Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Giuseppe Verdi and the Requiem for Alessandro Manzoni

We mark the first performance on May 22, 1874 – 149 years ago today – of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, written in memory of the Italian novelist, poet, and patriot Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1872).”


Giuseppe Verdi circa 1870
Giuseppe Verdi circa 1870

In June of 1870, the 57-year-old Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) agreed to compose an opera for the brand-new Cairo Opera Theater.  The Khedive Ismail Pasha of Egypt personally handled the negotiations, as the opera was to celebrate nothing less than the opening of the Suez Canal.  No expense was spared, either on the opera or on Verdi, who received the unheard-of commissioning fee of 150,000 gold francs: roughly $1,935,000 today!

The opera – Aida – received its premiere in Cairo on December 24, 1871.  With no disrespect intended towards either the Khedive Ismail Pasha of Egypt or the Cairo Opera Theater, the opera’s real premiere – as far as Verdi and the larger opera world were concerned – took place six weeks later: at La Scala in Milan on February 8, 1872.  That Italian premiere was a triumph, the greatest of Verdi’s career to date.  He himself received 32 curtain calls!

Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873)
Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873)

The only contemporary Italian artist who could possibly be considered as beloved as Giuseppe Verdi was the novelist and poet Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1883).  Manzoni’s most famous work is a novel entitled I promessi sposi (“The Betrothed”), which was written initially between 1821 and 1827; Manzoni completed the final, “definitive” version in 1842.  Manzoni wrote this final version in what was (and still is) considered the stylistically superior Italian dialect of Tuscany.  This final, “Tuscan” version of “The Betrothed” had a pivotal impact on the development of a consistent Italian-language prose style.  At a time when the Italian peninsula boasted more dialects than varieties of pasta, Manzoni, more than any other single person, helped to popularize a single, ideal way of writing and speaking Italian, based on the dialect of Tuscany.  

The importance of this cannot be overstated.  At a time when Italian nationalism sought the creation of a single, unified Italian nation with a single national identity, Manzoni’s work offered his nation a single, universally understood Italian language.  Manzoni came to be perceived – rightly – as not just the greatest Italian writer of his generation, but as a great Italian patriot as well.  What Verdi did for his nascent Italian nation through the medium of opera, so Manzoni accomplished through the medium of literature: he inspired a national Italian identity through its oh-so-special language.

Giuseppe Verdi considered Manzoni to be a living saint, a man who combined astonishing talent with great personal virtue and nobility.  

Manzoni died at the age of 88 on May 22, 1873.  The following day Verdi wrote to his friend and publisher Tito Ricordi:

“I am profoundly saddened by the death of our Great Man!  But I shall not go to Milan, for I do not have the heart to attend his funeral.  I will soon come to visit his grave, alone and unseen, and perhaps (after further reflection, having weighed my strength) to propose something to honor his memory.” 

A Requiem

Ten days after Manzoni’s death, Verdi did indeed go to the cemetery in Milan, where he stood at Manzoni’s grave and formulated a plan.  He returned to his suite at the Grand Hotel de Milan and wrote another letter to his publisher Tito Ricordi, proposing that he compose a Requiem Mass for Manzoni, to be performed on the first anniversary of his death.  Verdi’s intention was to write a work that, following its first performance, would be performed not in churches but rather, in concert halls, with each such performance offering a proper memorial to the memory of Manzoni. …

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