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The music of grief

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In the season of requiems, looking at celebrated composer Verdi’s masterpiece, which yokes drama and music so powerfully

All religious traditions dignify death with rituals and memorialise the departed through ceremonial rites. In some Christian denominations, the souls of the departed are remembered in November, especially. For Roman Catholics, it’s the Month of the Dead, when they offer the mass, their most sacred act of worship, for the deceased.

In the Roman rite, the mass for the dead or the requiem, acquired a distinct character when a sequence, the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) — no longer extant — was included in 1570. Perhaps composed in the 13th century, in alliterative Latin and triple rhyme, it became central to the requiem. Poets saw its artistic potential, and translations abound, including by Dryden and Scott. Composers too, from the Renaissance to Haydn and Mozart right up to our time, have employed it in their requiems.

Music in the cusp

From about the mid-1800s, the idea of a requiem began to have secular appeal. Increasingly, it moved out of churches and into concert halls. Composers with no particular religious conviction either used their own text (e.g., Brahms) or adapted the mass text to suit their artistic purpose, as Benjamin Britten does in his War Requiem, where he incorporates Wilfred Owen’s poetry to communicate the horror of nationalist conflict. (“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.”).

Verdi lived in the cusp of this secularisation. Not only did he made insertions to the mass text, he composed it in his instinctive idiom, opera, and at an impious volume. This was a dramatic departure from the solemn tradition of focusing solely on the divine, away from the human person — priest or singer. Verdi’s work was performed in churches initially, but by 1901, when the Church formalised musical guidelines for the mass, his composition lost liturgical ground. Yet, as art, it stands as one of humanity’s monumental achievements.

For Verdi, the underlying texts, especially the Dies Irae and the Libera Me (Deliver Me), which he borrows from the burial rite, were inspirational. They present Mercy and Justice, the two eyes of the divine, in rich contrast. Cries for mercy are followed by visions of damning justice, and Verdi uses these contrasts to explore profound human questions.

Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ is set for four solo voices: soprano (highest female range), mezzo-soprano (lower ranges of the soprano), tenor (highest male range) and bass (lowest male range). They represent the protagonist at different moments — grief, introspection, penitence, foreboding, anguish. In the finalé, we realise Verdi’s protagonist is the archetypal feminine, invested with tremendous agency. Our final glimpse is of her rising above legions of imploring voices and a thundering tempest, raging against the dying of the light.

Composers usually leave us with solace, hope, or sights of celestial light in the final sections of a requiem. Verdi uses his finalé, the Libera Me, to raise questions instead. His last crescendo is an avalanche of sound, and it explodes to stunning effect. The contrast Verdi was all along building — the silence — is deafening. Is this the darkness of the Good Friday which nevertheless promised a resurrection? Is this the mystic’s dark night of the soul? Or is this the emptiness of the great unknown?

Of all the great requiems, it is Verdi’s that forces us to confront ourselves, our past and our own mortality. Listening to it, our gaze turns inwards. We begin to focus not on death but on life, and the choices that could make it meaningful.

The great conductors of the last century were all drawn to Verdi’s ‘Requiem’. Regrettably, neither Furtwangler nor Kleiber made a recording; nor the soprano, Maria Callas. Recordings going back to Toscanini’s 1938 version with the BBC Symphony Orchestra are available online. That and his concerts with La Scala, 1950, and the NBC, 1951, are representative readings. Giulini’s versions with the Philharmonia Orchestra, 1960 and 1964, and with Rai, 1998, are effulgent too.

Great readings of Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ come from conductors who intuit its operatic idiom, throbbing pathos and existentialist angst. Toscanini, Guilini and Muti exhibit it in their renditions, and these will remain the standard. But a tier above them, I think, is Claudio Abbado. His performances communicate the excruciating journey to the self that he is willing to make. It’s why on every occasion he is visibly shaken by the art he has just made possible.

Four outstanding Abbado performances are the 1970 version with Rai’s Sinfonia Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Berlin Philharmonic. Over the years, Abbado evolves to a sound that is delicately and perfectly balanced. It is rare musicianship to achieve such precision with a double choir (sometimes 200 voices), a full orchestra (80+ instruments), and powerful solos in a work of this scale and drama. The magic is captured in the Berlin Philharmonic recording, possibly the most sublime I’ve heard.

The concert was a tribute to Verdi on his 100th death anniversary. At the time, Abbado had just won a battle with a fatal illness—one that left him battered. He could have chosen another, less demanding, composition. Faced with his own mortality, however, it’s the ‘Requiem’ he chose. When the frail Abbado wills himself to “the rending pain of re-enactment”, as Eliot says in ‘Four Quartets’, the performers sense it. And everyone responds beyond loyalty.

Elemental art

Angela Gheorghiu, the solo voice in the final section, is magnificent. She glides across octaves, her diction is clear, and her vibrato (the operatic trembling) glorious yet reserved. Her act is arresting too. Through those fierce eyes and the loose jet-black mane, a steely spirit shines. Squaring up to destiny, she thrusts forward to make her point and, exactly as Abbado reads her role, she spits her words when exasperated or gasps them when exhausted.

In the video, Abbado is mesmerising. Like a general, he rallies his forces—now encouraging, now coaxing. As the climax nears, Abbado’s intensity blurs lines between performer and spectator. The forces he controls—soloist, choir and orchestra—now seem elemental. The howling wind, the surging tide, the raging fire, the quaking earth: Verdi paints them in the score, but Toscanini down, never have I experienced it so viscerally as in Abbado’s rendering.

Then, as life gurgles into the abyss, Abbado raises his hand to still the torment in himself and the performers. For a long while, the Berlin audience sits numb, caught in the swirling blackness. That evening, the line between performer and spectator blurred. Only when art is transcendental does that happen.

The writer is a communications consultant with the World Bank Group.

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