I am sorry to do another Opera Blog. I don’t have to. Saturday the fifth, I saw the Philadelphia Orchestra do the Britten Variations on a Theme of Purcell, and the Mahler Fourth, a symphony I adore – which has a quote from Aida by Giuseppe Verdi. That occurs in bar 80 of the Third Movement. In the opera, it is to the words: “Far from the sight of all humans – lontan’ d’ogni umano squardo.” That certainly suits the “private” nature of this movement, at least until the explosion at the end. Mahler, always economical, used the same melodic tag in the slightly later Kindertotenlieder, in the second song “… warum so dunkle Flammen”. But Aida got there first! And then in the Purcell Variations Britten uses the “polacca” rhythm so typical of Verdi’s cabalettas (fast sections) for the variation which most prominently features the strings.
But then, the night before the Orchestra, I saw Verdi’s first hit, Nabucco, as presented by Opera Philadelphia. It was as though one could not escape Giuseppe Verdi. And this is his birthday year, his two-hundredth birthday.
One can never get away from Verdi in the opera house, now. For a long time, he was an object of contempt but now he is almost as dominant as Puccini. Oddly enough, one must look to the later 20th century for Verdi’s influence.
In the generations immediately following his death (in 1901), only a few opera composers used his work as a template. Chief of those was Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari who used Falstaff as a basis for his short, charming Goldoni based operas. The best known is I quatro rusteghi from1906 and even better, his quietly heartbreaking Il Campiello from 1936.
It was Igor Stravinsky who shocked intellectuals who thought Verdi was a joke by citing him in his great Oedipus Rex from 1927, the first four notes sung by the chorus are from Aida. Oddly enough, Ralph Vaughan Williams also quotes or near-quotes Verdi, most obviously in his last symphony, the 9th , 1956-57, and Verdi is never very far away from Benjamin Britten’s mind and permeates Billy Budd (there is also an homage to Verdi in one of his early masterpieces, Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge).
Although Verdi returned to his own version of Monteverdi’s recitar cantando in Falstaff, and various verismo composers are aware of that (Puccini most obviously in La fanciulla del west), Massenet first, and Wagner, eventually, triumphed among the Italian opera composers who came after Verdi, creating the verismo movement.
Wagner was the massive weight on 20th century composers, those who adored his work, and those who hated it (even Gliere uses The Annunciation of Death motif from Die Walküre in his shall we say, kitschy Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra!!).
Falstaff always strikes me as the best Verdi opera. Of course, that is fatuous. In a very long career, "Joe Green”, as his name translates, had written for a variety of reasons, mainly commercial, but covering a very large range of effects. He had been so successful by 1847 when he was 34 that he seriously thought the first version of Macbeth would be his last work.
He had met the woman with whom he would spend his life, Giuseppina Strepponi, who had created the role of Abigaille in Nabucco, lost her voice, but became very close to the composer in Paris where she had retired with her brood of illegitimate children.
Verdi refused to marry her for twelve years after their serious commitment to one another. His reason was that in doing so he would have become financially responsible for her bastard sons. They had “out of wedlock” children, no one is sure how many. Verdi made his devout father cart the ones that lived to the local convent and drop them off as unwanted – the old man, evidently wept and said the rosary the whole time – quite a feat of cart driving.
As for Josephine and Joe, they played a lot of billiards and if Joe didn’t win, he broke things. Also, at the time of Macbeth he had made enough money to farm full time, which he always claimed was his first ambition. And he was serious – throughout his life his big farm was a technological marvel – he even imported expensive irrigation equipment from England. He acquired land but suffered a serious reversal in the agricultural slump that occurred in Italy in the mid-1860’s and continued for the rest of Verdi’s life.
But he couldn’t give up writing for the stage. I think he was a man of many poses; the gentleman farmer was one. But he loved Paris, the glamor of the stage; and the ladies of the stage, too. He was not faithful to Strepponi, which she knew and endured. And perhaps, mindful that he had written lucrative hits, he wanted to show he was more than a writer of tunes for which the organ grinders of the world and their monkeys were profoundly grateful.
