30 March 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Spotlight Verdi: The Requiem

Verdi’s „Messa da Requiem“ is the greatest work of 19th-century sacred Italian music and his most important work apart from the operas. In 1868, Rossini died. Verdi initiated a Requiem composed for him in collaboration by a number of important colleagues. He himself wrote the “Libera me” but the project failed.

Five years later, the poet Alessandro Manzoni died and Verdi, who admired him, renewed the plan of a Requiem with the “Libera me” as a cornerstone and the rest composed entirely by himself. In May 1874, on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death, the “Messa da Requiem” was first performed in Milan. At this time, Verdi didn’t intend to write another opera and announced the Requiem to be his last major work (he went back on this plan, “Otello” and “Falstaff” were yet to come).

Karajan performed the Verdi Requiem several times in studio and almost 50 times in concert, from his Aachen years up to his second last concert ever, four months before his death in 1989. The list of his vocal soloists for this work is a sort of who-is-who of 20th century stars: Helge Roswaenge, Nicolai Gedda, Leonie Rysanek, Christa Ludwig, Cesare Siepi, Leontyne Price, Giulietta Simionato, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Carlo Bergonzi, Fiorenza Cossotto, Renata Scotto, Gundula Janowitz, Ruggero Raimondi, Mirella Freni, Plácido Domingo, Montserrat Caballé, José Carreras, José van Dam, Agnes Baltsa, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Julia Varady.

“Even Verdi himself might have ranked Sunday night’s performance of his Requiem as one of the great experiences of a lifetime.” (The Times about the Epidaurus concert)

On 12 September 1965, Karajan conducted the Verdi Requiem in the ancient theatre of Epidaurus in Greece. Richard Osborne wrote: “Night, death and the timeless Aegean: it had been, in every respect, a very Karajanesque excursion.”


In their last joint project in January 1967, Karajan and the brilliant French director Henri-Georges Clouzot filmed the Verdi Requiem in La Scala di Milano. It is a fine example of the constant efforts Karajan made to combine music with film. The cast for the Verdi film included some of Karajan’s favourite singers – Leontyne Price, Fiorenza Cossotto and Nicolai Ghiaurov. But for the tenor part Karajan couldn’t get Carlo Bergonzi, so he hired an unknown young tenor from Modena. His name was Luciano Pavarotti. After completing the Verdi Requiem, Karajan wrote to Clouzot “I have the deepest respect for a man who isn’t a professional musician but is able to understand a score within ten days (…) You have relieved me from fear and therefore I’m indebted to you for the rest of my life.” These are photos from Clouzot’s Verdi score (which he understood so quickly). It is kept in our archives. The first photo is an autograph Leontyne Price gave to Clouzot, the two others are from the “Dies irae” and from the “Libera me”.


We’ve prepared playlists with Karajan conducting the Verdi Requiem. Listen to them here.

Richard Osborne “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998

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