As the Protestant Reformation approached, religious reformers worried about the growing sinfulness of church music. The Dutch 16th century humanist Erasmus complained, “Horns, trumpets, pipes vie and sound along constantly with the voices. Amorous and lascivious melodies are heard such as elsewhere accompany only the dances of courtesans and clowns. The people run into the churches as if they were theaters, for the sake of the sensuous charm of the ear.”
Attempts by the Council of Trent to rein in the exuberance of church music eroded over the centuries. And in his 1874 “Manzoni Requiem” Giuseppe Verdi achieved exactly the result that leaders of the Catholic Counterreformation abhorred. The Requiem mass, a plea for serenity, is named after the first word of its opening: “Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine (Grant them eternal rest, O Lord). Three years after “Aida,” Verdi, however, sought thrills rather than tranquility in a liturgical composition. The piece is dedicated to the memory of poet Alessandro Manzoni, who died in 1873.
Verdi himself conducted the premiere of the piece in Milan’s Church of San Marco on the anniversary of Manzoni’s death. After the debut he took it on the road in a tour of European opera houses and concert halls. Listeners responded to the drama of the piece. Often performed and recorded, the teeming work is a massive challenge for ambitious artists.
Westminster Choir College of Rider University present Verdi’s “Requiem” in the Princeton Chapel on Saturday, March 24. Joe Miller, Westminster’s new director of choral activities, conducts the 200 voices of Westminster’s Symphonic Choir and a professional orchestra. Soloists are Sharon Sweet, soprano; Melanie Sonnenberg, mezzo-soprano; Scott McCoy, tenor; and Simon Estes, baritone.
Miller relishes the intensity of the composition. “The greatest thing about the Requiem is its emotional quality. It’s not reflective. It forces you to feel emotions. It has enormous dynamic contrasts.”
He welcomes Verdi’s skill as a composer. “Verdi was a master orchestrator for voice. He varied the orchestration to respond to the text. He waits to bring in the strings until the soprano rises in the texture. He creates contrast: A flute trio accompanies the soprano and the mezzo in the ‘Agnus Dei’; it’s like a halo around the singers. There are not many places where you have to worry about balance because Verdi’s writing takes care of it, although you have to watch out because of the big brass section.”
Verdi divides the piece into movements, Miller says. “The Dies Irae is like an act of an opera that has many scenes. Verdi plays with the drama as he introduces each scene. The Requiem is an intriguing piece to sing and listen to because it’s always changing.”
While the work is laden with technical musical problems, Verdi manages the difficulties so that they enhance the impact of the piece. “There are a great many high Cs for the soprano in the final section of the piece, the ‘Libera Me,’” Miller says. “She has to sing a pianissimo high B-flat, and, a few bars later, a fortissimo high C. That’s a huge demand. In fact, singing the Requiem is like starring in an opera for the soprano. She carries the piece from beginning to end. Her only rest comes in the ‘Lux Aeterna,’ just before the ‘Libera Me,’ the section with the difficult high notes, when there’s a vocal trio without her. Actually, the parts for all the solo voices are very challenging; there are thorny, dramatic passages for all the solo voices.”
The chorus participates in the difficulties. “The chorus plays a role of great bravura,” Miller says. “Their part requires stamina and a wide dynamic range. It provides a chance to show off. The two fugues in the ‘Sanctus’ and the ‘Libera Me’ are intricate vocally and rhythmically. The ‘Sanctus’ is a double fugue for two choruses, with eight parts. The ‘Libera Me’ is a four-part fugue that’s tough because of its chromaticism. Both are difficult because they need rhythmic precision.”
Westminster Choir College forces have performed Verdi’s Requiem more than 20 times. It was the featured work in the Westminster Symphonic Choir’s first “Live from Lincoln Center” broadcast in 1980. On September 11, 2002, the choir performed the piece with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and Zdenek Macal in the public television broadcast “A Requiem for September 11,” commemorating the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
Despite Westminster’s long association with the Verdi “Requiem,” Miller estimates that only about three percent of the present members of the Symphonic Choir have performed the piece before. He himself has never been responsible for all aspects of the work. “For the first time I’m conducting the chorus, orchestra, and everything,” he says. Still, he knows the piece well, having prepared choruses for its performance six times and having sung in it as a soloist three times.
