In the twilight of his life, Giuseppe Verdi published a heterogeneous collection of four pieces entitled the Quattro pezzi sacri. Composed over perhaps eight years prior to their publication, they reveal the eyes of Italy's most famous opera composer looking toward the afterlife through the sacred texts of the Catholic church. Much of the music is quite progressive: the style reflects the great tonal expansion of the latter nineteenth century, as well as his own advances in operatic composition. At the same time, the Quattro pezzi provide Verdi's retrospective view of some highlights of his pan-Italian cultural heritage, making references as far back in history as Dante and Palestrina.
Two of the Quattro pezzi, in fact, borrow the traditional texture of stile antico church compositions, a cappella choral writing. In the Laudi alla Vergine Maria (composed around 1890), Verdi used only a quartet of solo women's voices to set his Italian text from the final Canto of Dante's Paradiso. He deliberately evoked the music of the Italian Renaissance in the thin vocal texture, with its clear cadences and imitative writing; the voice-leading, on the other hand, is often richly chromatic and wanders far from the home key. Verdi's Ave Maria similarly translates a severe, four-voiced unaccompanied choral texture into a thoroughly "modern" harmonic idiom. The piece took life as Verdi's response to an editorial challenge in a Milanese periodical (1888) for any composer to write music based upon a scala enigamtica. Verdi places this challenging scale in each voice in turn as an archaic cantus firmus. The other voices weave often extremely chromatic harmonies about it; almost every note of the 12-tone scale appears in the first four measures alone.
The final two pieces deploy the full range of choral and orchestral forces. Stabat mater (1896-1897) sets the complete drama of the Passion as seen through Mary's eyes; it does so in a series of pointillistic images from the ancient Latin text. In preparation for the winter 1895 composition of the Te Deum, Verdi studied the music of both Victoria and Purcell, though he ultimately created something quite different. His intention was a musically adventuresome portrayal of his own emotional responses to the traditional text. The "immense father" is also the "king of glory" (seen in brass fanfares), born in human flesh of a Virgin, and will return as "Judge." Mankind trembles before this judge; Verdi asked to have this personally expressive score buried with him.