Choral Fugues in the Verdi Requiem Historical Context and Structure of the Requiem Verdi wrote his Requiem in 1874, when he was sixty-one years old and believed his career as a composer to be finished. The Libera Me movement, however, had its genesis some five years earlier, as Verdi’s contribution to a project of his own devising - a Requiem Mass for Rossini, to be completed by “the most distinguished Italian composers” 1 and which would be performed on the first anniversary of Rossini’s death. The project never came to fruition, but Verdi revisited the music in 1874 to honour another revered Italian - the writer and patriot Alessandro Manzoni. The result was his Requiem. The scale of the Requiem is best described as “operatic”. It calls for a large orchestra, double choir, and four soloists - each of whom are given extended solos on a much larger scale than the soloists in, for example, Mozart’s Requiem. The work consists of seven large movements, based on the texts from the Roman-rite 1 Letter by Verdi published in the Ricordi house journal, the Gazzetta musicale di Milano, 22nd November 1868

Fugues in Verdi's Requiem

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Paper written for Counterpoint Class, May 2011, Converse College. Analysis of the two choral fugues in Verdi's Requiem.

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Page 1: Fugues in Verdi's Requiem

Choral Fugues in the Verdi Requiem

Historical Context and Structure of the Requiem

Verdi wrote his Requiem in 1874, when he was sixty-one years old and believed his

career as a composer to be finished. The Libera Me movement, however, had its genesis

some five years earlier, as Verdi’s contribution to a project of his own devising - a Requiem

Mass for Rossini, to be completed by “the most distinguished Italian composers”1 and

which would be performed on the first anniversary of Rossini’s death. The project never

came to fruition, but Verdi revisited the music in 1874 to honour another revered Italian -

the writer and patriot Alessandro Manzoni. The result was his Requiem.

The scale of the Requiem is best described as “operatic”. It calls for a large orches-

tra, double choir, and four soloists - each of whom are given extended solos on a much

larger scale than the soloists in, for example, Mozart’s Requiem. The work consists of

seven large movements, based on the texts from the Roman-rite “Mass for the Dead”. Of

the possible texts, Verdi set the following:

1. Introit & Kyrie2. Sequence - Dies Irae3. Offertorio - Domine Jesu Christe4. Sanctus5. Agnus Dei6. Lux aeterna7. Libera Me

Two of these movements contain fugues - the 4th (Sanctus) and 7th (Libera Me). This pa-

per examines the structure of these fugues, written approximately 120 years after Bach’s

The Art of Fugue, and looks at how the fugue had developed, and how it had stayed the

same, since that time.

1 Letter by Verdi published in the Ricordi house journal, the Gazzetta musicale di Milano, 22nd November 1868

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The “Libera Me” Movement

This is the movement originally intended for inclusion in the Messa di Rossini, and

is thus the oldest movement in the requiem, pre-dating the rest of the mass by five years.

The movement underwent some minor revisions when Verdi revisited it in 1874, but its

overall structure remained the same. It is divided into 5 discrete but linked sections, as fol-


1. Libera Me, Domine: a declamatory solo for soprano2. Dies illa, dies illa: a choral section reprising the music of the Requiem’s 2nd movement3. Requiem aeternam: Soprano solo and chorus, unaccompanied4. Transition to fugue5. Fugue: Chorus and soprano soloist

It is the last section (Fugue) that will be considered here.

Although the fugue is a subset of the movement, and therefore could be considered

a fugato section within the movement, it is in fact complete in itself, and has enough auton-

omy to stand on its own as a separate movement. It is structured (as might be expected)

in three main sections: Exposition, Middle Section and Closing Section. The tonic key for

the fugue, as for the whole movement, is c minor, and, although it ends rather suddenly in

C major, this is more in the nature of a Tierce de Picardie than an extended modulation to

the major. Apart from a highly modulatory section in the middle, the tonal centre is fixed

firmly between the tonic and dominant minor keys.

