Metro 63

Richard Herring: Was Verdi paid by the hour for his Requiem?
Friday 10 May 2013

Our columnist reckons crafty Verdi padded out his Requiem with warbling soloists.

I’m not a massive fan of classical music, but last month a friend invited me to the Royal Festival Hall to see Verdi’s Requiem.

I thought it’d be inspirational for my next stand-up show, which is all about the hilarious subject of death. My mum reminded me that I had seen this piece about a decade ago, when she performed it at Wells Cathedral. Not on her own (though I’d pay good money for that) but with the choir she sings in.

‘You said it was too long,’ she sighed sadly. It seems we all remember our bad reviews. I hope that wasn’t all I said.

Having seen it again I stand by what I said: it’s 30 minutes too long. Not that my mum is to blame for that, the fault lies squarely with Verdi. No one’s life or death demands more than an hour and a half of music. Requiems should be an hour long, max. And five minutes would do for most people. Or you could just play Robbie Williams’s Angels for them and save a lot of bother.

If Verdi wasn’t dead, I’d be round his house tomorrow insisting that he edit some of the boring bits out. I’d suggest getting rid of the warbling, puffed up, operatic soloists. They’re all rubbish and do not deserve bouquets at the end. The bits where everyone starts playing and singing loud are the best. Verdi knew it. That’s why he puts the same bit in four times.

I’m wondering if Verdi got paid per half an hour or any fraction thereof like some plumbers. It would explain why the piece just nudged itself into the 91st minute. He got £320 instead of £240 for that extra 60 seconds. Crafty.

Despite my rudeness to a decomposing composer I was pretty blown away by the performance. There was a full orchestra and a double choir and when they played and sang together it took my breath away, grabbed me by the guts and started twisting.

Weirdly the music was so mesmerising that any external sounds became heightened and clanking. A man’s phone went off and his girlfriend spent the next minute quietly snickering at his faux pas. Ironically her stifled laughter was more distracting than the brief ring tone.

Someone two rows away had not had their dinner and their complaining stomach became a discordant extra instrument. And the Royal Festival Hall really has to get some WD40 on its doors. There was a protracted screech as someone popped out to the loo.

But I quite liked the way the awful noises of everyday life juxtaposed with the polished and perfect harmony of the music. Each time a section finished there would be a disparate choir of coughers, some bass, some soprano, some castrato exploding from different sections of the vast auditorium.

There was something very grounding about it – the music made me hyper aware of all noise and I could now see the beauty and ugliness in an infected throat. I fancied that some of the coughers might be ill enough to expire and thus it was only fitting that they were allowed to be a broken instrument in their own requiem.

It was such a sensory overload that I almost fell asleep near the end, which might be why Verdi put in the boring, quiet bits so people could catch some zzzs. But then he puts in that good loud bit to wake them up again. He was nothing if not considerate, though not considerate enough to spare us those opera singers. The dead bastard.