irae and its four thunderclap chords recurs, reminding us periodically of the Day of Judgment. But Verdi mitigates that stress with passages of soaring, transcendental beauty and exquisite tranquility. Charles Osborne sums it up thus:
Verdi brought his dramatist’s art to the Requiem. He had many times in his operas written death scenes, and music in which death is contemplated by one or more of the characters. In the Requiem, he was free to reveal something of his own attitude to death; and, predictably, gentle resignation and joyful anticipation of an afterlife were not part of his thoughts. Verdi’s Requiem mass is not for the dead but for the living. The intensity and the compassion of his tragic view of the human condition are Shakespearean in stature; the prodigality of his technique deserves … to be called Mozartean.
Just as Manzoni’s book I promessi sposi succeeded because it spoke to the Italian condition, so does Verdi’s Requiem address with piercing accuracy the very soul of the people and country he loved above all else.
Instrumentation: three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, four bassoons, four horns, eight trumpets (including offstage), three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, strings, quartet (soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and bass) of vocal soloists and mixed chorus.
For NJSO Music Director Jacques Lacombe’s bio, click here.
MARIANNE FISET, soprano
Since soprano MARIANNE FISET was awarded five top prizes from the Montreal International Music Competition, including the First Grand Prize and People’s Choice Award, she has been hailed by critics and audiences alike.
She sang the role of Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni for the operas of Tours and Reims and Verdi’s Requiem with the Orchestre symphonique de Trois-Rivières in 2013. She reprises the role of Donna Elvira for her debut in Wuppertal, Germany, in the fall of 2014. She has had great success as Mimi in La Bohème for the Sankt Margarethen Opernfestspiele in Austria and the Calgary, Vancouver, Tampa and Montreal opera companies. She recently covered the role of Mimi at the Metropolitan Opera and will perform and record Honegger and Ibert’s L’Aiglon for the Montreal Symphony. Concert engagements have taken her to Madrid, Toronto, Quebec City and Washington, DC, for such works as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Verdi’s Requiem and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4.
JANARA KELLERMAN, mezzo-soprano
Mezzo-soprano JANARA KELLERMAN is quickly making a name for herself among opera lovers and critics alike. Most recent performances include her role debut as Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana with Music Viva Hong Kong, the Old Lady in Candide with Fresno Grand Opera, Little Buttercup in H.M.S. Pinafore with Opera Saratoga and Lyric Opera San Antonio, Zemire und Azor with the Liederkranz Oper, a return to New York City Opera for its production of Antony and Cleopatra and a concert tour in Switzerland.
Concert performances have included Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in her Avery Fisher Hall debut, Azucena in Il Trovatore in concert with the Westfield Symphony, Mahler’s Second Symphony with Dubuque Symphony Orchestra and the soloist in a concert with the Continuo Arts Foundation.
RUSSELL THOMAS, tenor
A native of Miami, tenor RUSSELL THOMAS is quickly establishing himself as one of the most exciting vocal and dramatic talents on the international opera and concert scene. His current season includes concert performances of Adams’ Gospel According to the Other Mary at the Ravinia Festival, Verdi’s I Masnadieri with Washington Concert Opera, the title role of Verdi’s Don Carlos in his Deutsche Oper Berlin debut, Andres in Wozzeck with the Metropolitan Opera, the title role in The Tales of Hoffmann with the Seattle Opera and the Prince in Rusalka with Opera North Carolina.
Thomas is an alumnus of the prestigious Lindemann Young Artist Development Program of the Metropolitan Opera. He holds a Bachelor of Music degree in performance from the New World School of the Arts.
PETER VOLPE, bass
American bass PETER VOLPE continually receives critical and popular acclaim on four continents. Possessing a vast and ever-expanding repertoire of more than 80 roles in six languages, he is noted for his captivating style and interpretive skill.
This season’s engagements include Marquis of Calatrava and Guardiano (cover) in La forza del destino with Washington National Opera, Philip II in Don Carlos with Vancouver Opera and Austin Lyric Opera, Raimondo in Lucia di Lammermoor with Portland Opera and an all-Verdi concert with the Washington Chorus at the Kennedy Center. Volpe made his notable Metropolitan Opera debut in its new production of Prokofiev’s War and Peace and has returned for Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Strauss’ Salome, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Falstaff, Gianni Schicchi, Romeo et Juliette, Aida, I Vespri Siciliani, Cyrano di Bergerac, Andrea Chenier and Carmen.
MONTCLAIR STATE UNIVERSITY CHORALE, HEATHER J. BUCHANAN director
MONTCLAIR STATE UNIVERSITY CHORALE is the core choir in the John J. Cali School of Music. The Chorale comprises music students majoring in performance, music education, music therapy and composition, as well as nonmusic majors. Their accompanist is Steven W. Ryan. Previous NJSO highlights include Howard Shore’s Academy Award-winning The Lord of the Rings Symphony, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Verdi’s epic Requiem under the baton of Neeme Järvi. The Chorale’s highly acclaimed performances of Orff’s Carmina Burana with Jacques Lacombe were celebrated with a limited-edition CD release in September 2011.
In May 2011, the women of the Chorale performed Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 with the NJSO and the American Boy Choir. Other Chorale highlights include requiems by Fauré and Duruflé, Poulenc’s Gloria, Britten’s Saint Nicholas, Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem and the regional premiere of Parables for the 2011 Crawford Concert in collaboration with the MSU Symphony Orchestra.
HEATHER J. BUCHANAN director
Australian-born conductor HEATHER J.BUCHANAN, PhD, is professor of music and
director of choral activities at Montclair State University, where she conducts the Chorale, University Singers and Vocal Accord. Choirs under her direction have won critical acclaim and have collaborated with world-renowned artists including Meredith Monk, Richard Alston, Mícheál Ó Súílleabháin, Tarik O’Regan and Chen Yi. Buchanan is co-editor and compiler of the landmark GIA Publications choral series Teaching Music through Performance in Choir and has released a DVD, Evoking Sound: Body Mapping & Gesture Fundamentals.
A licensed Andover educator, Buchanan specializes in the teaching of body mapping for musicians and holds degrees from the University of New England in Australia, Westminster Choir College of Rider University and the Queensland Conservatorium at Griffith University in Australia. A vibrant teacher, dynamic performer and passionate advocate for musicians’ health, she is in demand as a guest conductor, somatic educator and choral clinician in the United States and abroad.