Of course, harmony and orchestration mattered only incidentally in his world – primarily the Italian opera though he kept abreast of newer trends and the influence of Hector Berlioz shows up now and then.
There were a few in the nineteen sixties who also felt that “systems of composition and musical aesthetics” were overrated and had done more harm than good. There are people even now who feel that the increasing emphasis on harmonic surprise and experiment that began after World War l led inevitably to an alienation of the public that before then had been thrilled and stimulated by the idea of “new music”.
These ideas are not surprisingly embraced by right wing hacks such as Jay Nordlinger and the mindless Manuela Hoelterhoff, Queen of the art province of the Dwarf King, Michael Bloomberg (I once mentioned George Crumb to Hoelterhoff. Her response: “Who?” And this wins a Pulitzer Prize IN MUSIC?).
They also find an echo among harmless eccentrics. Surely, they argue, as I saw online this past weekend, that Nadia Boulanger had systematically designed a system so that all the Americans who journeyed to Paris to study with her would destroy melody and with it new music.
I guess that explains the arcane, tuneless exercises of Burt Bacharach, her student. The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow is a regular time bomb to disable Western Music, since its composer, Charles Strouse, was also one of her students.
They used Elliott Carter as an example, forgetting that the eminently tuneful Aaron Copland, the lush David Diamond, the thoughtful and lovely Walter Piston and the folksy but ironic Virgil Thomson had all studied with her.
But Carter actually wrote tunes, and very beautiful music, so have many great composers I can think of, such as those villains, Ligeti and Messiaen (both more aware of Verdi’s music than many assume).
It’s well to remember that La Boheme was described as a “tuneless sewer” in New York in its very early days and few people would describe The Rite of Spring as bubblegum, yet the first CD of the fresh Philadelphians is that noisy Stravinsky piece, which occasioned a riot (or something staged to be one) at its world premiere.
A group of pimps such as DG would hardly launch a new association and more importantly to them, because who likes music after all, a new cutie conductor to promote, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, with an off-putting work, would they?
It probably comes down to how one hears, how many chances one will give a new piece to unfold its magic (if it has any), and what those trite words such as melody and beautiful really mean. Of course, people drawn primarily to opera now are nearly always profoundly unmusical and many are fools.
This may not always have been the case; Verdi and Puccini were very responsive to music and so were the people around them. But the opera house has had to juggle the sports arena and the theater, the whorehouse and the church, more so now, when all the arts we inherited from the 19th century are so marginal, so unimportant, so bizarre to the billions. With age comes a need for the very, very familiar, and our audience in America is ancient, so the recent polling suggests. And there is this delightful and typical sensibility recently posted on an opera site:
“Listening to a lot of Verdi today. That will
include listening to the Requiem tonight while
watching Oakland and Detroit battling to face my Red Sox..... Bob in New Hampshire”
Since Verdi’s Requiem is a literally tremendous work, the first where he shows, in a sustained way, his enormous musical culture and imagination, and reveals a harsh, ferocious heartbreaking despair (as opposed to “faith’), an art form for idiots who no longer really listen or feel but need a noisy thumping of the big drum as background for the TV is surely doomed. A fellow standee at La Scala greeted Carlos Kleiber as he took his bow before act one of Otello by screaming “Povero Verdi!” But that was a disgruntled fan’s view of a great conductor.
That some among the few who care about a performance of the Requiem need to be distracted from it is one cancer on our culture. Poor us!!
Melodic inflection is not so easy, though it’s a simpler technique than some of Madame Boulanger’s apostles were drawn to. If one takes Verdi’s setting of the Sleepwalking Scene, Lady Macbeth’s broken phrases are part of a tune, yet the way they are set on the melody dramatizes her madness and provides her with a surprising pathos, stronger in music than in the play. The last act of Luisa Miller, most of Rigoletto, all of Il Trovatore, show an amazing resourcefulness with sung melody. Verdi is able to establish characters, complicate them, and give them tremendous emotional force by designing his melodic effects precisely, supporting them efficiently in the orchestra and using a large number of simple devices – repetition, delayed cadences, syncopation, and contrast in tempo to build suspense and achieve emotional release. He learned some of this in Paris from hearing Chopin.
