Today, I’m inaugurating another new post series on Daylight Atheism, “The Contributions of Freethinkers”. The purpose of this series will be to dispel the myth that nonbelievers have never contributed anything of worth or value to human culture by highlighting some famous historical atheists and freethinkers who’ve left their mark. Whether in the arts, the sciences, or the humanities, all are eligible. The subject of my first post in this series will be the famous nineteenth-century Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi.
Verdi was best known for his operas, which include famous titles like Rigoletto, Aida and La Traviata that are still staples at modern opera houses. He was also, according to his Catholic wife, an unabashed freethinker:
Verdi’s attitude toward religion is clearly indicated in a letter written about him by his wife, Giuseppina: “For some virtuous people a belief in God is necessary. Others, equally perfect, while observing every precept of the highest moral code, are happier believing in nothing.”
Elsewhere, Giuseppina wrote: “He is a jewel among honest men; he understands and feels himself every delicate and elevated sentiment. And yet this brigand permits himself to be, I won’t say an atheist, but certainly very little of a believer, and that with an obstinacy and calm that make me want to beat him. I exhaust myself in speaking to him about the marvels of the heavens, the earth, the sea, etc. It’s a waste of breath! He laughs in my face and freezes me in the midst of my oratorical periods and my divine enthusiasm by saying ‘you’re all crazy,’ and unfortunately he says it with good faith.”
Ironically, despite Verdi’s staunch freethought sympathies, one of his most deservedly famous works is his Requiem – a symphony based on the hymns of a Roman Catholic funeral Mass. (Most famous classical composers, including Mozart, Brahms, Dvorak and Berlioz, wrote their own interpretations of the Requiem; it was a popular topic in the days when most artistic work was underwritten either by wealthy nobility or by the church.)
Earlier this month, I had the privilege to hear Verdi’s Requiem performed at Carnegie Hall by the St. Cecilia Chorus (despite its name, a secular organization). David Randolph, the conductor, is a fascinating story in himself – 92 years old, conductor of the St. Cecilia Chorus for 42 years, with a booming voice and a dauntless vigor that entirely belie his age – and an atheist. I first heard him in an interview on Freethought Radio from April of last year, and I’ve been a dedicated attendee of his concerts ever since.
But, back to my topic. In concert, the Requiem is a work of dramatic power. You haven’t heard what classical music is capable of until you’ve heard Verdi’s towering, thunderous Dies Irae performed live by a chorus of hundreds. Dies Irae is Latin for “Day of Wrath,” referring to the apocalyptic judgment when God rends the Earth asunder in fire, and Verdi’s treatment brings the requisite dark majesty to this theme. In person, the effect is awe-inspiring, with the crashing music and the chorus’ roar combining spectacularly to evoke the idea of a fearful day of judgment and doom.
Other high moments in the Requiem, in my opinion, include the soaring anthem of the Tuba Mirum, named after the last trumpet which summons the living and the dead to judgment, and the Rex Tremendae, a triumphant march originally composed in praise of God’s glory.
In any case, for all that it’s based on a church service, the Requiem was not written for liturgical purposes. In style and tone it’s more like the operas Verdi was famous for, and its history attests that it was written and offered as a work primarily for the concert hall, not for the church. Indeed, it was blasted by some critics as being insufficiently pious for proper church music. Verdi’s contemporary, the conductor Hans von Bulow, derided it as “an opera in ecclesiastical robes”. (He would later change his mind and acknowledge the greatness of the work.) Verdi’s biographer Charles Osborne said that the Requiem was “a Mass for the living rather than a Mass for the dead”.
Regardless of its origins, an atheist can admire works like the Requiem just as we might admire the architecture of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Even though I disagree with the beliefs that inspired its construction, what I respond to is the human art and craftsmanship, which is equally the product of skill and brilliance regardless of what motivation lay behind it. Of course, even without the Requiem for inspiration, Verdi could have (and did) create wonderful music. This concert was just one of the branches along which his genius chose to express itself.
Other posts in this series: