The Sacred Verdi

Email a Friend

To almost every opera lover, and to every Italian, Giuseppe Verdi is sacred. Although opera is more than four centuries old and embraces many languages, styles and viewpoints, somehow the works of Verdi, the bicentennial of whose birth will be celebrated on October 10, seem closest to the heart of what opera is about. Just call to mind a trilogy of operas he wrote in his late 30s—Rigoletto (1851), Il Trovatore (1852), La Traviata (1853)—and you will understand.

Verdi is best known as the composer of 27 operas, although some people say there are 28, insisting that Aroldo (1857) is more than just a reworking of Stiffelio (1850). He wrote some instrumental music, such as a string quartet, and, like most 19th century composers, some works of a religious nature. The difference was that Verdi, unlike almost all of his contemporaries, was not a religious man. Depending whom you ask, Verdi could be defined as an atheist, an agnostic, a skeptic or vehemently anti-clerical.

My intention here is not speculate about where he fell on the spectrum of belief or to judge his convictions. Instead, I would like to note some of the most compelling of his religious works and have you think about how a non-religious man could produce music that speaks so powerfully to very devout people.

A key to understanding this seeming contradiction came to me in a conversation I had with Thomas Quasthoff in front of an audience at the Verbier Festival in 2012. As is well-known, the splendid German bass-baritone was born with a combination of rare artistic gifts, great intelligence, and severe physical disabilities that created many obstacles in his life. One of these is that he was denied admission to music conservatory because his disability prevented him from being able to play the piano, which was a requirement for singing students. Therefore, he had to study privately with a teacher who did not have a piano requirement.

Quasthoff is not a religious man, although other people in his circumstances might find wisdom or solace in religion. And yet he was an outstanding interpreter of sacred music by Bach (the passions, certain cantatas), Mozart, Mendelssohn (Elijah) and other composers. When I asked him how he, a non-believer, achieved such incisive and spiritually affecting interpretations in this music, he replied, "I see it as telling a story. The story might have a religious basis, but it is a human story with human issues and emotions. My approach is to understand that story and those emotions and then tell them through words and music.”

Religious Characters

This approach probably reflects some of Verdi’s thinking, although his was rarer and more audacious in the time and place he lived in. Many of his important opera characters are either religious figures or invoke the help and seek the intervention of one or more deities. Each one had a story and emotions. Most of these characters are Catholic and regularly exclaim “Dio!” or “Gran Dio!” on a regular basis. These include the Leonoras of La Forza del Destino and Il Trovatore and Violetta in La Traviata. In the same opera, Giorgio Germont tells his son that God made him separate Alfredo from Violetta—”Dio mi guidò!”  

There are many ways of referring to the Christian deity in Verdi’s operas. Apart from the above-mentioned works, one can find “Eterno” or “Te” in I Masnadieri. In Luisa Miller, the preferred word is “Nume.” Elisabetta, the long-suffering queen in Don Carlo, mentions “Signor,” or Lord, in her big aria, “Tu, che le vanità.”

Not surprisingly, Dio is frequently mentioned in Stiffelio because the title character is a Protestant minister.

In Nabucco, Jews, in the character of Zaccaria and, especially, the Hebrew slaves who sing the famous chorus, “Va, pensiero," were intended by Verdi to represent to Italians a captive people yearning for freedom, as was the case in 1842, when most of the Italian peninsula was under foreign domination. In Otello, the title character speaks of gloria musulmano (Muslim glory) and, when he refers to God, it is most likely Allah. In the belief system in Aïda, Ramfis (a high priest), a Priestess and most of the characters invoke the numi, a constellation of gods who were worshipped in ancient Egypt before the advent of monotheism. In the famous Judgment Scene, Amneris cries, “Numi, pietà del mio straziato cuore” (Gods, have pity on my wounded heart):

Verdi presented sympathetic characters in his operas who were deeply religious. In just one opera, La Forza del Destino, there are three. The Padre Guardiano is a stern but compassionate head of a monastery where one of the monks, Fra Melitone, is slightly dotty and meant to provide comic relief—a rare type in the Verdi canon. Then there is Leonora, the heroine who endures so many woes that she first takes refuge in the  monastery and then she dons the robes of a hermit and spends years living in seclusion.

