Focus Features

Verdi Requiem: Ingemisco


1hen Verdi wrote his Messa da Requiem he was sixty years old and his reputation as an Opera composer was firmly established.  He had nothing to prove.  In the order of his compositions, the work falls between ‘Aida’ and ‘Otello’ and it is Verdi’s tribute to Alessandro Manzoni who was one of his heroes and who had died in May 1873 aged 89 years.  Manzoni, a poet, novelist and author had been revered throughout Italy as one of the outstanding figures of the ‘risorgimento’.  His lifelong admirerer Verdi, was to write,” Now it is all over and with him ends the most pure,the most holy of our glories.” Verdi did not actually meet Manzoni until 1868 following which he wrote to his old friend the Contess Maffei, “What can I say of Manzoni?  How to describe the extraordinary, indefinable sensation, the presence of that Saint, as you call him, produced in me.”

Five years earlier when Rossini died, Verdi had proposed that a Requiem should be written for the great man, the idea being that thirteen of Italy’s composers should contribute a movement but due to professional squabbles and rivalries it soon became clear that this suggestion would not take seed and it was abandoned.  The libera me which Verdi had composed became a nucleus for the Manzoni Requiem which is very clearly theatrical in style and which led to criticisms of being too ‘operatic.’

Verdi would never have thought of himself as a composer of religious music as he was not a religious person by any means and his views could be described as agnostic or even atheist.  His concerns were whether music was good or bad and certainly in the case of his Requiem, it is outstandingly good.  He would probably have agreed with his critics picking on his ‘operatic’ style but this was the style that had brought him success after success so why should he attempt to change as long as he remained true to the subject matter and his own integrity ?  Writing at the time, the eminent conductor, pianist and critic Hans von Bulow rather loftily proclaimed upon examining the score that the Requiem was “Verdi’s latest opera in ecclesiastical dress”  which prompted Brahms to respond by writing, “ Bulow has made a fool of himself; this is a work of genius.”

It was not until eighteen years had passed when Von Bulow heard the work for the first time and it so moved him to write to Verdi to apologize for his initial comments.  Verdi rather drily responded, “ You may have had it right the first time.”

ManzoniThe first performance was given in the church of San Marco in May, 1874 and it was an enormous success.  The performance was repeated three days later when Verdi conducted it at La Scala to tremendous applause.  The Requiem became an overnight sensation and it was quickly performed throughout Europe.  It is a work of dramatic and emotional intensity with all criticisms of its theatrical content now all but forgotten in the present day where its status as ‘a work of genius’ remains as bright as ever and with regard to Verdi’s style, perhaps we should allow Giuseppina the final say: “ They talk about the more or less religious spirit of Mozart, Cherubini and others.   I say that a man like Verdi must write like Verdi, that is, according to his own way of feeling and interpreting the text.”

The Requiem has one tenor solo, ‘Ingemisco’ where the singer pleads to God that at the last day of judgment, God will forgive him his sins and not allow him to burn in hell but will raise him up, separate him from the sheep and goats and place him at God’s right hand.



Ingemisco tanquam reus;

culpa rubet vultus meus;

supplicanti parce, Deus.

Qui Mariam absolvisti,

et latronem exaudisti,

mihi quoque spem dedisti.

Preces meae non sunt dignae,

sed tu, bonus, fac benigne,

ne perenni cremer igne.

Inter oves locum praesta,

et ab haedis me sequestra,

statuens in parte dextra.


Guilty now I pour my moaning,

All my shame with anguish owning;

Spare, o God, Thy suppliant groaning.

Through the sinful woman shriven,

Through the dying thief forgiven,

thou to me a hope hast given.

Worthless are my prayers and sighing,

Yet, good Lord, in grace complying,

Rescue me from fires undying.

With Thy favoured sheep o place me,

Not among the goats abase me,

But to Thy right hand upraise me.

In arriving at the choice of tenors, if such a choice is to be made based on sheer tenor excellence, then step forward Messrs. Caruso, Gigli, Björling, Pavarotti, Di Stefano and company.  However, tenors such as Sinimberghi, Lewis and Krebs do not deserve to be forgotten while Dvorsky is still in recent memory and Beczała and Zeffiri are representative of the present generation.  I leave any further comments to readers of Opera Vivrà.