Remembering Joe Green: The Life & Art of Giuseppe Verdi
A poster for the premiere performance of the Verdi Requiem, 1874
People, singing is hard. It’s also one of the most rewarding activities a person can experience. Despite what’s accepted as today’s standard of good singing on programs like “American Idol” and “The Voice”, I remind people that opera and classical singers are the only vocalists that are able to perform on a live stage without the amplified assistance of a microphone. With the proper resonating placement and breath, the human voice can cut through a large ensemble orchestra and still reach the ears of those seated in the highest and furthest seats of any given theater.
Giuseppe Verdi knew this and was a master in writing compositions sculpted for the human voice. His music is fully cognizant of the range, power, and beauty of what the singing voice is capable of producing.
The last and final installment honoring the Maestro deals with music written for when things are unto themselves last and final – the Requiem, music written for the Catholic Mass of the Dead.
Verdi composed his Requiem when his friend, Alessandro Manzoni, the Italian writer, poet, and humanist died at the age of 88 in 1873. He had partially written a Requiem piece when his fellow countryman and composer, Gioachino Rossini, died a few years earlier. Verdi had tried to arrange a Requiem comprised of different parts of the Mass submitted by other various Italian composers. His offering was the “Libera Me” section of the Requiem, but the musical commemoration honoring the life of Rossini was abandoned due to lack of enthusiasm. Thus, when told of the death of his close friend whom he also greatly admired, Verdi vowed to write for Manzoni a Requiem fully composed by his own hand.
The work became, according to Wikipedia, “regarded as a masterpiece of the oratorio tradition and a testimony to his capacity outside the field of opera.”
The rendition of Verdi’s Requiem which I have chosen is from 1967 and conducted by Herbert von Karajan. In my article dedicated to the American soprano Leontyne Price entitled, “Leontyne Price: An Aquarian of Representation” I described why Verdi’s stunning oratorio stands unto itself for its powerful instrumental scoring but also for the Maestro’s superlative sculpting of each of the 4 vocal solo lines for soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass. To quote that piece:
Verdi’s Requiem, Milan, Italy, 1967
In 1967, the Austrian conductor of renown, Herbert von Karajan, wanted to assemble an international cast of soloists that would make the best combination of voices possible at that moment in time with the Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala of a momentous vocal piece penned by one the greatest composers of opera. By virtue of the composer and the orchestra, von Karajan chose two Italians for his special solo cast, mezzo soprano Fiorenza Cossotto and a VERY young, up and coming pie faced tenor sans beard or long white handkerchief from the small town of Modena, named Luciano Pavarotti. Alongside them, a Bulgarian was chosen for the lowest resonances of the solo parts; bass, Nicolai Ghiaurov. Needing a soprano who would have the vocal prowess to match the power of the others while also possessing the ethereal fluidity of a shimmering high register, von Karajan would have no other singer to round off this quartet of vocal prominence than African American soprano, Leontyne Price.
The soloists of the 1967 La Scala Verdi Requiem: Leontyne Price (far left), Fiorenza Cossotto (middle left), Nicolai Ghiaurov (far right), and a nearly unrecognizable beardless Luciano Pavarotti (middle right).
Verdi’s Requiem is one of the very few vocal compositions where it is written in the score for each member of the 4 part solos to produce a trill.
Trill – (noun) A musical embellishment consisting of a rapid alternation between 2 adjacent notes of a scale.
Males, by virtue of having testosterone, sing in a naturally lower place then females, thus many men do not possess the ability to trill. But even with that said any tenor or bass singing the Verdi Requiem must have some semblance of one. In the video clip selected below, the men sing their trills individually, giving the listener the best scope of the vocal quality and weight involved with the production of a trill.
The men’s passages along with the mezzo soprano’s subsequent delivery of her trill, provide Leontyne Price the perfect platform for her voice to spin into a vibration which stands drastically apart through its Uranian uniqueness and sublime artistry.
One of Leontyne Price’s best trills from the La Scala Verdi Requiem can be heard in the video clip below during the time range of 7:43 – 7:53.
During the Second World War in the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt better known as Terezin, Verdi’s Requiem was performed an astounding 16 times. A Romanian conductor and composer named Rafael Schachter both organized and conducted the singers and instrumentalists from start to finish. Having only his one copy of the score which he carried with him everywhere, Schachter secretly arranged rehearsals with his fellow inmates until they were at a performance level to present Verdi’s masterpiece to the public. When asked why he dared to perform a Catholic Requiem among predominantly Jewish prisoners, Schachter replied:
“We must respond to the worst of mankind with the best of mankind.”
A poster depicting Rafael Schachter conducting his performances of the Verdi Requiem held at the Terezin concentration camp used by the Symphony Orchestras of Chicago, Seattle, and San Diego with their commemorative concerts called the “Defiant Requiem”.
Through his life and art, it can be said that Giuseppe Verdi has assisted in bringing mankind significantly closer to a Divine Source.
*Brad Kronen’s book “Love in the Stars” published by Llewellyn Worldwide, Inc. is available for purchase at your local book seller or online at amazon.com at the link listed below.