Verdi’s Messa da Requiem holds an interesting place in the history of music-making in Austro-Germany. It also holds an important place in the life and career of Herbert von Karajan, one of the most distinguished Verdi conductors to have emerged from that culture.
By the time the young Heribert Ritter von Karajan became acquainted with the work in Catholic Salzburg in the early 1920s, the Requiem had become an
accepted part of the musical landscape. It did not, however, feature at the Salzburg Festival until Karajan himself conducted the piece in a much talked about concert in the Festspielhaus in August 1949. Neither the event nor the acclaim it brought Karajan was much approved by Joseph Messner, Salzburg’s influential Director of Cathedral Music. Though Messner had condescended to include Rossini’s Stabat mater and Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces in the ‘Concerts of Sacred Music’ which took place in Salzburg Cathedral every year at festival time, he clearly viewed Karajan’s Festspielhaus performance as a disturbing act of secularisation.
Karajan had first conducted the Requiem as a young assistant Kapellmeister in Ulm in 1933. Working with limited resources, he was said to have made a ‘daringly spectacular assault’ on the music. In 1934, the year Karajan moved to Aachen, Arturo Toscanini conducted a performance at the Vienna State Opera in memory of Austria’s Chancellor Dolfuß who had been murdered by the Nazis: a further indication of the degree to which the Requiem had become embedded within Austro-Germany’s musical culture.
Karajan conducted many landmark performances of the Requiem in his later years. Returning from serious illness, he conducted it at the 1976 Salzburg Easter Festival. Among the soloists was Montserrat Caballé whose breath control amazed even Karajan. And the Requiem was the last work he conducted with the Berlin Philharmonic shortly before his death in 1989.
Karajan loved the power of contemplation afforded by the human voice, hence his preoccupation with the ability of singers to sing quietly. Text also mattered and he worked assiduously on text with artists whom he admired. Equally important for him was the capacity of singers and the solo instrumentalists of his own incomparable Berlin Philharmonic to listen to one another. Such attributes were part and parcel of his ability to realise the spirit of Verdi’s Requiem through what, back in 1935, Dr Kemp had called ‘a peculiar kind of inner absorption’.
Extracts from booklet-notes by Richard Osborne.