Verdi is getting under my skin.

April 18, 2012 Comments Off on Verdi is getting under my skin.

Choral Union is almost over for the semester, and it’s entirely possible that I will come out of it with a bit of a bass drum fetish. It’s all Verdi’s fault, for writing the most astonishing work I have ever sung. I consider myself a fairly experienced, well-rounded chorister who has sung abundant music from every period from Monteverdi to Schoenberg, but the Requiem is the only piece of music I’ve ever sung that amazes me more and more as time goes by (see graph).

It’s not a matter of liking it. It’s a matter of being seized bodily and flung from exaltation to terror and back. Listening to it is absolutely nothing compared with singing it; when you admit those emotions into your very body, into your lungs and heart and eyes, you can’t help but feel them as if they were yours. I’ve cried and been moved to hysterical, joyful laughter during rehearsal, and I’ve even started to have visions during the really dramatic parts. (It should be an interesting concert.)

I’m not even going to plug the concert (although it’s at 8pm on April 20 at the Overture Center), not so much because I think it won’t be good (although if the idiot tenor doesn’t learn to count and sing in tune the whole choir will probably lynch him afterwards) as because I’ve reached an exalted state of Verdi and I honestly can’t comprehend why you would come to hear it if you weren’t going to get a chance to sing it.

It was the Dies irae that first brought me to religion. The first movement is fine but I sort of see it as a miniature Mozart Requiem: mostly quiet, relatively predictable, with only a hint of the juicy chromaticism we get later. But it ends with quiet, almost fatuous strings, deliberately, it seems to me, to get the audience off their guard. Then he smashes you over the head with the opening of the Dies irae.

Yes, every instrument has a particular sound. Composers generally treat instruments like intelligent kindergartners, indulgently selecting just the right special person to be hall monitor for sixteen measures. But here Verdi chooses to remind you that when all the instruments play together it makes a sound that hits you in a wall like a tsunami and gives you a bloody nose. The bass drum is reserved for the second time around, and when it goes it sounds like a cannon shot that quivers your intestines, and that is the first time you realize that this music is literally seeping into your body. And it’s scary. This is one of the movements where I have visions. You can’t not have visions, the imagery of heat and heaving and fear and chaos is so clear, and if you are in any proximity at all to the orchestra, your body starts to respond to the vibrations as if they really were earthquakes and bolts of lightning. The seas rise and the earth shudders and splits. Dies irae, indeed.

And then the angels show up. Angels tend to announce themselves by saying “Be not afraid,” and this is why. Everything gets silent and still as the clouds split and in the distance something is descending from the heavens and what it is is BRASS. You had no idea brass could be so loud. And then everyone joins in and the poor chorus is drowning in the terrible majesty. Singing the Tuba mirum feels like struggling to stay alive in the face of a Divine Wrath that hasn’t yet decided whether it is going to smite you or not. The music keeps having spasms of terror until the Rex tremendae, which I’m very disappointed I don’t get to do (it’s the basses’ moment of glory). After a long penance of very loud, very frightened, emphatic singing, we finally come to one of the most mouth-watering things I’ve ever sung. For me personally, most of this movement lies in an uncomfortable place in my voice: I can’t give it all I’ve got or I’ll end up shouting (which is bad for your voice, and hurts). But at the end we finally get up to a very loud high G, and it feels like I’ve just gotten out of purgatory; it feels like I’ve been begging to be delivered, and finally I’m free. And now that we’ve decided we’re going to be okay we get this delicious chromatic line that leads us through really cool harmonies to a nice C major chord. It’s extremely sensual, in the original sense. It’s sensual like a stretch or like getting the blood pressure cuff taken off; it’s the feeling you get when your body is so happy it just has to let you know, and consequently you are beautifully aware that you have a body for as long as you allow the feeling to last.

Speaking of which…the Lachrymosa is coming up next, and it’s the same thing as the end of the Rex tremendae except tremendously sad. It feels the same way, like the kind of gigantic, divine catharsis an individual human being isn’t capable of. Counter-themes ratchet up the pain and complexity and it feels like having the best cry in the world.

Later comes the Sanctus, which is sheer ebullience interspersed with exalted tenderness that makes me physically light-headed. After that is the Agnus Dei, which I actually don’t like much, although it seems to be very popular. It’s good because it’s simple and chant-like, but it doesn’t do anything physical to me…probably a good thing, otherwise I would be a heap of jelly by the time we got to the Libera me, which is the best movement.

It’s a fearful movement, but not like the Dies irae, which was afraid of the flames and angels that were actually right there. This movement is deathly afraid of the future and the unknown: “Free me, Lord, from eternal death on that fearful day when the earth and heavens shall be moved.” Your soprano has to be a good actress for this movement or nothing will happen. We get one more good Dies irae (the fourth!), and then segue straight into the quietest thing you’ve ever heard, alternating between extremely sad and hopeful, where the soprano (if she does it right) gets to be a goddess, with a high Bb marked quadruple piano. That’s a spiritual experience for me, too, even though I don’t get to do it. Then we go into an extremely energetic fugue that seems to build in desperation over 13 pages of constant key changes—it’s all fantastic and it takes as much breath and energy out of me as wind sprints—and then finally you get to the pounding demand for freedom, and once we’ve got that out of our system the energy drains away, leaving us practically gasping out our last plea. But even here the timpani is rumbling away in our gut.

It’s an amazing piece because not only does it take as much energy as I have to sing it…not only is the music so evocative that it brings emotions that aren’t mine into my heart…but between the physical act of singing and the effects of being so close to an orchestra playing their instruments to bits, things happen to my body and I come out feeling great love and hope, but bearing the scars of very real, physical terror. This after every single rehearsal. And this is why this is the most important work I have ever sung.


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