Giuseppe Verdi’s Mass for the dead ranks among the most significant works of sacred music of the 19th century following in the footsteps of Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis", insofar as they were designed more for the concert hall than for the church. Such compositions echo a secularised approach to religion that spread during the Romantic period.
Giuseppe Verdi wasn’t very religious either in a sense advocated by the Catholic Church. Except for a "Tantum ergo" written during his youth, he hadn’t composed any church music before starting on his "Requiem". Yet the question of faith was on his mind. Basically an agnostic, Verdi started going to mass more regularly towards the end of his life and had chapels built, both in his retirement home for musicians and on his estate in Sant'Agata. Some of Verdi's operas contain ecclesiastical scenes. Gioacchino Rossini’s death in 1868 was the event that triggered Verdi’s intention to compose a sacred piece of music. To enhance the celebration given in Rossini’s memory in Bologna, Verdi suggested having a Mass for the dead performed, to which the most important Italian composers of the time could contribute by each composing a movement. Verdi himself took care of the final "Libera me".
Due to organisational difficulties, this pastiche was however never performed, and the score vanished in the archives of the publisher Ricordi. This composite work was finally unearthed in 1988 and premiered by the Bach Academy Stuttgart under Helmuth Rilling. So it was eventually the death of Alessandro Manzoni, a poet whom Verdi held in high esteem, which prompted the composer to set the entire Mass for the dead to music in 1873. The creation of the "Messa da Requiem" on 22 May 1874 in the Church of San Marco in Milan was an event of national importance.
Verdi's "Requiem" impresses through its lyrical breadth and its dramatic character (especially in "Dies Irae"). Those who considered sacred music as being something more intimate were however disconcerted by Verdi’s mass. Conductor Hans de Bülow regarded it as an "opera in church attire".