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Selection VII: Remembering Joe Green: Giuseppe Verdi Turns 200

Remembering Joe Green: Giuseppe Verdi Turns 200
Selection VII

The 1967 La Scala Verdi Requiem clearly demonstrates the unique mastery Verdi had for sculpting music designed to display the power and range of ability of the human voice.

By: Brad Kronen


Singing is hard. It’s also one of the most rewarding activities a person can experience.

Despite what’s accepted as today’s standard of good singing on programs like “American Idol” and “The Voice”, I remind people that opera and classical singers are the only vocalists that are able to perform on a live stage without the amplified assistance of a microphone. With the proper resonating placement and breath, the human voice can cut through a large ensembled orchestra and still reach the ears of those seated in the highest and furthest seats of a theater.

Giuseppe Verdi knew this and was a master in writing compositions sculpted for singers. His music is fully cognizant of the range, power, and beauty of what the human voice is capable of delivering.

The last and final installment honoring the man whom his townspeople named “the Swan of Busseto” deals with music written for when things are last and final – the Requiem, music written for the Catholic Mass for the Dead.

Verdi composed his Requiem when his friend, Alessandro Manzoni, the Italian writer, poet, and humanist died at the age of 88 in 1873. The Maestro had partially written a Requiem piece when his fellow countryman and composer, Gioachino Rossini, died a few years earlier. Verdi had tried to arrange a Requiem comprised of different parts of the Mass submitted by other various Italian composers. His offering for the effort was the “Libera Me” section, but the musical commemoration honoring the life of Rossini was abandoned due to lack of enthusiasm. Thus, when told of the death of his close friend whom the Music Master also greatly admired, Verdi vowed to write for Manzoni a Requiem fully composed by his own hand.

The work became, accoring to Wikipedia, “regarded as a masterpiece of the oratorio tradition and a testimony to his capacity outside the field of opera.

The rendition of Verdi’s Requiem which I have chosen is from 1967 and conducted by Herbert von Karajan. In my article dedicated to the American soprano Leontyne Price entitled, “Leontyne Price: An Aquarian of Representation” I described why Verdi’s stunning oratorio stands unto itself for its powerful instrumental scoring, but also for the Maestro’s superlative sculpting of each of the 4 vocal solo lines for soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass.

To quote that piece:

Verdi's Requiem, Milan, Italy, 1967

In 1967, the Austrian conductor of renown, Herbert von Karajan, wanted to assemble an international cast of soloists that would make the best combination of voices possible at that moment in time for the recording of his interpretation with the Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala of a momentous vocal piece penned by one the greatest composers of opera. By virtue of the composer and the orchestra, von Karajan chose 2 Italians for his special solo cast, mezzo soprano Fiorenza Cossotto and a VERY young, pie faced, sans beard tenor from the small town of Modena, named Luciano Pavarotti. Alongside them, a Bulgarian was chosen for the lowest resonances of the solo parts; bass, Nicolai Ghiaurov. Needing a soprano who would have the vocal prowess to match the power of the others while also possessing the ethereal fluidity of a shimmering high register, von Karajan would have no other singer to round off this quartet of vocal prominence than African American soprano, Leontyne Price.

Verdi's Requiem is one of the very few pieces of vocal composition where it is written in the score for each member of the 4 part solos to produce a trill. Males, by virtue of having testosterone, sing in a naturally lower place then females, thus many men do not possess the ability to trill. Any tenor or bass singing the Verdi Requiem must have some semblance of one. In the video clip selected below, the men sing their trills individually, giving the listener the best scope of the range of vocal quality and weight involved with the production of a trill.

The men's passages along with the mezzo soprano's subsequent delivery of her trill, give Leontyne Price the perfect platform from which to represent her race along with her country as her voice is the last to spin into a vibration which stands drastically apart through its Uranian uniqueness and sublime artistry.

One of Leontyne Price's best trills from the La Scala Verdi Requiem can be heard in the video clip below during the time range of 7:43 - 7:53.

In his compositions written for both the living and the dead, Giuseppe Verdi has brought Mankind significantly closer as we strive to connect with a Divine Source.

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