Composers have written Requiems for hundreds of years, encompassing the full range of musical composition styles, from Renaissance to contemporary and everything in between. Three that stand out for me were written by Mozart, Brahms and Verdi. I call them classical, romantic and bombastic.
Now calling Verdi’s “Manzoni” Requiem bombastic is not meant to be derogatory. It’s a stunning piece of music. Verdi was an opera composer, and he liked grandiose gestures (Think “Aida”). So it is not surprising that his Requiem would be more dramatic than Mozart or Brahms.
A concertgoer who has never heard the Verdi Requiem, will be a tad surprised and puzzled when he walks into the concert hall before the performance. Scanning the stage, he sees something unusual in the percussion section. A huge bass drum sits alongside the usual timpani and other percussion instruments. What’s that huge drum doing in a sacred piece of music? Oh boy, he is about to find out! The music starts quietly, but when it reaches the Dies Irae, all hell breaks loose! The orchestra slams out four deafening sledgehammer chords, and then the chorus lets out a fearsome howl that would send an audience watching a horror movie screaming and scrambling for the exits. Then those four chords are repeated, but this time each one is followed by a thunderclap from that drum, and then more howls from the chorus. The fireworks are just beginning. That drum gets a real workout, and so do the listeners’ ears. This is not your dignified and devout classical or baroque Requiem. This one has hair on its teeth![i]
There are some beautiful sections in the Verdi, as one would expect from him. The soloists perform pieces that could be arias in an opera, with the chorus commenting and supporting them, as only a master like Verdi could do. It’s a wonderful work that I have trouble even thinking of as religious music. But those four cataclysmic chords come back again and again, at a higher pitch and greater intensity, an insistent reminder to sinners of the horrors that await them.
The Mozart Dies Irae pales in comparison to the fire-and-brimstone of the Verdi.[ii] Mozart didn’t engage in such histrionics, but he was also an opera composer, and he knew how to build tension and drama. The Lacrimosa[iii] is a beautiful lamentation, and then, in a stunning sequence, the chorus sings fifteen chords that start softly and then climb in pitch and volume until the tension is almost unbearable before it is finally resolved in a fortissimo climax. Listen to the rest, and you will see why I think this is the ne plus ultra of requiems, masterfully constructed and sublimely beautiful.
Brahms goes a different route in his German Requiem. He was not an opera composer so maybe he didn’t feel the need for great drama.[iv] His Requiem is a gentle consolation to those who lost a loved one, assuring them that the deceased has gone on to a better place. There is no Dies Irae here. Instead, the sections bear titles (translated from German) like “I will comfort you,” and “Death is swallowed up in victory.” The final section is “Blessed are the dead.” The music is full of the wistful and nostalgic melodies that Brahms is famous for.
I like all three of these works for quite different reasons. The Verdi for its sheer over-the-top intensity. If you go to a live performance, don’t sit in the front row. It will singe your hair. The Mozart for its craft and elegance, and the Brahms for its quiet urbanity. All three have many sections of stunning beauty. If I had to pick a favorite…I couldn’t.
[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZDFFHaz9GsYrn (You need decent speakers with the volume cranked WAAAY UP to get the full effect. If the walls aren’t shaking, it’s not loud enough. Unfortunately, the bass drum is just off-camera on the left, but this is a barn burner performance.)