Giuseppe Verdi was not a religious man; in fact, he was
strongly anti-clerical. This is not surprising given that Italy's
nationalist struggles against its Austrian overlords during
Verdi's lifetime saw the church largely intent on preserving
the status quo. As well, Verdi's local clergy strongly
disapproved of his de facto relationship with Giuseppina
Strepponi (a union that was later legalised) and his
memories of his childhood work as a church organist were
of being overworked by despotic priests.
It may seem strange, then, that Requiem should come from his pen at all. The Requiem is the Roman Catholic mass for the dead, sung in commemoration of the faithful deceased at their funeral service and, occasionaly, on the anniversaries of their deaths. By no stretch of the imagination could Verdi have been called a good catholic - his wife once wrote of him that he was "[not] an atheist, but certainly very little of a believer" - so it was not any intrinsic need of the composer's to express religious feelings that led to the composition of the work.
It was initially on Rossini's death in 1868 that Verdi suggested a Requiem be written. He told his publisher Giulio Ricordi, of his idea that each movement of the work should be written by a different Italian composer, an a commision was set up along these lines.
Yet jealousies and resentments plagued the project from an early stage, and it finally collapsed when Verdi saw that the performance could nt be given on the appropriate day, namely the first anniversary of Rossini's death. The final section of the Mass, the Absolution (Libera me), had been given to Verdi to compose, and when it became obvious to him that the whole Mass would not be performed, his music was put into the Ricordi archives along with the other completed parts of the work.
Three years later, shortly after "Aida" had been successfully premiered in Cairo, the director of the Milan Conservatory, Alberto Mazzucato, wrote to the composer praising the Libera Me of the abandoned "Requiem". In reply, Verdi said that well, yes, it might be possible to compose the complete Mass based on the music he had written, but, really, there were already "too many Messe da morto...it is pointless to add yet another to the list."
Verdi set about writing the "Requiem" toward the end of 1873 and had completed it by April of the following year. He chose the church of San Marco in Milan for the first performance, not because it was a sacred building but rather for its acoustics, and he conducted a chorus of 120 and an orchestra of 100 for the event. The work was a huge success and was repeated three times at the La Scala opera house. In the words of the Australian-born Verdi scholar Charles Osborne: "Never before had a Requiem Mass been greeted like this. But then never before had there been a Requiem Mass like this: agnostic, dramatic, popular."
Following these performances, the Requiem toured Europe with triumphal results. Verdi conducted seven performances at Paris' Opera-Comique in 1874 and eight more there the following year when he was made a Commander of the Legion of Honour. He directed four performances at the Hofoper in Vienna and further four in the Royal Albert Hall. In England, readers of the Musical Times had been prepared for the work by two long analytical articles in two separate issues of the journal, and after the London premiere were greeted with the verdict that it contained "many charming pieces...[and]...cannot fail to make a permanent place amongst the accepted works of modern composers."
For it is the uniqueness of Verdi's "Requiem" that has won it such a wide and devoted audience. If Verdi had been anything but himself in composing the work, it is doubtful that it would still have such a firm place in the choral repertoire.