in: News & Features

July 29, 2018

Verdi Wakes the Grateful Dead

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Next Wednesday, weather gods permitting, will find the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, One City Choir, Back Bay Chorale, and a quartet of soloists combining forces in Verdi’s monumental Requiem, a work Hans von Bülow described as “opera in church vestments.” After playing the immortally sprightly overture to Rossini’s “Semiramide,” artistic director Christopher Wilkins will summon hushed, prayerful tones to open Verdi’s Mass setting. But don’t worry, because an impassioned plea for salvation ensues; in the monumentally dramatic “Dies Irae e Tuba Mirum,” trumpets will surround the audience and bass drums pound as if the ground were opening  under the Esplanade.

We have dedicated this concert to the memory of Robert Honeysucker (1943-2017) [see BMInt tribute HERE]. His sonorous voice and expressive musicianship graced our stages many times, including our 2008 performance of the Verdi Requiem at the Hatch Shell, and our memorable Beethoven’s 9th at Fenway Park. Honeysucker was not only one of America’s finest baritones, he was also a true friend of Boston Landmarks Orchestra from our very beginning. We truly miss him.

Rain Date: Thursday, August 2. If it rains on August 2 as well, the concert will be held at First Church Cambridge (11 Garden St., Cambridge, MA 02138).

Prelude concert (at approximately 6:20 pm) by North End Music & Performing Arts Center Children’s Choir.

My podium notes follow.

Tonight’s program begins with Gioachino Rossini. So does the history of the Verdi Requiem. Following Rossini’s death in 1868, Verdi wrote to a friend, “A great name has disappeared from the world! His was the most widespread, the most popular reputation of our time, and it was a glory of Italy!”

Verdi proposed a Requiem Mass in Rossini’s memory, to be performed on the first anniversary of the composer’s death. Verdi’s plan envisioned a collaborative work created by “the most distinguished Italian composers.” Verdi’s motives were altruistic but the stipulations he put on the project were impractical; the performance never took place. The portion of the work that Verdi contributed, however—the Libera me—was the starting point for what would eventually become his Messa da Requiem. In 2016 The Landmarks Orchestra gave the New England premiere of the Libera me of 1869 with the One City Choir, Back Bay Chorale, and celebrated English soprano Jane Eaglen. On that occasion the North End Music and Performing Arts Center Youth Choir joined us, as they have each of the past four seasons. We are pleased to present them again tonight in their own mini-recital.

For seven years, the One City Choir has symbolized the Landmarks Orchestra’s desire to bring people together from every neighborhood of Boston. Once again a record number of choristers have signed up—so many that we have had to place them both behind and in front of the stage. They are under the brilliant leadership of Scott Allen Jarrett, Music Director of one of our most prized partner organizations, the Back Bay Chorale.

Semiramide, based on a tragic novel by Voltaire, was Rossini’s thirty-fourth opera. At just thirty-two years of age, he was already the most performed composer in operatic history. Audiences lapped up his music like champagne, to which his sparkling creations were often compared.

Indeed, Rossini had a nose for the delectable, like a gourmet chef, which he also decidedly was. Dozens of culinary dishes were named after him. According to the New York Times, “If you want a phrase that summons all the voluptuous pleasure of haute cuisine in its heyday, ‘Tournedos Rossini’ does the trick.” Characterizing Rossini’s music is sometimes like describing food or drink: enticing melodies, bubbly rhythms, pungent orchestrations, and the hearty character of its structure.

Rossini’s Semiramide Overture begins with his signature move: the “Rossini crescendo.” A quartet of horns then introduces a stately theme. After an excited response from the whole orchestra, the horn theme returns in the woodwinds, adorned by pizzicato lines in the strings. A second crescendo leads to the main Allegro and a series of effervescent phrases. With the timing of a superb comic, Rossini puts a stop to this excitement just as it gets underway. When the music halts for a second time, a jovial second subject launches in the woodwinds. The four horns return, though this time in their traditional hunting guise, ushering in a full recapitulation of the main section ahead of a rousing coda.

