When we think of the great 19th-century Italian Romantic composer Giuseppe Verdi, we appreciate him mainly for his unrivaled contributions to the repertoire of grand opera. But he also managed – overlapping his work on Aïda – to compose one of the most highly regarded and widely performedfuneral masses in the history of music. Verdi’s massive Messa da Requiem, with its double choir, will be presented this Friday and Saturday in the Sosnoff Theater of the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College.
One might imagine that writing a spiritual work like a requiem mass might have represented a bit of indulgence-bargaining for the afterlife on the part of a man known for tackling profane rather than sacred subject matter. But according to contemporaries, Verdi was at least an agnostic and perhaps an outright atheist. His motivation to create this atypical opus actually derived from his sorrow over the deaths of two men whom he admired: The Requiem’s final movement, “Libera me,” started out as Verdi’s contribution to a planned tribute to Gioachino Rossini following the latter’s death in 1868: a composite work by 13 composers that ended up never being publicly performed. Five years later, the humanist author Alessandro Manzoni, one of Verdi’s personal heroes, died, and the composer recycled “Libera me” into a much larger work to honor him.
So, unlike many of the great requiems in the classical canon, Verdi’s was a labor of love rather than a commission to honor some eminent churchman or statesman. It was also innovative in the composer’s insistence that female singers be included onstage in all performances of the Requiem: something that still wasn’t normally permitted by the Catholic Church in his time, since the piece was written to accompany the males-only ritual of a funeral mass.
In the performances at Bard, music director Leon Botstein will conduct members of the American Symphony Orchestra, the Bard College Conservatory Orchestra and the Longy Conservatory Orchestra, with chorus master James Bagwell wrangling more than 100 vocalists from the Longy Chorale, the Bard College Chamber Singers and the Bard Festival Chorale. Soprano Jennifer Check, mezzo Sara Murphy, tenor Brian Cheney and baritone Wayne Tigges will be the soloists. Peter Laki, visiting associate professor of Music at Bard, who has called the Verdi Requiem “a comprehensive vision of life and death,” will offer a preconcert talk at 7 p.m.
This production of the Messa da Requiem is dedicated to the memory of William Weaver (1923–2013), professor emeritus of Literature at Bard. Performances begin at 8 p.m. on April 25 and 26. Tickets cost $20 and $15, and can be ordered by calling the box office at (845) 758-7900 or online at https://fishercenter.bard.edu
Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, Friday/Saturday, April 25/26, 8 p.m., $20/$15, Sosnoff Theater, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson; (845) 758-7900, https://fishercenter.bard.edu.