This is a four-voiced fugue, and follows a normal exposition. A modulatory subject

is first stated by the Contraltos in measure 179, and is answered by the Sopranos with a

tonal answer returning the key back to the tonic. (For a complete schematic detailing key

changes, etc, see Appendix A). The Altos continue with a longer countersubject, while the

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Bass and Tenor voices enter with Subjects and Answers in tonic and dominant minor keys.

The Bass statement of the countersubject is truncated somewhat to allow all voices to

complete the exposition together, at measure 207, where the last voice in (Tenors) finishes

its statement of the subject. This pattern of entry (high voices followed by low, and vice-

versa) is in keeping with the traditional baroque fugue format.

Not so typical of the baroque period are the resources at Verdi’s disposal. Verdi

had considerably expanded the classical orchestra in his operas, and he used similar

forces when composing his Requiem. In the exposition, the orchestra is limited to a com-

mentary role - although a significant one. Verdi punctuates each statement of the subject

with a powerful orchestral V-I cadence in the appropriate key. Immediately following the

exposition, however, the orchestra rows in with the action - sometimes doubling the

voices, and at other times heading off in directions of their own or providing vivid textural


In both the Requiem fugues, Verdi primarily relies on false entries - particularly the

head of the subject - for developmental material, although he doesn’t limit himself to sub-

ject material alone either in the middle or closing section. The middle section of the Libera

Me fugue begins with an inverted statement of the subject by the bass voices, doubled by

the bassoons and lower brass instruments. The Sopranos state the head of the subject

(still in the tonic key) at measure 209.

By measure 211, however, the subject has been abandoned, and there follows a

short episode. In the alto line, Verdi uses a repeated quarter note motive that echoes the

declamatory section at the opening of the movement, while the Sopranos first state an-

other new motive (beginning measure 214) that assumes a significance later, particularly

Page 4: Fugues in Verdi's Requiem

in the closing section. The episode completes at measure 219, when the Sopranos enter

once more with the head of the subject.

From this point on, Verdi modulates freely, using the head of the subject in both rec-

tus and its inversion, changing both the key and the mode in which the motive is stated.

The voices enter at (temporal) intervals between 2 and 3 measures, giving a stretto-like ef-

fect that sometimes also weaves in material from the countersubject (e.g., measure 222 in

the bass voice). During this very contrapuntal section, Verdi lightens the texture by drop-

ping the orchestra resources to strings and solo woodwinds, using staccato and pizzicato

throughout both the choral and string lines, only bringing in the full orchestra colour at

measure 233 when the texture has become more homophonic. This serves to highlight

yet another new motive - taken up by the sopranos in measure 233. While based on the

head of the subject, a new rhythm has been applied to it which is itself developed further in

the movement.

The fugue’s only middle entry occurs at measure 239 (in the soprano voice), al-

though more chromatic and in a different mode. This is answered by the bass voices stat-

ing the head of the subject in inversion, and a further stretto-like passage continues. In

measure 258, the altos take up the motive introduced by the sopranos in measure 233,

which serves to introduce the Soprano soloist, making her first entry since the start of the

Fugue. She also uses this motive, but in augmentation, and with an altered final measure.

She states the motive in falling sequences, echoed by the Sopranos in a short canon at

the interval of a fifth. The whole effect is of calming down the frenzy, and the orchestra is

marked “ppp dolcissimo”. The calm does not last for long, however, with the Soprano

echoing the dotted quarter-note motive from the Episode in measure 276 on. This is taken

up by the sopranos where it is restated in full in a falling sequence, followed by material

Page 5: Fugues in Verdi's Requiem

based on the middle section of the subject, making its first appearance outside the Exposi-

tion. This is then treated in a rising sequence, increasing the tension as the orchestral re-

sources and general dynamic level is also increased, until a high B natural in the Soprano

voices is reached, which marks the climax of the middle section. It is left to the choir to

bring the middle section to a close in a dramatic diminuendo that concludes with a half

cadence in c minor.

