Jeremy Yudkin | Performances Not to Miss: An operatic Requiem and an overlooked masterpiece


This is part of a weekly series of columns devoted to a brief look ahead at the weekend's principal Tanglewood concerts.

Giuseppe Verdi was an Italian hero. Not only was he the creator of some of the best-loved operas of his time (shopkeepers still hum his arias throughout Italy today), but his name became a symbol of the country's unification. Before 1861, Italy as a country did not exist; the land consisted of eight separate and independent states. Only in that year was the country unified under a king, whose name was Victor Emmanuel. So the rallying cry for those calling for unification was "Viva Victor Emmanuel Re D'Italia!" ("Long Live Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy!"), or in shortened form: "Viva VERDI!"

The composer of "La Traviata," "Rigoletto," and "Aida" also wrote one of the most beloved Requiem Masses of the 19th century. Verdi's Requiem (to be performed at Tanglewood on Saturday night) is set to religious texts (the ancient Latin liturgy to commemorate the dead) but is as dramatic and stirring as any of Verdi's operas. It ranges from the opening prayer for "eternal rest" through the audibly weeping "Lachrymosa" and ethereal "Lux aeterna" (with three flutes) to end with a repetition of the words of the opening. The music is extraordinary. Verdi knew the singers personally (from their performances in "Aida" two years earlier) and wrote to their strengths: the soaring high notes of the soprano and the lyricism of the mezzo-soprano, the expressivity of the tenor and the gravity and sternness of the bass. The chorus is doubled for dramatic effect. But the high point of the work is the "Dies Irae," punctuated by gigantic thwacks on the bass drum, headlong strings, and extra trumpets blasting from around the hall.

Verdi's Requiem was written for a friend of the composer, who was another national hero: the novelist and poet Alessandro Manzoni. The music reflects Verdi's profound personal feelings of loss, but it also summons a universal response to the awe and inevitability of death. Its inherently operatic character was highlighted in the venue of only its second performance, when it moved from its premiere at the Church of San Marco in Milan to the city's opera house.

On Friday night's program is another audience favorite, the Grieg Piano Concerto, the only concerto written by the Norwegian composer, who was a contemporary of Verdi. (Only six years separate the dates of the two compositions.) The opening of the first movement is one of the most dramatic and explosive of all piano works, while the second movement is dreamy and reflective. Another dramatic opening leads into the catchy folk-like finale. Grieg's music has been a favorite in popular culture, appearing in film soundtracks, video games, and on the setlists of rock groups like Jethro Tull.

Closing Friday's concert is Aaron Copland's Third Symphony, which incorporates the composer's "Fanfare for the Common Man" into its finale. This is a work that belongs definitively to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as it was commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky, premiered by the orchestra, and completed in the Berkshires. Tanglewood reopened after the war in the summer of 1946, and the premiere was to be in Boston in October of that year. Copland was head of the faculty and teacher of composition at Tanglewood, so he was busy all summer. He said later: "After Tanglewood, I stayed on in the Berkshires to work on the orchestration. It was a mad dash! The finishing touches were put on the score just before rehearsals were to start for the premiere."

It's hard to imagine that there could be a Beethoven symphony that has been overlooked, but that term could definitely be applied to Beethoven's Fourth Symphony (Sunday afternoon at Tanglewood). Understandably, the Third ("Eroica"), the Fifth, the Seventh, and the Ninth Symphonies, all of which are strong, have tended to overshadow the "even-numbered" works, which tend more towards the lyrical. The Fourth is delightful but not remotely trivial. Indeed its opening slow introduction is searching and somber. In fact, were it not constantly compared to other works by one of the greatest geniuses of its time, it would be recognized as the masterpiece it is.

Jeremy Yudkin is Professor of Music at Boston University. He gives pre-concert talks for Tanglewood every Friday at 2:30 p.m. and every Sunday at 11 a.m. at the Lenox Library.



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