Notes on the Verdi Requiem

On April 29, we will present a joint concert of the Verdi Requiem with the Greenwich Village Orchestra, a 70-person community orchestra under the baton of Barbara Yahr.  Tickets are now on sale. Learn more about this piece of music in these program notes, by John Bawden.

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When Rossini died in 1868, Verdi proposed that a Requiem should be written in honour of the great man. Thirteen leading Italian composers, including himself, would each be invited to contribute a movement. Somewhat predictably, initial enthusiasm for the idea soon gave way to all sorts of professional rivalries, and when it also became clear that the piece would be little more than an unconvincing pot-pourri, the scheme had to be abandoned.

In 1873 the Italian poet, novelist and national hero Alessandro Manzoni died. Verdi had been a lifelong admirer and was deeply affected by his death. He decided to write a Requiem in Manzoni’s memory, and began by re-working the Libera me which he had composed five years earlier for the ill-fated Rossini project. Though it is Verdi’s only large-scale work not intended for the stage, the Requiem is unashamedly theatrical in style, with passages of great tenderness and simplicity contrasting with intensely dramatic sections. Writing at the time, the eminent conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow aptly described it as “Verdi’s latest opera, in church vestments.” 

The first performance of the Messa da Requiem took place on May 22, 1874, the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death, in St. Mark’s Church, Milan. Special permission had to be obtained from the Archbishop for the inclusion of the female choristers, who were hidden behind a screen and clad in full-length black dresses and mourning veils. Though it was a successful performance, the restrained circumstances and prohibition against applause produced a somewhat muted reaction. In contrast, the second performance three days later, at La Scala Opera House, was received by the capacity crowd with tumultuous enthusiasm. The Requiem became an overnight sensation, and was equally ecstatically received at the many European performances that soon followed. Its British premiere took place in May 1875 at the Albert Hall, conducted by Verdi himself, with a chorus of over 1000 and an orchestra of 140. One journalist described the work as “the most beautiful music for the church that has been produced since the Requiem of Mozart” – a view that was echoed by most people. However, a significant minority found it offensive that Verdi, an agnostic, should be writing a Requiem. For them the very qualities which made his music so ideally suited to the theatre made it wholly unacceptable for the church. Today this difference between traditional sacred music and Verdi’s operatic treatment of the Requiem text no longer presents a problem. 

The work begins with a hushed and solemn falling phrase on the cellos, a motif that recurs later. After the opening Requiem aeternam (Rest eternal), the Kyrie follows, introduced by the four soloists. Here the operatic nature of the piece is clearly revealed, with its expansive rising melody and wide dynamic contrast. 

The lengthy second movement, Dies irae (Day of wrath, day of judgement), is a sequence of nine widely contrasting sections containing some of Verdi’s most dramatic and emotional music, notably the terrifying Dies irae theme with doom-laden thunderclaps provided by the bass drum; the on- and off-stage trumpets representing the “last trump” of Biblical prophecy; and the tender pleading of the Salva me (Save me). The Dies irae motif is never far away, but eventually the terrors of the Last Judgement give way to the heartfelt Lacrymosa dies illa (That tearful day), and quiet final prayer, Dona eis requiem (Grant them peace).

For the Offertory Verdi adopts a much more liturgical idiom, with a predominantly four-part vocal texture over a restrained accompaniment for the soloists’ Domine Jesu. Trumpet fanfares announce the exhilarating Sanctus & Benedictus, an animated fugue for double chorus based on an inversion of the opening cello motif, with colourful, scurrying orchestral writing 

The Agnus Dei sounds at first as if it is from some remote region. After the rich romanticism of much of the earlier music, Verdi presents us with an austere, unaccompanied duet, in bare octaves. The chorus answers, also in octaves but with the addition of a small group of instruments, and then, as the second and third statements of the Agnus Dei text progress, the music grows in richness and warmth. Lux aeterna (Light eternal) is a short movement for a trio of solo voices, sometimes unaccompanied and sometimes supported by shimmering strings. 

After the chant-like opening of the final movement, Libera me (Deliver me), and a short arioso for the soprano soloist, Verdi returns to the original Dies irae and Requiem aeternam themes. The extended final section of the work is another energetic fugue, again loosely based on a version of the cello motto. After a tremendous climax the work gradually moves towards a quiet end, though the concluding prayer of supplication, surely reflecting Verdi’s own uncertainty, noticeably lacks the final serenity and assurance of salvation found in most other Requiems. 

Few choral works have captured the public imagination in the way that Verdi’s Requiem has. The uncomplicated directness of his style, his soaring, lyrical melodies which lie perfectly for the human voice, the scintillating orchestration and, most significantly, the work’s extraordinary dramatic and emotional intensity, all contribute to the Requiem’s status as one of the great icons of Western music.  -  John Bawden

Notes on Our Spring 2017 Concert

On April 30, 2017 at 2:30 pm, we perform Dvořák's Stabat Mater. 

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) started composing his setting of the Stabat Mater in 1876 and completed it a year later. The death of his daughter, Josefa, drew the composer to this poetic and somewhat mystical text. The death of his surviving two children followed, bringing the composer back to complete the piece in 1877. These tragic losses resulted in this moving and highly emotional work we hear today.