The final section begins in measure 312 in the tonic key, with a series of stretto en-

tries at one-measure intervals. The orchestral forces are reduced to strings and wood-

wind, and the Soprano soloist enters at measure 329 with a melody recalling the motive in-

troduced during the episode (measure 214). This is treated as a counterpoint to the stretto

entries of the choir, reduced to sixteen voices, and singing sotto voce. By measure 350,

the fugal texture has been considerably simplified, and Verdi introduces a pedal note in the

trumpets, while the choir drops out completely. The texture becomes immediately much

sparser, with fragments of motives being passed between the soloist and woodwinds, with

a simple tremolo in the strings.

At the moment the pedal note drops out (measure 367), the basses pick up the So-

prano motive in an altered rhythm. This is answered by the other voices and instruments

in a call-and-response format that has the effect of marshalling the resources for a final cli-

max, which begins at measure 382, “Tutta forza”, an explosion of sound typical of Verdi’s

greatest operatic moments. The climax is reached at measure 392 with a high C from the

soprano. The tutta forza ends in measure 400 with an ambiguous tonic chord stated as

an open 5th. The texture is dramatically reduced, and the tonality is not resolved until

measure 415 when the third of the chord is first stated as E natural - a sudden, surprising

major chord. The movement ends with the Soprano soloist recalling the declamatory

Page 6: Fugues in Verdi's Requiem

opening section - a final, desperate plea - followed by the choir reinforcing the tonic while

the dynamic drops to “pppp - morendo”. This also ends not just the movement, but the

entire work, which also began with a hushed and muted dynamic. Thus, Verdi’s monu-

mental work is bookended with the fearful voices of mortals begging for peace and deliver-


The “Sanctus”

Although the “Sanctus” appears before the “Libera Me” movement in the structure

of the Requiem mass, Verdi composed the movement five years later, when he revisited

the work. He chose a Fugue to set the text, an unusual decision for a “Sanctus”, and

based the first subject on an inversion of the subject used for the “Libera Me” fugue.

The text comes from the Ordinary of the Mass, and the structured nature of the text

often determines the form of the musical setting:

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,

Dominus Deus Sabaoth;

pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua.

Hosanna in excelsis.

Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.

Hosanna in excelsis. (reprise)

Other settings of the “Sanctus” often involve a homophonic and rather declamatory

setting of the repeated word “Santus”. A fugue is rarely employed for the text, excepting

some settings where the “Hosanna” might be set in an imitative fashion. The “Benedictus”

is frequently set as a separate section, usually more lyrical than the former, followed by a

recap of the “Hosanna” material.

Page 7: Fugues in Verdi's Requiem

Although Verdi suggests a traditional response to the text by the opening trumpet

calls (measures 1-8), from measure 9 on, he defies tradition and sets off on his own inim-

itable path with a double fugue for 8 voices and full orchestra. The choir is split in two,

with each having its own subjects, answers, and countersubjects. Each voice in both

choirs is paired with a wind or brass instrument, involving the orchestra directly in the


Approximately 120 years after Bach wrote the Art of Fugue, the Libera Me fugue is

a textbook example of a fugal exposition, albeit with very different orchestral and choral re-

sources than Bach had at his disposal. The voices state the subjects and answers from

top to bottom, with the highest voices stating the subject in a tonic key, answered by the

lower voices at the level of the dominant, with the order of entry S-A-T-B.

Subject I has all the attributes of a “good” fugal subject - a head, consisting of a

memorable rhythmic motive outlining a tonic triad; a middle section, consisting of a de-

scending scale from the tonic to the sub-dominant; and a tail with syncopated accents and

final measure based on the chord of V. The first measure of the answer dove-tails with the

final measure of the subject (measure 13), allowing an immediate switch to the dominant,

with the opening motive emphasizing the tonic triad of the new key.

While the alto continues with a real statement of the subject in the dominant key,

the soprano continues with a counter-subject from measure14. The counter-subject uses

material that is somewhat related to the subject: a descending scale passage (although

this time syncopated), and a similar syncopated motive before the final measure. How-

ever, the countersubject is longer than the subject (8 measures compared with 5 in the

Page 8: Fugues in Verdi's Requiem

subject), and necessarily more modulatory, as it moves from dominant to tonic and back


The rest of the Choir I exposition continues as expected, Subject I being taken up

by the Tenor and Bass voices in turn, paired with their respective “voices” from the orches-

tra; and each continuing with the Countersubject. The Bass voice completes the Counter-

subject in measure 33.

