Verdi’s Requiem still scares the pants off me.

Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957)

On my self-imposed journey through the history of classical music where I have been listening to music chronologically from the year 1100 taking in most of the notable composers through the ages and reaching over the last weeks, the year 1874. This might be considered obsessive behaviour but it has been both fascinating and absorbing as well as putting the music into the kind of perspective where I can begin to see how things came about in the magnificent legacy of the Western World’s art music. As with most studies of complex things, the more you know the more you realize how little you know. The project is now in its thirteenth year and during that time I have grown to love composers that I had hardly known before, like Biber, Spohr and Raff for instance but also found some of my musical blocks reinforced too – even now I still find Telemann and Clementi boring and middle period Mendelssohn dull. I am still ambivalent about the so-called tone poem or programme music, preferring the grittier discipline of abstract “classicism” of the great symphonic composers to some of Liszt’s or, say Smetana’s adventures into orchestral story-telling (I am looking forward though to hearing again some of Richard Strauss’ exciting experiments in this form) and I have probably heard more than enough concertos for show-off virtuosi especially those tinkling arpeggio-stuck piano and violin concertos from the mid 19th. Century that are still being churned out by classical record labels looking for new sales to novelty-struck CD collectors and even though I love 19th Century Italian opera and have tried to discover new rare delights, I haven’t yet found an opera from this genre that I enjoyed that wasn’t written by old favourites, either Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Ponchielli, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano or Puccini. Time and time again, I have been drawn back, in rough chronological order to Purcell, Monteverdi, Handel, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin and Berlioz, composers I have loved and rated for most of my life but now I see them set against their contemporaries and in the long line of history and admire them all the more. Brahms, Mahler, Debussy, Stravinsky and Shostakovich lie ahead, beckoning me seductively but here in 1874, I am sitting here quietly in awe of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, Wagner’s Gotterdamerung, Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition and, strangely, in this period of personal bereavement, Verdi’s Requiem. A non-musicological term that comes to mind is Wow!

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

I have many recordings of the Verdi Requiem, one of my old favourites.  I have known the piece well since singing in the chorus as a music student in the Royal Albert Hall, London, under the baton of that great conductor Sir John Barbirolli. A cherished musical memory was the moment in the first orchestral rehearsal when I sang the Dies Irae with the magnificent, yes, overwhelming sound of Verdi’s brass- and percussion-laden orchestration. Very few musical experiences in my life have been so totally thrilling. Now, listening to it again so soon after attending a family funeral, the music retains its power – not though as religious music but more as a dramatic and disturbing depiction of fear and horror in the face of death. Verdi’s deeply-ingrained Catholic upbringing joined with his dislike of priests and distrust of religion to give us one of the most frightening images of mankind’s superstitious hysteria in the face of his own mortality. Nowhere more so than in the Dies Irae section, of course, but the ideas there, permeate the whole work. This is a piece about the nightmare that is the Catholic Church’s traditional teachings about Hell, damnation and the last Judgement. Verdi may not have believed in Hell but it sure scared the hell out of him – and us.

I could have chosen a modern digitally exciting recording of this piece, like, for instance Antonio Pappano’s thrilling new version, but, in the end, as with many pieces in the standard repertoire, you just have to go back to Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) who once played the cello in an orchestra conducted by Verdi himself. This was made with the NBC Orchestra in 1951, the sound is pretty terrible but the essence and blood of the music is here like nowhere else.

The words come from a 13th century Latin hymn with a magnificence of utterance that survives into our modern agnostic age helped on its way by Verdi’s colossal setting heard here with chorus aided by the stunned bass soloist (Cesare Siepi) who is meant to sound as if he has seen an operatic ghost and the mezzo-soprano, the gypsy woman (Fedora Barbieri) from Il Trovatore seeing damnation in the book of judgement. If you think the sentiments are tosh then you will still have to admit that it is powerful tosh.

The day of wrath, that day
Will dissolve the world in ashes
As foretold by David and the sibyl!

How much tremor there will be,
when the judge will come,
investigating everything strictly!

The trumpet, scattering a wondrous sound
through the sepulchres of the regions,
will summon all before the throne.

Bass solo:
Death and nature will marvel,
when the creature arises,
to respond to the Judge.

Mezzo soprano solo:
The written book will be brought forth,
in which all is contained,
from which the world shall be judged.

Dies iræ! Dies illa
Solvet sæclum in favilla:
Teste David cum Sibylla!

Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando iudex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!

Tuba mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulchra regionum,
Coget omnes ante thronum.

Bass solo:
Mors stupebit, et natura,
Cum resurget creatura,
Iudicanti responsura.

Mezzo-soprano solo:
Liber scriptus proferetur,
In quo totum continetur,
Unde mundus iudicetur.


  1. I can't remember the exact details but I remember hearing on the radio years ago of a school music master who enthused his students to an unprecedented degree by starting with the very earliest and most primitive music and tracing it through plainchant and up to modern pop-music so that each period and style was related directly to what had gone before. It apparently worked very well. I have to confess that the Verdi has never particularly attracted me but I've only heard it once, at a Hereford Three Choirs. The RC church now makes the Dies Irae very much an option and I think most clergy choose not to do it. I've played for a number of RC funerals at our local crematorium over the past few years and most of them never mention hell but simply say that nobody is permanently debarred from Heaven; a sentiment with which I would personally not argue one iota.

    On a slight side-track (I'm rather good at those!) I have a rather good, very good in fact, privately made recording of someone you know reading Wilfred Owen's "Strange Meeting" but I can't work out how to transfer it to either Facebook direct or You-Tube. Any suggestions, please?

  2. Send me an email Malcolm telling me what format the Wilfred Owen is on and what computer equipment you have and I will try to help.

    On the Dies Irae front, I suspect Verdi would have been less interested in the whole project if he couldn't have used the Dies Irae as it is the germ behind the whole of his conception of the work but then I don't think he was really a Christian.

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