Finding Verdi outside of the Opera House

Author: Peter Broadbent

Performance: Three Traditions

Verdi’s bicentenary in October 2013 is encouraging many performances of his great Requiem and of his operas.  He wrote little music which was not for the Opera House, but his output includes three unaccompanied non-liturgical religious pieces. His setting of the Lord’s Prayer was written in 1880, and is described as being of the “Volgarizzato di Dante”.  However this is because there is a passage in the Divine Comedy which has similarities, but the text is actually much closer to a mid-fourteenth century elaboration. No one really knows who made this version, but it may have been Verdi himself.

The other two pieces were written in 1886-8 and 1889 respectively for separate occasion, but they are often performed as part of the sequence known as the Quatri Pezzi Sacri (Four Sacred Pieces) alongside the orchestrally accompanied Stabat Mater and Te DeumLaudi alla Vergine is a setting of Dante, and was originally written for four solo voices, but is more generally performed by choruses.  The text comes from “Paradiso” of the Divine Comedy, and inspires a lyrical and entirely Verdian response.

The Ave Maria on the other hand was written in response to a challenge in a Milan musical magazine. There is some dispute as to who “invented” the scale, but it is a manufactured once, made up of elements of Major, Minor and Whole tone scales, and consisting of nine notes. There is no perfect 4th or 5th in the ascending scale, but the 4th is perfect descending.  Verdi uses this manufactured scale as a Bass line or as a cantus firmus, weaving chromatic harmonies and expressive melodic lines around it. It appears in the Bass line and the Altos beginning on C, and then in the Tenors and finally Sopranos beginning on F. The final Amen is a typically elusive cadence passage, finally settling on the tonic chord. Verdi is said to have wanted to remove the Ave Maria from the Four pieces, but it has a haunting quality which is essentially musical.

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