Giuseppe Verdi: the anti-clerical composer with a deeply Catholic soul

Verdi conducts the second performance of the Requiem at La Scala in May 1874

Last night BBC Four gave us the chance to enjoy Verdi’s Requiem from the Proms, or, to give it its proper title, the Requiem for Alessandro Manzoni, by Giuseppe Verdi. This was Verdi’s great tribute to Manzoni, Italy’s greatest composer paying his respects to Italy’s greatest novelist. But Manzoni is not really known in this country, so it is hardly suprising that we never talk of it as the Manzoni Requiem.

I myself have got through I Promessi Sposi in translation and found it an entertaining read, but not much more than that. As for the Requiem – well, it is a mammoth work, ideal for a huge venue like the Royal Albert Hall, but it was never designed for liturgical use, and thus represents the death of religious music: out of the sanctuary and into the concert hall; out of its true setting as prayer, and into something that resembles operatic entertainment.

But in the midst of Verdi’s great symphonic poem are the words. He may manipulate the text to suit his musical ends, but the words themselves are the words of the Requiem Mass, in the form in use until 1962. Once they would have been familiar to everyone who went to a Catholic funeral; now they are only familiar from the sleeve notes of CDs, which is rather a pity. Unless one goes to a Requiem Mass in the Extraordinary Form one is never likely to hear the Dies Irae, Thomas of Celano’s great poem, in the setting for which it was written. Likewise, one is never likely to hear the words of the Offertory, which perhaps form the most beautiful part of the Verdi Requiem.

Domine Iesu Christe, Rex gloriæ,
libera animas omnium fidelium defunctorum
de pœnis inferni et de profundo lacu.
Libera eas de ore leonis,
ne absorbeat eas tartarus,
ne cadant in obscurum;
sed signifer sanctus Michael
repræsentet eas in lucem sanctam,
quam olim Abrahæ promisisti et semini eius.

Hostias et preces tibi, Domine,
laudis offerimus;
tu suscipe pro animabus illis,
quarum hodie memoriam facimus.
Fac eas, Domine, de morte transire ad vitam.
Quam olim Abrahæ promisisti et semini eius.

Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory,
free the souls of all the faithful departed
from infernal punishment and the deep pit.
Free them from the mouth of the lion;
do not let Tartarus swallow them,
nor let them fall into darkness;
but may the standard-bearer Saint Michael,
lead them into the holy light
which you once promised to Abraham and his seed.

O Lord, we offer You
sacrifices and prayers of praise;
accept them on behalf of those souls
whom we remember today.
Let them, O Lord, pass over from death to life,
as you once promised to Abraham and his seed.

This represents a perfect little poem, and such lovely words evoke lovely music. Nowadays, though, are people just going for the music? Have they forgotten the meaning of the words? Are they even aware that the words set to music are the sacred words of the Mass? I fear they must be – for far more people go to concerts than ever go to church. The words of the Mass have become a historical curiosity: they have been secularised.

Mind you, I am not complaining about this: I don’t particularly like the Verdi Requiem, but I acknowledge its magnificence, and in the face of such a work of art one can hardly complain. But one can but notice that art and religion have parted company.

It is commonly held that Giuseppe Verdi was not particularly religious, and that if anything he was something of an anti-clerical, like so many Italian nationalists of his time. Certainly Aida – the story of two innocent lovers crushed, indeed quite literally buried alive, by an overweening theocracy – might lend itself to this interpretation. But I, for one, do not subscribe to this reductive theory. Verdi may not have been much of a Catholic outwardly but he had a Catholic soul.

La Traviata is an opera – his only one conceived as a contemporary story – about the redemption of a fallen woman: one who forsakes fleshly love, making the supreme sacrifice, that of love itself, so her lover can be happy without her. Violetta proves her great love of Alfred through renunciation: a very Victorian theme – something that one might expect from George Eliot – but a very Catholic theme as well. The great love in the opera is in fact that of father for daughter, brother for sister; Germont père asks Violetta to forgo Alfredo for the sake of his daughter, and she does so, asking him to embrace her as a daughter. Love of family is the higher form of love. Traviata is a love opera, and an opera about love – different types of love. It has theological profundity.

Then there is the sheer beauty of some of the religious moments in Verdi’s operas. One favourite of mine is the prayer La Vergine degli Angeli from Forza del Destino. Listen to this and then see if you think that Verdi had no religious feeling. The same aria is set to film by Charles Sturridge, which you can see here. Regardless of whether the singer is Renata Tebaldi or Leontyne Price, the music conveys something that is at the very heart of Catholicism: the beauty of compassion, made flesh for us in the Blessed Virgin Mary.