Tears Appealing Judgment:
An Analysis of Verdi’s “Lachrymose” from the Requiem
By Sara Hartley Llewellyn (nee. Frister)
The deep, bitter realization that every great creator of music in Italy had perished prompted Verdi to compose his Requiem. He expressed a great emotion in the tearful “Lachrymose”. Here within we will expose the history and painful motivation of this work, analyze a 1937 musical critique by Donald Tovey, and give a technical analysis of the text and music.
The conception of Verdi’s Requiem began in 1868, with the death of Giachino Rossini, a beloved friend and mentor. Having recently lost all hope for the political situation of his homeland, Italy, Verdi believed that hope for the quality of Italian music, as well, had died with Rossini. He believed that a Requiem should be composed to commemorate the death of such greatness. Nine days after this death Verdi published a general letter directed to all of the most accomplished musicians in Italy. In it he proposed the composition of a Requiem, to be performed on the anniversary of Rossini’s death, commemorating his contribution to their country.
After frustrating complications and numerous delays in the creation of this Missa per Rossini, Verdi began to compose his own requiem based on his intended contribution to the project, the “Libera me”. The composition on Verdi’s Missa da Requiem was officially undertaken in 1873, upon the death of writer Alessandro Manzoni, who’s novel I promessi sposi Verdi called “one of the greatest (books) ever to emerge from a human brain”.
The Requiem premiered in Milan on May 22, 1874 on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death. The work was received enthusiastically at this, and three other performances that week in Milan. It was also well received in subsequent performances that year in Paris and New York. One of the very few negative opinions of the work was published by Hans von Bülow in the Allgemeine Zeitung, stating that, “the dominant style (of the Requiem) is that of his last manner (of Aida)…improved to its disadvantage”. To this Brahms wrote, after reading the score, “Bülow has disgraced himself for all time; only a genius could write such work”.
In 1937 an early twentieth century English music scholar, Donald Francis Tovey, gave his critique of this work. Tovey graduated with classical honors from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1898 and was appointed the Reid Chair of Music at Edinburgh University in 1914. Deemed an “acid critic” by his peers, he was primarily interested in educating the concert going public with analytical notes of intellectual programs.
Despite his strong performance, teaching, and compositional skills, Tovey’s greatest mark was left through his musical analysis. Essays in Musical Analysis, which dated from 1935-39, began as an extensive series of program notes for the Ried concerts which created “new standards in English writing about music”. Known by music scholars as one of the best organized minds and most insightful evaluators of music in the early twentieth century, Tovey is influenced by a scholarly bias.
Also guided by an acute emotional bias in this critique he categorized Verdi’s work as one of the greatest Requiem Masses to be composed since that of Mozart. According to him, this work “stands before the throne at no disadvantage from its theatrical style”. Although not containing the rich ideals of the church established by Palestrina three hundred years earlier, it is of “flaming sincerity… Verdi’s Requiem is full of strokes of genius; and they are, one and all, architectonic features”.
The text of the “Lachrymose” movement of the Requiem is taken directly from the thirteenth century quatrain by Thomas of Celano, with two additional unmetered lines which were added later. (fig. 1) This poem is a tearful plea to God for mercy on the souls of sinners on the day of judgment. It contains three main affects.
The first section of text is of grief and lamentation, and specifically a proclamation about the tearful scene which will occur on judgment day. It is the longest of the three sections of text, with an iambic syllabic stress and rhyming a, a, b form.
The quatrain form of the text is completed by the first line of the second section of text. In his setting Verdi chose to divide up the poetic structure of the text to clearly define the sections more dramatically according to affect. This section is a pleading prayer to the supreme God, and the immortal Jesus for mercy. It is used as an interlude of relief between sections of grieving which reoccur in the first theme.
The final theme is a plea for rest. This unmetered text states the resolution of tension created in the contrast of the first two themes. This only occurs in the music after the initial themes have exhausted their struggles and are ready for the simple resolve. The Amen then places the ultimate fate of those being judged into the hands of God.
Verdi’s sensitive setting of the text of the “Lachrymose” is intricately displayed in each feature of the music. He uses melody, harmony, orchestration and dynamics to bring across the tearful, pleading drama. These musical ideas correspond with the arrangement of the text.
The first theme is the most important melodic idea in the work. (fig. 2) Its tearful affect is shown in the minor mode, con molta espressive marking, slow, Largo introduction, and simple, unornamented melody. This them reoccurs many times throughout the work, first occurring twice in its pure, solo form, then developing with each repetition. Even during the statement of the second theme, such as at m. 641, fragments of the first sound quiet persistence in secondary voices. (fig. 3)
This next theme acts as melodic relief from the first. It is a break in the tension which is characterized by the major mode, dolcissimo marking, pianissimo dynamic, and high, angelic range. It is particularly effective in creating a mounting climax and revealing the great advantages to the possibility of God’s mercy.
Verdi uses many strokes of genius in setting this text harmonically. One could analyze this work within the context of a harmonic, sonata form. (see graph) The pulsing, lamenting Bb minor chord in the strings establishes the key of the work. After two statements of the primary theme there is a brief modulation in m. 64 to the relative major key, Db, before a final statement of theme one, in the original key, which closes the exposition.
The development begins in m. 653 with a free inversion of the primary theme in the dominant key. A contrapuntal progression through the circle of fifths develops in m. 657. (fig. 4) This builds to a dramatic climax on the subdominant in m. 663, before more elusive tonal material is undertaken in m. 665. Finally there is a return to Bb minor in the recapitulation at m. 677.
Orchestration, as well, plays a large part in this depiction of drama. In m. 628 the winds, consisting of 3 flutes, 2 clarinets, 2 oboe, and 4 bassoons, enter briefly, elude to a fuller, more sustained harmonic development, before dissipating in order to mimic the weeping mezzo-soprano who supports the bass restatement of the them in m. 633.
The opposite effect is achieved in m. 665, when five beats of silence dramatically precede an a cappella introduction of the last two lines of text, sung pianissimo by the choir and soloists. (fig. 5) This haunting stretch is characterized by parallel thirds in the choir. The orchestra reenters in m. 671 in a quiet contrapuntal pleading to Jesus until m. 681, when the chorus and strings sound a condemning staccato decent into a unison plea for rest which lasts from mm. 683-96.
In m. 697 Verdi does the unexpected. Prepared only by the solitary violins with a tremolo on Bb and G, the entire orchestra, with chorus and soloists, sings an intense pianianissimo Amen on a G major chord, which resolves to an orchestral Bb major chord to end the movement. This breath taking finish suggests God’s ultimate granting of peace.
Verdi was not initially enthusiastic about composing his own rRequiem. He felt that it was an exhausted musical setting. In 1871 he went as far as to state, “I don’t like useless things. There are so many, many Requiem Masses!!! It is useless to add one more.” By January of 1874, upon ensuing completion of the work, he wrote, “I feel as though I have become a solid citizen and am no longer the public’s clown…”. Indeed, this Requiem may have been Verdi’s personal “Lachrymose”.
Rosen, David. Verdi: Requiem. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Tilmouth, Michael “Tovey, Donald Francis”, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music. London: Macmillan, 1980. Vol. 13, pp. 102-103.
Tovey, Donald Francis. Essays in Musical Analysis. London: Oxord University Press, 1937. Pp. 195-211.
Verdi, Giuseppe. “Lachrymose”. Verdi: Requiem: Vienna Philharmonic. (Phonographic Performance Ltd., 411 944-2).
Verdi, Giuseppe. Mesa da Requiem. London: Ernst Eulenburg Ltd., n.d., pp 129-141.