In the same letter in which Verdi expressed how deeply affected he was by the loss of Rossini, he linked Rossini’s name to another: “When the one other glory that is like unto it [Rossini] exists no longer… what will remain of us?” The “other glory” was the poet and novelist, Alessandro Manzoni. Verdi admired Manzoni’s work not only for its literary merits, but also for the crucial role it played in the Italian Risorgimento, the mid-nineteenth century movement to unify Italy into one kingdom. Manzoni helped establish, for example, a modern linguistic style based on spoken Tuscan speech rather than the antiquated usage of the eighteenth century. Less than five years after Rossini died, Verdi received news of Manzoni’s death. It was to honor the memory of Manzoni that Verdi dedicated his own Requiem Mass, the Messa da Requiem.

Verdi sets the requiem text as a series of dramatic scenes, in music that is profoundly moving and at times extraordinarily visual. Yet, while Verdi’s approach is dramatic throughout—even theatrical—he wished to distance the Requiem from the world of opera. “One must not sing this Mass in the way one sings opera, and therefore phrasing and dynamics that may be fine in the theater won’t satisfy me at all, not at all.” He wished for purity in delivery, and for a beauty of vocal line that is the hallmark of Italian music. We are blessed with a solo quartet tonight—Meredith Hansen, Ann McMahon Quintero, Yeghishe Manucharyan, Nathan Stark—who I believe embody the qualities Verdi took pains to describe.

The text of the Requiem derives from the liturgy of the Mass for the Dead in the Roman Catholic tradition. It is a variant of the text of the mass Ordinary—the portions of the mass text that are the same for every mass. Yet the text of the Mass for the Dead was not always not a set thing. Throughout the first millennium of the church, the service for the dead was largely joyful in nature, its main purpose being to celebrate the promise of the Resurrection. But by the late fifteenth century, hell and damnation had become popular themes with the public. The church finally acceded to popular pressure and allowed the poem Dies iræ to be included in the service. At about the same time, the predominant color at memorial services changed from white to black.

Requiem e Kyrie The music begins with cellos intoning a simple descending line, as if bowed in prayer. The chorus half-whispers the opening ‘Requiem… requiem aeternam’ (‘Rest… eternal rest’) as if praying together. At the words ‘et lux perpetua luceat eis’ (‘and may eternal light shine upon them’) the music brightens from minor to major. The chorus now sings a hymn in antique style. The music of the opening returns and unexpectedly transitions into the Kyrie where for the first time solo voices emerge, then join with the full chorus in Verdian splendor.

Dies iræ The Dies iræ is by far the longest portion of the Requiem. It represents about a third of the music and half of the text. The poem comprises eleven separate sections in Verdi’s setting, each flowing directly into the next.

 (1) The Dies iræ begins with massive full-orchestra hammer blows as if delivered by the Supreme Judge. When these chords are repeated ten bars later, thunderous strokes in the bass drum are inserted, adding a Shakespearean “crack of doom.” Downward hurtling gestures in the strings and lower brass leave no doubt as to the fate of the damned. (2) No sooner has the chorus forecast the “terror [that] will be when the Judge shall come” than eight trumpets signal that the terrible day is upon us. Four onstage trumpets are answered by four offstage. A feeling of dread builds inexorably as we are confronted with our own impending doom. By the time the chorus enters, all hell has broken loose. (3) The catastrophic clamor leads to one of the great tension-filled silences in all of music. No one dares move. ‘Death and nature will be stunned,’ the bass soloist stammers. In the first extended passage for solo voice, the alto proclaims that a book shall be brought forth by which the world is to be judged. The choir quakes in the background, leading to (4) a partial reprise of the opening Dies iræ music.