Dvořák’s Stabat Mater is not harmonically complex, nor is it a difficult work to appreciate. It is, rather, immediately accessible to the listener (and performer). While these are often trademarks of Dvořák’s music, they are especially clear in this piece. The result is a piece that feels personal, often intimate, with folk-like qualities that make it sound familiar, even for first-time listeners. The only repeated thematic material is found in the first and last movements. Otherwise, each movement is a world unto itself, with no thematic relationship to anything around it. This makes the recall of the opening material even more striking when heard at the beginning of the last movement.

The vocal writing, especially for the soloists, is unique. Dvořák requires singers of ample voice to meet the vocal challenges of the phrases and to balance with the chorus and orchestra, but he also requires that these four soloists sing together as an ensemble. The second movement quartet is an example of sophisticated writing for a vocal ensemble, as are the opening and closing movements.

St. George’s Choral Society returns to its history with our performance of this piece. Dvořák has played such an important part in the choir’s existence, including the US premiere of the Requiem, along with early performances of the Stabat Mater in New York City when the work was relatively new. It is truly a wonderful way to celebrate 200 years of choral music!

Notes on Our Program

ANDREW SPINA © 2016

ANDREW SPINA © 2016

Our first concert of the season is this Sunday, November 20, at 3 pm at the Church of the Incarnation, 209 Madison Avenue at 35th St. Tickets are $30 online and at the door.

To get you in the mood for the music, enjoy our program notes:

“When We Were” is a song poem for choir, organ, cello and soprano. It is in three parts: "Then," "Now," and "When.” Each part consists of distinct roles: the nostalgic chorale reminisces memories; a solo cello emulates the voice of the present reality, and conscience; the organ records the passing of time; and a solo soprano invokes innocence and hope.

The text is driven by fragments from a poem that my grandfather, Dr. Dong Whan Lee, wrote shortly after the Korean War in ancient Chinese calligraphy—one in a collection of 86 poems translated and published in Korean titled “Field of Tea/Snowy Mountain/Spring Mountain.” This text depicts the devastation and displacement that war leaves behind, time unwarranted. These fragments are sung in Korean, written out phonetically in English for the choir.

In the eight minutes of the piece, the music pushes and pulls in and out of the feeling of the present and past, eventually letting go completely. This is depicted in the ascending line of the cello harmonics, which disappear on a high “E” tremolo, closing the piece.

The chorus holds onto the key of D minor while the organ counterpoints a dissonant B minor stubbornly against it. The cello lives in a sound bubble of five notes C, D, E, F# and Bb. Much like Messiaen, inspiration was found in the birds that would sing me awake at dawn. A rhythmic notation unveiled itself, working its way into the solo cello. In the “Now” middle section, the choir blows through organ pipes and sings articulated percussive sounds which collectively mimic a sense of the rustling of the leaves and wind blowing through the trees.

One of the many discoveries in writing this piece was that my grandmother was a church organist. This is how my grandfather met her. My mother, Moon Hie, the youngest of six children, grew up to be a soprano and sang in church when my sister, brother, and I were growing up.

I am especially grateful to Christine Kim, my beautiful and talented sister, who is playing this premiere performance on solo cello at the invitation of Artistic Director Dr. Matthew Lewis.

Unintentionally, this has become a deeply personal piece. My hope is that it might resonate with you in a personal way too, providing needed solace, strength, and peace—a respect for the fragility of life.

My dear friend Joanne Cheung, who took on the task of translating this poem, found in reaching out to her grandfather for guidance in translating, that he had fought in the Korean War. He currently resides in Los Angeles where my grandfather also lived.      Pauline Kim Harris


Argentinian composer Alberto Evartisto Ginastera (1916-1983) is considered one of the most important composers of the Americas. He wrote Psalm 150 in 1938 and the world premiere was in Buenos Aires in 1945. The North American premiere was given in 1968 by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducting. This colorful work employs several interesting composition techniques, most notably polytonality, while some sections refer to Renaissance polyphony. A serene Alleluia grows into an outburst of joy, concluding the work.

Jean Berger (1909-2002) is known primarily as a pianist and composer of choral music. He was born Arthur Scholssberg into a German Jewish family. He moved to Paris in 1933, after the Nazis took power, changing his name to Jean Berger. He eventually moved to the United States where he established himself as a college educator. His Brazilian Psalm is an extended a cappella work, rarely performed in its entirety. An interesting mix of harmonic styles, it eventually settles into an Alleluia which concludes the piece.

The Missa Brevis of Zoltán Kodály is a tour-de-force—colorful, expressive, exuberant, and energetic, this is a masterpiece of the choral literature. Kodály (1882-1967) was a Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist. In addition to his many compositions, he is known as the founder of the Kodály Method, an approach to music education. The original version of the Missa Brevis is the one heard today, scored for organ, chorus, and soloists. He later orchestrated the piece. Kodály remained in Hungary during the Nazi occupation. Amid the chaos of war, during which the Red Army eventually overcame the German forces in Budapest, he took refuge in the Opera House. During repeated bombings of the city, he finished a composition he had started years earlier: this very Mass setting. Amazing that in the middle of such chaos, such beauty emerged!