One of the great regular pleasures of my life is singing. I'm a member of the University of Warwick Chorus, where I sing second soprano with more enthusiasm than skill. It's a big chorus--about two hundred people--and for a modest annual subscription we get skilled directors and a brilliant accompanist to rehearse us and the joy of performing great music with full orchestra and professional soloists at least three times a year.
This term's project is Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem mass, one of the most thrilling in the repertoire. I bought it on CD long before I got the chance to sing it, and have put it on in the background when I'm trying to write something particularly stirring (which is an abuse of good music, I know, but it helps.) This is the second time our chorus has performed it, which means I have to struggle less and can enjoy it more. It is a fantastic piece: ominous and electrifying, exhilirating and magnificent. I always think the 'Dies Irae' (above: does the link work?) ought to be booming in the background while the alien fleet blows up the Earth, or the armies of Mordor advance.
That, actually, is rather odd, because the destructive force we're singing about is supposed to be the Christian God of love and justice. Verdi, however, was apparently agnostic as well as a composer of operas: he went for drama, not theological precision. For a vision of hope for the afterlife one would have to look somewhere like the final duet of his Aida, where the pagan lovers die locked in an embrace, singing 'O terra addio'--'O earth farewell, farewell vale of sighs . . .our wandering souls fly to the realm of eternal day'. (We got to sing Aida, too, a few years ago: a concert performance, but with real opera singers for the principals. Very much appreciated, by us, anyway.)
Of course, part of Verdi's take on the Requiem is conditioned by the words: he's included the 'Sequence'--the medieval Latin poem that begins, 'Dies irae, dies illa,/solvet saeclum in favilla/teste David et Sibylla' . . .'Day of wrath, that day the age dissolves into ash as testify David and Sibylla. What trembling there will be when the judge shall come to investigate everything thoroughly!'
Does that sound like good poetry to you? Me neither. 'As testify Dave and Sybil'! The Sequence clatters--short three-line stanzas all with the same rhyme: aaa bbb ccc--and the sentiments are those of a self-absorbed whiner: 'I know I've been bad, but save me! I don't care what happens to the rest of the world!' 'Day of wrath' is a good phrase, certainly, but it was actually taken from the office itself: 'Dies irae, dies illa, dies calamitatis et miseriae, dies magna et amara valde . . .libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna, in die illa tremenda'--'Day of wrath, that day, day of calamity and woe, great and bitter day. . .deliver me, o Lord, from everlasting death on that terrible day'. Not a pretty idea, but magnificently expressed.
I suppose that the Sequence is better than, say, the 'Stabat mater', a poem whose Latin is so barbarous and ugly that I'm surprised the Catholic church didn't quietly drop it in the sixteenth century out of pure embarrassment. Nonetheless, it isn't surprising that composers since Verdi have mostly omitted the Sequence. Gabriel Faure, composing a Requiem only thirteen years after Verdi, sets only the Office itself, and others have copied him, occasionally including biblical texts or poems instead. (Brahms, of course, sets nothing but biblical texts in German, most wonderfully.) It would be a shock, actually, to find the Sequence in a modern setting of the Requiem. I cannot be sorry, though, that Verdi (and Mozart) decided to use these sorry verses. In their hands, the wretched words set my hair on end.