Because audiences saw religious characters of all types in Verdi operas, they did not necessarily imagine that his own viewpoints were in some cases quite radical. This is most evident in Don Carlo (Don Carlos in the original French version) in which the Grand Inquisitor, the blind nonagenarian swathed in red robes, is the only person who can stand up to, and indeed intimidate, King Philip II of Spain. While the Inquisitor only appears late in the opera, his power to corrupt both public affairs and the private lives of  the royal family is felt throughout. He insists that the King have his son Carlo killed just as God sacrificed His own son. If this portrayal is not quite anti-clerical, it was shocking then and still startling today. If there really is a Heaven, I wonder if Verdi was detained for questioning before being granted admission?

A Stormy Requiem

Were I doing the questioning, I would be particularly interested in knowing about the Messa da Requiem, familiar to most people as the Verdi Requiem. It was composed in 1873 in memory of the writer Alessandro Manzoni, whose one novel, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) became as much a part of people’s sense of themselves in the newly created Republic of Italy as were the operas of Verdi. While most requiem masses are consoling and reverent, Verdi’s is full of anger and terror, with the Dies Irae (wrath of God) being cataclysmically sonorous. 

There are so many amazing performances of the Requiem. Famous recorded versions exist by  Victor de Sabat, Carlo Maria Giulini, Herbert von Karajan and Georg Solti (who was Jewish, but connected to the story and emotions). Here is a performance from 1970 with Claudio Abbado leading Renata Scotto, Marilyn Horne, Luciano Pavarotti and Nicolai Ghiaurov that has a lot to admire. Nowadays, Riccardo Muti is one of the real masters of this music.

Another conductor whose Verdi performances I have really come to enjoy is Antonio Pappano. They are very attuned not only to the beauty of the music but to the storytelling and the emotional nuance. Not only is this evident in opera but in sacred music, including that of Verdi. In addition to being the music director of the Royal Opera House in London, he holds the same title with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. Since his arrival in 2005 he has galvanized this venerable musical organization and the often blasé Roman audiences with innovative programming and rigorous musicianship. 

The Roman orchestra and chorus are especially dramatic under Pappano in a performance of the Requiem  recorded live in 2009. The soloists—Anja Harteros, Sonia Ganassi, Rolando Villazón and René Pape—responded viscerally to Pappano’s leadership.

Lately, the recording that has been in heavy rotation on my CD player is "Sacred Verdi," again with Pappano leading the orchestra and chorus of Santa Cecilia. This is a collection of works we might know of but seldom hear. They are the Quattro Pezzi Sacri (Four Sacred Pieces) from 1898, the Ave Maria (1880) and Libera Me (1869) with the excellent Maria Agresta as soloist. 

I discussed the Libera Me in a recent article about the sacred music of Verdi’s great predecessor, Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868). Verdi wrote the Libera Me after Rossini’s death with the intention that it be included in a 13-part work by 13 composers to honor Rossini. While he was probably more observant than Verdi, if Rossini went to confession he would likely have to remain quite a while to reveal all of his sins.

The Ave Maria was drawn from, and inspired by, the Canto XXXIII of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I did not know this piece, which sounds unmistakably Verdian but also evokes Palestrina and other 16th century Italian composers.

The Quattro Pezzi Sacri are to Verdi what Four Last Songs are to Richard Strauss. They are among his last compositions and, while one might invest them with special biographical meaning, they stand on their own and should be seen that way. In fact, Verdi considered the first piece (another Ave Maria) a mere academic exercise and discouraged its being performed. But these pieces are typical late Verdi—modern, pared-down, essential, but  pulsing with life. Here is a performance led by is led Carlo Maria Giulini to acquaint you with the music.

You might wonder how a composer who was not passionate about religion could nonetheless create complex characters who are pious and kind in most cases and dangerously fundamentalist in others. Or how his ostensibly sacred music can inspire both faith and fear? The obvious answer is that Verdi was a genius. But he also understood, more than almost any composer, both storytelling and emotions.

To which I would add: One does not have to follow a religious path to achieve sacredness. And that is why Verdi is sacred.