Meantime, Choir II have been setting out their own Subject II and Countersubject II

in tandem with the Choir I exposition. The sopranos enter just a measure behind the Sub-

ject I entry (measure10). This subject is characterized by a falling diminished fifth, a simi-

lar motive of syncopated accents and a short pedal on the leading note. It is a less memo-

rable subject than that sung by the Choir I, and, in fact, Verdi abandons it almost com-

pletely after the exposition. However, the Violins play a decorated variant of the subject in

tandem with the Sopranos in measure 10. This is passed down the strings as the exposi-

tion proceeds, and is the only format of the Subject II that survives into the Middle (devel-

opmental) section.

Choir II also follows a textbook Exposition course - the voices handing down the

Subject and Answer in tonic and dominant, and stating a short Countersubject which

echoes the falling scale of Countersubject I. From measure 25 on, however, the female

voices in Choir II pick up the Choir I subject, as, simultaneously in Choir I, the female

voices pick up the Choir II subject. This is by way of filling in the upper voices while the

lower voices finish out their respective Subjects and Countersubjects - this is completed by

measure 33, which marks the end of the Exposition.

Page 9: Fugues in Verdi's Requiem

The Middle Section begins on the last measure of the Exposition when the tenors of

Choir II pick up the Subject I head motive in the tonic key - here set to different words and

with an eighth-note upbeat. Verdi then continues to use just the head motive in a quasi-

stretto fashion, and this is passed through different voices in both choirs, remaining firmly

in the tonic key until measure 41.

At measure 41, the Choir II Sopranos first state the head motive in d minor, followed

in measure 42 by the Choir I Altos in D major, and a measure later, the Choir I Sopranos in

G major. Also at measure 42, the violins take up the decorated Subject II motive first set

out in measure 10, and this version of Subject II becomes a perpetual motion counterpoint

to the Subject I head motive in the choir. From this point on, the music rarely settles in a

key for more than a measure or two, visiting both related and unrelated keys in rapid suc-

cession. The remainder of the Subject I material is not further developed here. Verdi re-

lies almost totally on the Subject I head motive as he plays with different tonal colours.

The stretto effect continues with new entries on almost every measure until measure 68,

which marks the climax of the middle section with a tutti orchestra and soprano ff. A new

dotted rhythm marks a transitional passage against a pedal note on F in the high voices

and high-pitched instruments. This signals a return to the tonic key as the texture thins out

and becomes more homophonic.

Like the Libera Me movement, the closing section of the Sanctus does not include a

complete statement of either subject in the tonic key. Nonetheless, measure 79 marks a

definite return to the tonic key with pedal notes on both tonic and dominant in the horns.

The sopranos use material from Subject I, beginning at measure 2 of that subject, and

stating it in augmentation. This is followed by the descending scale material of Counter-

Page 10: Fugues in Verdi's Requiem

subject II, also stated in augmentation. The rest of choir I plays an accompanying role,

while choir II interjects with “Hosanna” comments, in a “call-and-response” format. The ef-

fect is suddenly serene with a much reduced contrapuntal texture, and the augmentation

lending itself to a sense of slowing down towards closure.

Drama is added with chromatic rising and falling scales in the orchestra beginning

in measure 119. The choral forces come together at measure 127 leading to the final cli-

max of the piece at measure 130. A final exclamation in the choir is accompanied by a

syncopated rising scale of F in the orchestra, and the final bars play out as a repeated

tonic chord.

