On 21st October, Gothenburg Symphony live streams its performance of Verdi’s Requiem. In this instalment of the At Home Guide, we look at how non-religious composers like Verdi approached sacred music.

Ivan Bilibin's set design for The Invisible City of Kitezh, 1929
© Public domain | Wikimedia Commons

Broadly speaking, religiosity in Western thought has in the last few centuries been increasingly eclipsed by secularism. And as the secular movement gained ground in intellectual life, it also seeped into the world of art music. While the likes of Dvořák and Bruckner still held their faith close, many embraced more humanist philosophies. Yet for the new atheist and agnostic composers, this didn’t mean turning their back on a rich tradition of the sacred in music – on the contrary, they continued to mine both the forms and feelings of religious music with abandon.

Vaughan Williams, despite his “cheerful agnosticism”, immersed himself in the literature and music of the Anglican Church. He loved the King James Bible, compiled the English Hymnal, and wrote a number of hymn tunes and sacred works himself, such as his Mass of 1921 and Te Deum of 1928. Even in the work of such an avowed atheist as Rimsky-Korsakov, one can see vestiges of faith creeping in. His opera, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, is awash with religious resonance, particularly in the resurrection of the character Fevroniya in the paradisiacal Invisible City (Watch the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and Sir Mark Elder perform the Prelude “Hymn to the Wilderness”). Such strains of the sacred are mostly due to the work’s initial conception: librettist Vladimir Belsky initially wanted the work to be based solely on the life of Saint Fevroniya of Murom, an Orthodox patron saint of marriage, though the composer made sure that this was diluted with elements of Russian history and folklore. Rimsky-Korsakov’s interest in Slavic pantheism, however, also holds to bear in the work, perhaps suggesting that the composer might not have been as closed to spirituality as the atheist tag suggests. Add to that the choral music he wrote for the Imperial Court Chapel Choir, and one gets a slightly more complex picture than the one intimated by his student Stravinsky’s complaint, that Rimsky-Korsakov was “closed to any religious or metaphysical idea.”

Brahms, 1872
© Public domain | Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile in the Romantic era Berlioz, an atheist-agnostic, nevertheless penned his own words to the oratorio L’enfance du Christ, dealing with the young Jesus and his family’s escape to Egypt in the Gospel of St Matthew (See it performed by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic here). Later, Brahms would display a similarly conflicted use of sacred materials. The devout Catholic Dvořák once complained of the German composer: “Such a man, such a fine soul – and he believes in nothing! He believes in nothing!” It’s likely that Brahms was agnostic, though he had a good working knowledge of the Luther Bible and devoted much time to studying it. Perhaps that’s why, in his 1868 composition Ein Deutsches Requiem, he is able to range so freely around the text, selecting passages according to his artistic inclinations rather than adhering to any strict theological schemes. Critics have pointed out that the verses he selects focus on humanity’s potential for redemption rather than mourning on the dead – perhaps Brahms’ humanist impulses coming to the fore. When the work was premiered on Good Friday 1868, the conductor Karl Reinthaler, who happened to have studied theology, asked Brahms, “I wondered if it might not be possible to extend the work in some way that would bring it closer to a Good Friday service… What is lacking, at least for a Christian consciousness, is the pivotal point: the salvation in the death of our Lord.” Brahms politely, but flatly, refused to add this pivotal point. Watch the Bergen Philharmonic perform the work.  

Verdi’s Requiem

Giovanni Boldini's portait of Verdi
© Public domain | Wikimedia Commons

Giuseppe Verdi shared his contemporary Brahms’ agnosticism, and similarly – in the form of his 1873 Requiem – used the forms of Christian ritual to create art that was both deeply embedded in that tradition and which also went beyond it. The exact degree of the composer’s disbelief is subject to debate, but we know that early on in his life he would walk the three miles to church every week to practice the organ. When he was older, however, his nationalist allegiances necessitated a somewhat anti-clerical outlook, and his depiction of the Inquisitor in Don Carlo could well be seen as an unremittingly unfavourable depiction of institutional Catholicism. His earlier opera La Forza del Destino, however, contains more positive religious characters in the monk Padre Guardiano and the heroine Leonora, who seeks shelter in a monastery and lives for years as a hermit. Verdi’s second wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, called her husband “certainly very little of a believer”, and though he would escort her to church every week, he wouldn’t accompany her inside. So, while not vehemently atheist, there was a distinct lack of religion in Verdi’s personal life. So how did he end up composing a Requiem – the Catholic liturgy in which the living pray for the souls of the dead – that would go on to be one of the most famous in the genre?

The spark for the project came in 1868 and the death of Rossini, of whom Verdi was a great admirer. Verdi was commissioned to take part in a collaborative Requiem for the departed composer, with a number of artists contributing different sections of the mass. Verdi wrote a Libera Me for the work, but it was never actually performed. When another star in the constellation of his idols, the writer Alessandro Manzoni, passed on in 1873, Verdi finally had a use for the liturgical tidbit. He travelled to Paris and began working on a full setting of the Requiem mass devoted to his departed hero. What he came up with, however, was startlingly different from any setting of Catholic liturgy that had been heard before.

Title page from the first edition of Verdi's Requiem
© Public domain | Wikimedia Commons

Verdi was known in his home country almost exclusively as a composer of operas, and his Requiem mass lived up thrillingly to this reputation. At the time of composing, women were not allowed to perform in Catholic rituals, but the composer wrote female singing parts into his piece from the very beginning. With arias from the soloists, it was shocking in its drama and lack of sombreness – the usual emotional register for a Requiem. The thundering Dies Irae still has the power to make you think the wrath of God really is at hand, propelled along by thunderous bass drums and a massed choir. For detractors, however, the Requiem was liturgical in name and text alone – everything else about it reeked of operatic bombast. Before the work was due to be premiered at Milan’s cathedral in 1874, the conductor Hans von Bülow sniffed at it as “Verdi’s latest opera, though in ecclesiastical robes” (One should note, however, that when he finally heard it in performance almost 2 decades later, he loved it so much that he broke down in tears, and wrote to Verdi to apologise for his initial appraisal). Brahms, meanwhile, wrote of the Requiem that “Only a genius could have written such work.” Given the work’s popularity today, you can be sure that many are inclined to agree.

Verdi would return to sacred music in the final years of his life, perhaps most notably in his Quattro pezzi sacri (Four Sacred Pieces), a set of choral works composed between 1886 and 1897. Yet despite this, there doesn’t seem to have been any stated turnaround in his metaphysical convictions. It seems, like many other non-religious composers, that he was able to use the sentiments expressed in devotional art to create his own kind of beauty. As Giuseppina said of her husband, “For some virtuous people, a belief in God is necessary. Others, equally perfect, while observing every precept of the highest moral code, are happier believing in nothing.”

Gothenburg Symphony's stream of the Requiem begins at 15:00 CEST.