Il Trovatore, still mocked by the morons, is an extended nocturne of remarkable imagination (with pauses for the inevitable marches and gypsy choruses). It is a triumph of the Romantic imagination. And while perhaps La Traviata relies too much on the waltz – of love, of pathos, of party – and the mazurka and the march, it too is touched with a persuasive theatrical fever. And though his means are simple, in the last act Prelude, Verdi achieves a precise and chilling portrait of death by suffocation, a portent of Violetta’s end through TB, but an implication that stupid convention, mindless Puritanism, middle-class hypocrisy have killed her as surely as an infection not understood at the time and thought to be a sexually transmitted disease.
A pity that Verdi’s ambition to be taken seriously as a composer took its toll on this remarkable gift. By the time of the revision of Macbeth, first given in Paris in 1865, The Sleepwalking scene, which surely was the overwhelming climax of the first version and startlingly original when new, seemed crude after the many new orchestral touches, the harmonic daring of the new ballet, the hard, stunning compression of La luce langue, the astonishing power of the new chorus, Patria oppressa, but a devastating dramatization of the displacement and anguished exhaustion of refuges we’ve come to know too well in the 20th century. We lament simplicity (and mistake it for simple-mindedness but sometimes in the theater it is far more compelling than complexity.
Verdi's early years are described as his “galley years” where he faced the typical pressures of Italian opera composers, tight deadlines, dreaded censors from government and from church, where it was hard for a creator to assert his rights against a ruthless impresario or the prima donna (though as an old man, Verdi allowed that bad as the prima donnas had been, the rising vogue for powerful conductors was worse). But it was these years that made him very rich and very celebrated.
The middle period began with three amazing achievements, Rigoletto, La traviata and Il trovatore, all three packed with remarkable operatic music and none conventional in theme or characters. Rigoletto is a hunchback who works as a jester, Violetta is a whore. To get around Italian Puritanism and church interference, Verdi and his librettist Piave had to come up with a title different from the French novel and play, La Dame aux camélias. They chose the arcane Italian word traviata, a female who is an outcast for vague reasons. Finally, in that riot of romantic rampage, Il Trovatore, Verdi was able to bring to life, an amazing character, like Rigoletto, or Violetta, a divided character, by no means “good” in a conventional sense. Rigoletto indirectly causes the death of his adored daughter, and Azucena, in Trovatore, perhaps means to kill the boy she has raised as her own and then… perhaps not.
As a romantic, Verdi was drawn to the colorful, the unexpected, the extravagantly theatrical. But perhaps he too was “divided”. A creator does not draw on his or her own life literally, as the idiot reviewers often suggest. But creators might draw on something hidden within them, a secret strangeness that only they know.
Verdi made up a life for himself, one he stuck to even when he was world famous. It is encapsulated in this sentimental portrait:
But Verdi wasn’t a peasant. He came from small business people, his father owned an inn as well as land that he rented out to be farmed. In a poor part of a poor country that didn’t mean abundance but it was several steps above peasant stock or even the working poor. Verdi loved the lie that his mother had taken him in swaddling clothes and hid in the church to escape Russian troops during the Napoleonic wars – but the time line doesn’t add up. An uncomfortable truth though was that the result of those wars was a huge defeat for the Catholic Church which had to sell a lot of its land. Verdi’s father remained devout, a Catholic in faith as well as politics and perhaps that is why Verdi (an atheist) hated him and treated him so badly, even on his death bed.
