Q: I'm fascinated to hear you talk about the kinds of - talk about these great works of the 20th century and the 19th century that move you so deeply. And I hear you talk equally enthusiastically about the Brahms Requiem and the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms, and I want to talk about the Verdi Requiem, where again, as in the Brahms, although in a totally different way, we have overt emotion, as we do in the Brahms, whereas Stravinsky went out of his way to avoid sentimentality. I won't say sentiment, but sentimentality, and he wanted to be clinical and detached and austere, all of those things. You understand that, you have a feeling for that, but then you also do a mean Verdi Requiem, as we've heard on your recording of it. What does he do, for you?
RS: Well, I had a hard time with Verdi, harder than with Bach or with Stravinsky, as a matter of fact, because I felt - now this was fifty years ago, and maybe a little more than fifty. It’s when I was just beginning to be a little more able to "vote" sort of musically, in my early 20s and late teens, because Verdi was such an operatic language to me, which meant a show-business language, which meant an entertainment language, you see.
In primitive Protestantism, primitive American Protestantism, the Bible Belt, entertainment is suspect. We couldn't play cards on Sunday, and we obviously couldn't go to movies on Sunday, and it would be better if we didn't go swimming or play golf on Sunday. I mean we didn't have enough money to play golf, but we sort of sneered at the men in the golf club as we passed on our way to church, because we knew that we were better than they were.
So Verdi was suspect because it was a part of show business too, and I didn't realize until I'd really done structural study, analysis or study, analytical study with Hereford, on things like the B Minor Mass and the "St. Matthew Passion", the "St. John Passion", that Verdi was equally constructed, and was equally an intellectual, extraordinary thing. And, it wasn't the same musical language at all, but it was - but it didn't lack at all intellectual fiber, and once one accepted the fact that this was just the way his language was, then it could be a very, very moving thing.
And I guess the first Verdi "Requiem" I did was probably a University performance of the State University of New York at Potsdam, which was one of the major music schools in the state of New York then - there were two, one at Fredonia and one at Potsdam, that turned out a good many, if not most, of the music educators into the public school system in the state of New York. Since that time there are now 30 or 40, 50 campuses maybe of New York State University, and there must be a half a dozen to eight or ten that have very strong music departments, but in those early days, those were the ones that turned out most of the teachers.
And I did an awful lot of earnest study on that piece and it was just as clear as could be that here was a fabulous mind at work, and also I did enough sort of historical study of, and biographical study of Verdi, to realize that here was an early humanist that was as important, and maybe more important to the Italian people than Lincoln was to the American people, and of equal sympathy with the human condition and with freedom and with equal opportunity, and whatever those things were, and so both of those gave me a sort of an intellectual assurance and an emotional assurance that this was a very, very serious work indeed.
I was, of course, also exposed to a couple of performances in which I participated with Arturo Toscanini, and this, of course, swept me up in a sheer sort of drama of the piece and its sweep. I think it's just a miracle, but it's particularly an economical miracle. It just doesn't waste a minute of anybody's time. It's just extraordinary. And the fact that it …. I also, you know, I had a trip for two that included - to Europe - which included Italy and I saw a little bit more of the things which were a part of his background. I didn't spend any time in Verdi libraries or anything, but the fact that you could still see Donatella sculpture and you could still see Michelangelo sculpture and such, and the paintings and the architecture, gave me a feel for its human soil out of which it grew, and you read such statistics that there are 50 to 75,000 people who walked behind his bier on the way to the graveyard, to the burial spot. I mean, that's a major CITY in the United States, 75,000 people, and so it was a - I just love every, every note and I suppose one doesn't get a chance to do it ….
Your speaking of some of the other major works – one doesn't get the chance to do the "St. Matthew Passion" or the "Missa Solemnis" as often as one would want. There are works like a "St. John Passion" or even a "B Minor Mass", that are small enough in their forces so that you can tour them. For instance, I went on tour with a Mozart "Requiem". I suppose I've done, in my time, three hundred performances of a Mozart "Requiem". I can remember one 20-week period in which I did, oh a hundred and thirty, and travelled 20,000 miles in the United States doing it, at least a thousand miles a week. Probably we traveled almost two thousand miles a week doing it, so it'd be, for 20 weeks it would be 40,000 miles in the United States doing it, and so those works would be - you'd get a chance to do them more and, in a sense, explore them or expose them to more conditions of performance.
But I came to the Verdi late with those sort of negative inhibitions in my mind and he took over pretty quickly, with Toscanini's help and with Hereford's help, and so I certainly don't have any restraints now on the thing, and I've also asked Mr. Szell to do it once. Mr. Szell respected enormously Toscanini's performances and particularly that work, but I wanted to see what Mr. Szell would do with it because he loved that work too, and so I've heard, in addition to the sort of recorded performances of it, I've been involved in a number of other performances of it which also brought it, made it meaningful for me. I don't know what - there's also a glory and a splendor of sound in the piece which is unique. I mean, I think you can, I mean, I don't know, The "Missa Solemnis", particularly the "Benedictus", calls for a solo quartet that has to be at least as good as a Verdi quartet, and in some respects, a little bit different, but the voices have to be of that caliber, and so the sheer splendor of vocal sound in the Verdi quartet and in the Verdi choruses are very moving to me.
I think you could - I started to say that you might be able to get by with a drier sound or somehow in a Beethoven "Missa Solemnis", but Lordy, you just need all the gold in the Verdi, and yet if the Tenor sings the great "Ingemisco", if he sings it like an organ grinder's song on a street corner in Venice or something like that, it becomes a travesty too, you see. The great show-off voice isn't enough. It takes a great interior to do that piece too, I think. So the great Metropolitan Opera voice or whatever is not enough to do it, but it sure has a grandeur of sound that's very close to unique in the choral symphonic repertoire.