Giuseppe Verdi: Dies Irae


Born in October 1813, Giuseppe Verdi grew up in Le Roncole, a small village in Italy. After learning the organ, Verdi showed a real interest in learning music, to which he parents acknowledged and bought him a spinet for the family house (a spinet is a small harpsichord). Verdi also served as an altar boy in the local church choir, and when the village schoolmaster, Baistrocchi died, Verdi (aged 8-9) became the official paid organist of the church.

In 1823, Verdi’s parents enrolled him to attend a boys school in nearby Busseto. Aged 12, he began music lessons with Ferdinando Provesi, who was the director of the municipal music school. Throughout his early years, Verdi composed a wealth of different pieces, from marches, to concertos, and chamber works. These works were soon to be performed publicly, and from here Verdi became the local music prodigy.

After finishing school, Verdi began teaching, performing and composing – with all of his efforts going into music. Verdi applied to study at the prestigious Milan conservatory, but was unsuccessful in his application. Instead, he became a private student of Vincenzo Lavigna. Whilst in Milan, studying with Lavigna, Verdi was able to hear operas by Gioachino Rossini and Vincenzo Bellini, and this is where he began making important connections.

Verdi then conducted the Philharmonic for a few months, before returning to Milan once more, where he then became the director of the Busseto school. In 1836, he married Margherita, and they eventually had two children, both of whom died very young. Further to this, when Verdi was working on his second opera, Un giorno di regno, Margherita died at the age of 26. Naturally, Verdi was devastated by the deaths of his wife and children, and after the flop of Un giorno di regno, Verdi claimed he would never compose again.

It is recorded that it was Librettist, and manager of the La Scala Opera House, Bartolomeo Merelli who persuaded Verdi to start composing again. Verdi began composing the music for Nabucco, which has ended up being one of his most famous works. Verdi is most well-known for his operas, for which there are 29.

After many prosperous years composing, and becoming an internationally recognised composer, Verdi undertook a number of charitable acts in his last years. This included planning, building and endowing a resting home for retired musicians in Milan. The last major composition that Verdi composed was his choral set Four Sacred Pieces. Whilst staying at the Grand Hotel, Verdi suffered a stroke on January 21st, 1901. He survived the stroke, but it made him incredibly week, and a week later on 27th January, Verdi passed away, aged 87.

Although most well-known for his operas, Verdi also composed songs, sacred works, and instrumental works. For this particular blog, I have decided to look into the Dies Irae, from his Messa da Requiem (1874), as it is an exciting and instantly recognisable work.


The Music

Messa da Requiem was premiered on the 22nd May, 1874, and it is composed for four soloists, double choir and orchestra. The work is in memory of Italian poet, Alessandro Manzoni, and at one point the work was often called the Manzoni Requiem (however, it changed back to its original title soon after). Requiem has also been dubbed as the most frequently performed major choral work, which may or may not be true!

Originally, Requiem was composed by a collection of different Italian composers in memory of Gioachino Rossini. Verdi submitted his contribution, which was the Libera me movement (at the end of the Requiem). During the following year, Verdi had compiled Messa per Rossini, however just before its premiere on 13th November (the first anniversary of Rossini’s death), the organising committee of the concert abandoned the work. After not being performed, Verdi became frustrated with the outcome of this decision. This was until May 1873, when Alessandro Manzoni died, that Verdi vowed to complete a Requiem, in his memory.


Dies Irae

The Dies irae is perhaps the most well-known section of this particular Requiem, with its powerful nature creating intensity, whilst representing the ‘Day of Wrath.’

The Dies irae is a fiery and dramatic opening to the section of the same name. With four shrieks from the orchestra, the choir enter with the powerful ‘Dies irae’ phrase. The layering of the voices here becomes the staple melodic framework for the piece. The mighty thwack from the bass drum has become iconic, and it sets the choir to come back in again with the ‘Dies irae’ theme. Like with his operas, Dies irae is full of vigorous rhythms and powerful dramatic contrasts throughout. All voices are utilised in this work, with the sopranos soaring above, and the tenors and basses creating a dark and ominous undertone. The screaming trumpets and violins accentuate the rhythmic variations in the melodic framework.

The Dies irae comes down dramatically in dynamics, with tension building within both the chorus and the orchestra. The strings are playing fast tremolos, and the winds are interrupting the low rumble from the chorus and strings. The piece comes to a resolution at the end, which then goes straight into the Tuba mirum. Verdi’s application of word-painting is incredibly effective throughout the Dies irae, and it really plays to the dramaturgy of the work.


Final Thoughts

A dramatic and now-iconic work from Italian composer, Giuseppe Verdi, Dies irae is now a staple in choir and orchestral repertoire (alongside the rest of the Requiem).


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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