(5) Saving the sound of the lowest male voice for the following section, Verdi now presents the work’s first ensemble, ‘Quid sum miser,’ a trio for soprano, alto, and tenor. The tone is more intimate and the text shifts to the first person singular. The mood becomes increasingly apprehensive until (6) the basses address the King of Dreadful Majesty directly, in music reminiscent of some of the great curses of Verdi opera. Individuals plead for mercy in a thrilling passage that eventually leads the soprano to the first of her two high C’s in the Requiem.

(7) In the soprano-alto duet, ‘Recordare,’ the text turns to Jesus for the first time. “Recall,” they plead, “that I was the reason for Your journey.” Woodwinds quietly reiterate the rhythm associated with “Salva me” (“Save me”) from the previous section. The vocal lines are at once consoling and unsettled, with a meandering cadenza for the soloists at the end. (8) The tenor aria, ‘Ingemisco,’ is the most personal passage of the Requiem. The voice of the supplicant is tinged with guilt, but gradually it strengthens in the hope of joining the flock and being placed at the right hand of God. (9) In the ‘Confutatis’ the bass invokes the fires of hell once again, but then pleads to be called among the blessed. (10) The opening music of the Dies iræ returns now for the third time (we will hear it a final time at the end of the Requiem). (11) A descending line in the violins leads to the ‘Lacrymosa,’ music originally composed for Don Carlos. It suggests the suffering of all mankind, but begins with the alto, who may represent the weeping of the Virgin Mary at the cross. An unexpected harmony on the final ‘Amen’ causes more uncertainty than comfort.

III. Offertorio The Offertory begins with an invocation and a prayer for deliverance from the terrors of hell. The soprano enters to express the hope that the archangel Michael will deliver the faithful into the holy light; she is accompanied by high luminous violins. The reference to Abraham and his seed is traditionally set to the self-proliferating form of a fugue, as Verdi does here. The ‘Hostias,’ begun quietly by the tenor, is imbued with sweet religious feeling. The fugue returns, now delivered more forcefully than the first time, before a final reminder of the opening plea for mercy.

Sanctus A mere two-and-a-half minutes in length, the Sanctus is ablaze in light. The complexity of the counterpoint is created by a double chorus, with Verdi writing here for eight separate choral parts rather than four.

In the Agnus Dei, soprano and alto spin out a gentle chant-like melody. It is answered by the chorus, and then repeated by the soloists in minor. When it returns for one more responsorial treatment, a single word extends the text to specify that the rest should be eternal. A final rising gesture in the violins points heavenward.

A constant interplay of light and darkness animate the Lux æterna. The music for three soloists suggests, in alternation, the radiance of perpetual light and the shadows of death. Again the soprano soloist is held in reserve, awaiting her prominent role in the final movement.

Robert Honeysucker singing “At the River” in 2012, one of his 11 appearances with the orchestra between 2003 and 2014.
He sang in the Verdi Requiem with the forces in 2007.

VII. We end where Verdi began, when he first conceived this Libera me as the concluding section of the Requiem for Rossini. With panic in her voice, the soprano cries out to be delivered from damnation on that day when the earth shall move. The chorus mutters its own fearful response. The hammer blows of the Dies iræ mount one last assault. The chorus sings—without accompaniment—the music the strings had played at the very opening of the Requiem. A choral fugue reveals the desperation of the gathered throngs with such vehemence that they seem “intent on achieving salvation by violence,” in Francis Toye’s characterization. All forces come together on the words ‘Domine, libera’ in music that echoes other passages in Verdi associated with the Risorgimento and political liberty. In a final dramatic gesture, the soprano rises for the second time to a ringing climax on a high C, before falling in exhaustion before the terror of the unknown. The chorus is left to utter a colorless monotone on ‘Libera me,’ as the orchestra offers the hope of a major chord. But the outcome has never been more in doubt. Verdi—ever the skeptic—seems to return the question of salvation back to the listener.

Christopher Wilkins was appointed Music Director of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra in the spring of 2011. Since then the orchestra has helped reaffirm founder Charles Ansbacher’s vision of making great music accessible to the whole community.

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