Miller says the performance space, the Princeton University Chapel, has its pros and cons. “The Chapel is a theatrical place. The huge, cathedral setting is a beautiful place for performing this text with large forces. It’s possible to put the offstage trumpets in the highest place in the transept. Those four trumpets play at a distance against the trumpets in the orchestra down below. The two brass choirs sound like bugle calls on a battlefield in that space.”
As for the disadvantages of the chapel as a performance space for the Verdi “Requiem,’” he says, “The cons are similar to the pros. It’s a large space and it’s a large ensemble. The problem is keeping the musicians together. The chorus is stretched out back into the altar area, and the orchestra goes all the way across the nave. It’s a long distance from me to the performers who are furthest away.
“The most distant performers have to anticipate what I’m going to do. They have to act like bassoonists, who have to start blowing before the sound is heard, or like string players coordinating when the bow starts and when the sound begins. No assistant is possible. It all falls on me.”
Preparing to conduct the piece with full forces, Miller thinks of himself as a film director. “The piece is very visual and pictorial,” he says. “Even without scenery or staging, Verdi’s music vividly evokes images. That’s one of its powerful aspects. As the pacing changes, the picture changes. Verdi set some passages where you feel that the lens is focused in tightly, and others, where the lens is taken back and you see a larger global picture.
“I’m trying to make what Verdi wrote part of my gestures. I have to be aware of how my hands shape the color of the piece. A cinematographer would think of this as how to control the lighting.”
Musicians repeatedly use the term “color,” and Miller clearly spells out his understanding of the somewhat amorphous term. “Take a word with an ‘e’ vowel,” he says. “There are thousands of ways the voice can shape the vowel. It can be darker or lighter, reedy or flutey. Unlike an instrument, which has a relatively fixed timbre, the voice has a larger spectrum. The sound can be vertical or horizontal. In classical singing, you use a vertical sound more than a horizontal sound. In country music or pop singing, you might use a more horizontal sound. With different styles, the shape of the vowel varies. The ‘e’ vowel is formed by the position of the tongue in the mouth. But that sound would change if you smile, or if you pucker your lips.
‘There are different parameters within which a voice can change. The singer can respond to my posture, the shape of my hands, the rhythm, or the power of the ictus,” Miller says. Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines “ictus” as a metrical accent. Miller calls it “the point of the beat where the baton rebounds from its downward motion to an upward motion.” In short, Miller communicates the color he desires by his body language.
Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1965, Miller attended the University of Tennessee and earned master’s and doctoral degrees from the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, Ohio. From 1994 to 1999 he was director of choral and vocal activities at California State University in Stanislaus, California. From 1999 to 2006, he was director of choral studies, professor of music, and voice area chair at the Western Michigan University School of Music in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His Westminster appointment was the culmination of a three-year international search by a Westminster faculty committee (U.S. 1, November 5, 2006).
Miller has had a busy schedule since arriving at Westminster. His first gig was directing Westminster’s large Symphonic Choir in a performance at St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church in October. In November he conducted the elite 32-member Westminster Choir in a concert featuring Maurice Durufle’s “Requiem,” which Miller considers his signature piece. He has prepared the Symphonic Choir for performances of Handel’s “Messiah” with the New York Philharmonic, and has led holiday performances of the small Westminster Choir. The week of March 12 he takes Westminster singers on a tour of the southern seaboard, returning in time to put the finishing touches on the Verdi Requiem.
A man who welcomes novelty, Miller is beginning to settle in at Westminster. “Every day is a new learning adventure,” he cheerfully says. “The second semester feels more comfortable than the first, and I am starting to feel that this is home. Still, I’m constantly amazed at the energy of the school and how passionately people are tied to its mission.”
Verdi’s Requiem, Saturday, March 24, 8 p.m., Princeton University Chapel. Westminster Symphonic Choir. Joe Miller conducts. 609-921-2663.