Verdi’s treatment of the Fugue as evidenced by the Requiem

In both the four-voiced fugue of the Libera Me and the 8-voiced Sanctus, Verdi

shows a respect for the past and the ability to use old techniques in imaginative and new

ways. In both cases, the subjects are set out in the Exposition much as they would have

been in Bach’s time. All of the subjects evidence characteristics that were considered de-

sirable for good counterpoint, and he gives examples of both modulatory and non-modula-

tory subjects, with both tonal and real answers respectively. The primary key relationships

remain firmly in the tonic and dominant, although his harmonic colour palette as evidenced

by the modulatory sections and the overall harmonic texture is more extended than would

have been the case in Bach’s time. The features of the middle and closing sections also

unfold in more-or-less expected ways.

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But the real Verdi stamp is evidenced not so much in how he had developed the

Fugue, but rather in the scale of the work and the dramatic effects he was able to evince

while still respecting well-established techniques of exposition and development. The size

of the orchestra is the first indication - this was the expanded orchestra of the romantic pe-

riod and Verdi made full use of its expressive power. The chorus is also considerably big-

ger than the choirs Bach would have used - the Requiem would rarely be performed with

less than 50 voices, and more often 100 or more. Dealing with resources of this size and

manoevering them around highly contrapuntal music presents a new set of challenges -

how to avoid muddying the sound, how to ensure that entries are always clear, and what

to do with the many and varied instrumental and vocal textures at each point in the exposi-

tion, middle and closing sections.

Verdi manages these challenges through careful management of the instrumental

and vocal resources, as well as using a dynamic palette that included both extremes of

loud and soft. Where the texture is very contrapuntal, for example in the Sanctus double

fugue exposition, the orchestral resources are thinned out considerably to allow the voices

through. And the large, dramatic, forte sections taken by the tutti orchestra tend to be

more homophonic and more likely to use effects such as augmentation or call-and-re-

sponse than highly contrapuntal matter. Verdi also uses the instruments of the orchestra

to pair with certain voices, allowing the orchestra to participate directly in the fugue and

also distinguishing the choral lines by the addition of different instrumental timbres. At

other times, he uses sections of the orchestra in counterpoint with the choir, but only when

either the choral or instrumental resources have been thinned out to allow such counter-

point to work successfully.

Page 12: Fugues in Verdi's Requiem

Compared with the fugues in Bach’s six motets, Verdi’s use of melismatic material

is far more restrained. The florid vocal lines in the motets require expert articulation and

dexterity to navigate the coloratura material. Verdi’s fugues, by comparison, rely on sim-

pler melodic material and greater dramatic impact. His treatment of text also indicates a

composer who respected the drama of words and who put his music at the service of the

text without sublimating either. The underlay is much more closely aligned to the music -

the text is almost always treated syllabically, with a few exceptions such as the word “Glo-

ria” which is easily recognisable and could afford to be treated more liberally. Choral and

operatic singing had changed very considerably from the Baroque era, and the melismatic

qualities required for Italian opera or Bach choirs was no longer in vogue. There are no

extended runs of sixteenth-notes in Verdi’s fugues, and the only extended run based on

eighth-notes is placed where it best belongs - in the strings. This again allows Verdi to

work with a much broader canvas while maintaining the clarity of the texture.

The drama and emotional power of the work is what gives the piece its most distinc-

tive Verdi stamp, and it shows all the hallmarks of a composer who was at his most com-

fortable composing operas. Through the greatly-expanded resources in the orchestra,

Verdi had access to a large variety of tonal colours and textures, and an undisputed talent

in using these resources to portray different emotions extremely effectively. The terrified

screams of the Dies Irae are contrasted with the grieving of the Lacrimosa, and again with

the serenity of the Lux aeterna. By comparison, the fugues of the Sanctus and the Libera

Me are almost jaunty. And it is this dramatic quality that has also attracted the most criti-

cism of the work since. Compared with the rather Germanic sense of propriety in Bach’s

liturgical music, or the elegance of Mozart’s, Verdi’s Requiem can be seen as almost

loutish in its use of big resources and its unrestrained passion, unseemly for church music

Page 13: Fugues in Verdi's Requiem

or in a liturgical setting.. Verdi’s Requiem is an impassioned work, displaying human emo-

tion at its most serene and also at its most vulnerable. But this is also its strength - and

the quality which has ensured its place among the best-loved of his works.



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