The world première of Messa da Requiem took place on 22nd May 1874, the first anniversary of the death of Alessandro Manzoni the great Italian writer and humanist and spiritual father of Italian unification to whom Verdi dedicated the work. The première was held in the Chiesa di San Marco, the huge baroque church of Alessandro Manzoni’s Milan parish and a rather forbidding building with an aura of oppressive religiosity.
Verdi, the atheist, may well have been influenced in his choice by the grand space and atmosphere because it can obviously contain a large orchestra, including three flutes, four bassoons, eight trumpets and ophicleide (??? find out here) plus a choir of 100 or more! Verdi himself conducted, and the four soloists were Teresa Stolz (soprano), Maria Waldmann (mezzo-soprano), Giuseppe Capponi (tenor) and Ormondo Maini (bass).
One can imagine the pre-electric candle-lit glow creating a special ambience in the space of San Marco, and this extraordinary music rising from its very heart. All this was a prelude to a second performance three days later, just around the corner at La Scala where the work was a triumphant success, receiving immediate acclaim.
Perhaps the most moving chapter in the history of this great operatic-religious work was between 1942 and 1944, when the inmates of the Theresienstadt concentration camp gave 16 performances of the Requiem Mass.
These were truly extraordinary performances:
- the camp inmates had only a single vocal score with piano accompaniment between them, so every part had to be learnt from memory
- they practised in a dark, cold basement with one broken piano and after long days of forced labour
- being over an extended period of two years, many of the singers were removed by the Nazis and had to be replaced
The passion, poignancy, and awe of those Theresienstadt performances can hardly be imagined!