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ClassicsOnline Home » BOTTESINI, G.: Messa da Requiem (Matheu, Coma-Alabert, Prunell-Friend, Martinez-Castignani, Joyful Company of Singers, London Philharmonic, T. Martin)
Renowned worldwide in his lifetime and remembered today as a double bass virtuoso, Giovanni Bottesini excelled in every branch of musicianship, but his operas and sacred works were overshadowed by those of Verdi and have fallen into neglect. Composed in response to the death of his brother Luigi, Bottesini’s large scale Requiem combines ecclesiastical counterpoint with formal innovation and the expressive lyricism and dramatic orchestration of operatic models.
Giovanni Bottesini (1821–1889)
Messa da Requiem
“He was one of the greatest musicians of the century dominated by Verdi, and the most prodigious of virtuoso performers. Beneath his bow, the double bass would sigh, lament, sing, croon, tremble and roar, an orchestra in itself, capable of both powerful outbursts and the softest of nuances…” (Giovanni Depanis). Giovanni Bottesini (1821–89) travelled the globe as a double bass player and conductor, earning worldwide fame and continuing to tour until a few months before his death. Given the time it took in his day to journey from place to place, his appearances at so many far-flung concert halls are almost beyond belief: he performed right across Europe, from Portugal to Russia, and throughout the Americas, then almost a month away from Italy by sea, and won great acclaim wherever he went.
Dubbed the “Paganini of the double bass”, Bottesini was a warm-hearted and generous man. He earned a fortune during his lifetime yet his funeral expenses had to be met by Parma’s city council after he died penniless, having spent or given away much of his money and lost the rest at gambling.
Though he is principally remembered today as a double bass virtuoso, Bottesini was a complete musician in the sense that he excelled in every branch of his art. He was a pioneer in Italy in combining the rôles of soloist and conductor, gaining praise on an international level for the precision and accuracy of his conducting, as well as for his fidelity to composers’ intentions, although the formality of his interpretations came in for occasional criticism. Bottesini directed many orchestral concerts, working with all kinds of instrumental soloists, unlike many of his compatriots, whose focus was still firmly fixed on the opera house.
His work in the chamber music world was equally innovative. One of the founding members of the first Italian Quartet Society, established in Florence in 1861, and of another in Naples in 1862, just five years earlier (in August 1856) he, along with Antonio Bazzini, Luigi Arditi and Alfredo Piatti, had given a historic concert in London featuring five unpublished string quartets composed by a nineteen-year-old Donizetti. Bottesini himself also wrote string quartets and quintets, as well as other chamber works, many salon songs (seventy or more), orchestral music and a theoretical publication, the Complete Method for Double Bass. Nor should his operas go unmentioned: while he did not achieve huge success in this field at a time when Italian opera was entirely dominated by Verdi, he nonetheless created some gems of well-crafted and expressive melodic beauty (in, for example, Ero e Leandro and Alì Babà).
Like other Italian musicians of the time, Bottesini also wrote a number of sacred works, the most significant of which is his Requiem, the form of the Catholic Mass which had recently inspired masterworks from Mozart, Berlioz, Cherubini, Cimarosa and Verdi. While over the centuries there had been many settings of the Requiem, or Mass for the Dead, in the Romantic era the genre moved away from its liturgical roots somewhat to reflect instead the symphonic and operatic trends of the day, resulting in versions written on a grand scale for large forces.
Bottesini’s Requiem was composed in early 1877 in response to the death of his brother Luigi. It was first performed (in adapted form, because women were not allowed to sing in church at this time) in the Capuchin chapel in Cairo, Bottesini then being musical director of the city’s Italian opera company. A large audience thronged to hear it and gave the performance a warm reception; it also earned an enthusiastic review from the correspondent of the Gazzetta Musicale di Milano. The first complete performance took place at Turin’s Teatro Regio on 24 March 1880, but was not well attended – not only was it Holy Week, but the theatre was not known for staging sacred works. One year later, however, the Requiem won a silver medal at the National Music Expo in Milan.
The critics of the day were, for the most part, fairly negative about the work, largely perhaps because they felt obliged to compare it with Verdi’s Requiem of three years earlier. Their views have also undoubtedly influenced some of those who have written about the work in our time (Sergio Martinotti, Giovanni Carli Ballola, Umberto Scarpetta). Bottesini’s Requiem fell into neglect almost immediately and was only revived a century later, in 1979, when it was performed in Crema cathedral in an edition used again the following year at St Mark’s in Venice.
In his setting of the Mass, Bottesini interprets the liturgical text with apt and colourful accents. His use of counterpoint gives the work a conventional ecclesiastical stamp, while his melodies attest to the key influence of opera, from which his linguistic and stylistic models are clearly drawn.
As far as the instrumentation is concerned, he gives the leading rôle not to the strings, but to the woodwind, often entrusting them with the work’s principal theme. His treatment of the four solo singers and the chorus, meanwhile, demonstrates his skill for contrapuntal writing. All in all, the Requiem is a work “rich in harmonic interest and is beautifully constructed both in terms of counterpoint and the overall quality of its choral and orchestral writing” (Umberto Scarpetta).
Gaspare Nello Vetro
English translation by Susannah Howe
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BOTTESINI, G.: Messa da Requiem (Matheu, Coma-Alab...