Verdi’s “true” father, Antonio Barezzi was of the other party. Barezzi was wealthy and may have bought some of the local Church land dividing the boy Verdi from his family. Barezzi
was described as “music besotted” by a relative, with the kind of passion for that art that only an amateur can have. It’s not a surprise he worshiped Verdi. Eventually the boy Verdi lived in Barezzi’s house, fell in love with and married his daughter, who died as did their two children. Verdi suffered a grotesque, emotionally inexplicable loss, was struck down, he felt, by life. Though some of the great Romantic composers had hard early lives (Beethoven perhaps as much as Verdi, though the circumstances were different) none of them suffered as Verdi did when so young.
Verdi loved to claim he was uneducated as a musician and this monstrous fable was repeated in early biographies. But the best thing that happened to the young Verdi was his rejection by the Milan Conservatory, a third rate, backward place that educated its students badly. He was past the age of eligibility though exceptions were sometimes made and his (perfectly adequate) piano playing was deemed unimpressive. But the man Verdi studied with privately forced him to sweat over counterpoint, posing difficult problems and demanding solutions. Verdi had to study the great fugues of Frescobaldi, and to analyze the works of Haydn and Mozart – not for their tunes but for the miraculous ways those masters handled harmonic issues and form. This would not have happened at the conservatory. But finally, at the very end of his very last opera, Verdi writes a rumbustious but perfectly cogent fugue – its text? “All the world’s a joke and all the people in it, clowns.”
Asked about verismo, the movement of “truth” in opera, Verdi wrote in 1871: “Copying the truth may be a good thing, but inventing the truth is better, much better.” Verdi had the genius to create “truth” in stories that strike us as silly -- the craziness of I Lombardi, or the last act of Ernani, or the coincidences of La Forza del destino, the lightening changes in mood in so many of the operas (Amonaso hurls Aida to the ground, cursing her but a second later is embracing her as she relents) all are managed with such musical force and impact that one is swept into the unlikely or strange.
Verdi was an angry, cruel and ruthless man who frequently treated allies badly, and was sexually exploitative of women. He had few friends of any kind (hence all those billiard games with Giuseppina) but when he found one, the conductor, Angelo Mariani, he used him like a slave.
The intensity of the feeling between the two was real; leading the great Verdi scholar Mary Jane Phillips-Matz to shock an Italian seminar of critical eminences by claiming the two had had an affair!! (Very unlikely, but it was her attempt to explain the tenderness and intensity in the relationship between Don Carlo and the “brother” who dies for him, Rodrigo, very rare qualities between men in Verdi operas and their friendship was at its height during the composition and subsequent revisions of Don Carlo).
Mariani was all too willing to grovel to the composer but when he had an amorous triumph with the soprano, Theresa Stolz, who Verdi desired, the composer turned on him viciously and continued his cruelty even as Mariani lay dying of cancer.
The longest male survivor of an intimate relationship with Verdi was his invaluable disciple, Emanuele Muzio, who was a “yes man” but not a toady. In letters to third parties, he had many the story of Verdi’s bullying and harshness – “men of genius torment themselves but torment others more,” he wrote as a warning to Verdi’s publisher, Tito Ricordi, who was on friendly terms with the composer but was afraid of him all the same.
But Verdi knew all this. There is sometimes a chilly awareness in his work. In no other opera does a character curse God except in La Forza del destino. Don Alvaro who has seen the love of his life stabbed to death after terrible suffering in search of her, screams: “E tu paga non eri, o vendetta di Dio? Maledizione! Maledizione!” His longed for Leonora gets him to repent as she dies, but the moment is bloodcurdling in its nihilistic -- and as we know from the 20th century -- realistic fury at the helplessness of human beings stuck on this malignant planet.
But what can we do but take our chances and smile? In Falstaff, the mocking self quotations are numerous and nasty, especially the use the sublime Hostias movement from the Requiem is put to in the tormenting of poor Falstaff – it’s also a send up of Church music. But Verdi understands something about drama and its origins. Tragedy means “goat song” in Greek. The tragic hero becomes a sacrificial beast to be offered up for the salvation of the community. And there is something sacred in the obese beast, Falstaff. The iconic mask of comedy is a smile, and yet, as Eleonora Duse wrote to Verdi after seeing the opera, “how sad is this farce of yours!” I think she knew what she was talking about.