All but one of Guiseppe Verdi's masterworks are operas. This poses a problem for those of us who aren't opera buffs. Fortunately, though, that one exception is his stunning Requiem, into which he poured the same vibrant emotion that thrills opera fans, but without the trite plots, simplistic characters and dull narrative stretches that tend to alienate others. Indeed, more than a few critics have hailed the Requiem as Verdi's finest opera.
Verdi's inspiration was neither religious, egotistical nor fiscal. Rather, his gesture was one of national pride. He considered the opera composer Gioacchino Rossini one of the two greatest Italian artists of his time. Four days after Rossini's death on November 13, 1868, Verdi wrote his publisher Ricordi to propose a requiem mass to be given one year later in Rossini's heartland of Bologna. Each of the twelve sections was to be written by an Italian composer, so that the result would compensate for any lack of unity with a variety of universal veneration. Verdi himself would supply the concluding section. There was to be "no foreign hand, nor hand foreign to art, no matter how powerful, to help us." To avoid petty vanity, all composers and performers were to contribute their services. To avoid exploitation, the score was to be sealed in the city archives and presented only on subsequent anniversaries of Rossini's death. While all the assignments were completed in ample time, the performance never materialized, the organizing committee was disbanded, Verdi refused to allow publication or performance of his portion, and in 1873 his score was returned. He soon found another appropriate use for it.
Verdi's other idol was Alessandro Manzoni. Although Manzoni had written only a single novel, I promessi sposi ("The Betrothed"), it was so popular that the author became the leading Italian literary figure of the century. A sprawling historical tale of peasant lovers buffeted by and triumphing over the repression of society,...
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