The Contributions of Freethinkers: Verdi

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:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.xanga.com/andrea_thatonegirl TheNerd

    As a firm believer in freedom of religion, and a firm disbeliever in Christianity, I agree that I find myself in the rather delightful position of being able to appreciate great works of humanity without blinders on.

    Too many people think that non-Christians think that the religion has never created any good or beauty. That is not so. I simply know that Chrisianity does not hold a monopoly on truth and beauty and good.

  • velkyn

    being that I love Verdi, it’s rather nifty to know that he laughed at theists.

    I find it easy to enjoy what man has wrought in the name of religion. I find it equally easy to be horrified by the same.

  • Stephen

    Well, you learn something new every day. I like Verdi’s work a lot, and have been to three of his operas, but I never knew he was a freethinker. And I’ve never listened to his Requiem – must do so some time.

    Thanks for yet another fine post.

  • Alex Weaver

    Why is it that when I hear about something like this my first thought is always “I wonder what a Symphony X adaptation would sound like?” O.o

    At any rate, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard the Requiem. Is there a recorded version you can recommend?

    Additionally, my family and I are actually going to be in New York City for about a week starting Sunday. Is there anything music-related you can recommend that a nearly-four year old who tends to softly but persistently make noise to herself and hasn’t learned “please be quiet” in ABA wouldn’t disrupt?

  • mikespeir

    (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.)

    I’ll point out that Brahms was also quite the freethinker. (Dan Barker wrote this: http://ffrf.org/fttoday/2002/may02/barker.php ) Although it may expose me as something of a Philistine in the minds of some, I’m a lot crazier about Brahms than I am about Verdi. (I admit I’m not as familiar with Verdi’s work.) I still remember the first time I heard his Alto Rhapsody. It was quite literally a spiritual experience. Sadly, it was being sung my Marian Anderson. I say “sadly” because I’ve never heard a rendition of it since that I felt could begin to compare.

  • Jim Baerg

    I would also note that many creative thinkers who were not atheists were nevertheless not orthodox believers in the religion of their country. Eg: Newton did not believe in the Trinity.

  • Alex, FCD

    I’ve also heard that Beethoven was a rather secular guy, though I don’t know how much stock to put in that. He certainly didn’t compose much explicitly religious music. Wikipedia reports two masses and an oratorio called Christ on the Mount of Olives, about which Ludwig commented that he would rather have used the words of Homer, Klopstock or Schiller.

  • mikespeir

    Wikipedia reports two masses and an oratorio called Christ on the Mount of Olives, about which Ludwig commented that he would rather have used the words of Homer, Klopstock or Schiller.

    Right. Beethoven also wrote The Creatures of Prometheus ballet. I seriously doubt he believed in the Greek gods.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Great kickoff to what looks like it will be a promising series. Thanks.

  • Alex, FCD

    Beethoven also wrote The Creatures of Prometheus ballet. I seriously doubt he believed in the Greek gods.

    Well, exactly. My point was that two masses is a suspiciously small number compared to, say, Mozart, who was working on his eighteenth when he died. Or were you agreeing with me? Are we communicating at all?

  • mikespeir

    FCD:

    “Or were you agreeing with me? Are we communicating at all?”

    Note the “right” that begins my previous post. I was, in fact, agreeing.

  • Robert Madewell

    Giuseppina’s comment about wanting to beat her husband for his indifference to religion, reminds me of my wife and myself. I’m sure my wife would like to beat me for being so steady in my own unbelief. Sometimes, I am very irreligious and that can’t be good on a relationship with a theist. I do try to be understanding, but I am who I am. Maybe, she’ll come around, or not. Either way, I still have some giving to do.

    Hey in english they are Joseph and Josephine Green. How cool is that.

  • mikespeir

    “Hey in english they are Joseph and Josephine Green. How cool is that.”

    I don’t know. Seems too pedestrian. Kinda like Beethoven means “beet garden” in Dutch. Loses a little something. Beet Garden’s Ninth? Nah!

  • http://godlesswoman.blogspot.com Lisa

    Thanks for that amazing story! I have always enjoyed Verdi’s work, but never knew that he was a freethinker. I am sure the next time that I hear a work of his there will be an even bigger smile on my face. Thanks this information and I look forward to more from this series.

  • Alex, FCD

    Note the “right” that begins my previous post. I was, in fact, agreeing.

    Ah, I interpreted that as sarcasm. My apologies.

  • mikespeir

    “Ah, I interpreted that as sarcasm. My apologies.”

    I mean, it’s not like I’ve ever made that mistake! ;)

  • David

    Then there is Iago’s aria in Othello “I believe in a wicked God in whose image I am made”; Fred Delius was an atheist, his Requiem is based on Nietzsche works. Ralph Vaughan Williams edited the Church of England Hymn book and wrote some wonderful religious works was agnostic. Brahms’ Requiem is deistic and does not mention Christ. Richard Strauss had no time for priests and church establishment, I’m not sure if he was atheist.


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