Giuseppe Verdi Essay

Giuseppe Verdi

Three centuries of Italian opera lie between the first real effort at this type of musico-dramatic expression, the Dafne of Rinuccini, and Falstaff, the octogenarian Verdi’s last and most excellent work for the stage. Rinuccini’s poem with the music by Peri and Corsi was carried out privately in Corsi’s house at Florence, some time after 1594 and before 1597. Between 1600 and 1800, the legendary subject of Daphne’s change into a laurel tree, as associated in Ovid Metamorphoses, had been used by no fewer than 15 composers, together with Handel. At about the same time that the circle of Florentine dilettanti was experimenting with “chanted plays,” substituting the solo voice with instrumental complement for the then prevailing type of choral part-writing (mainly unaccompanied), Shakespeare was immortalizing the character of Falstaff in his Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Falstaff had came into view in 14 different operas before Arrigo Boito, poet and composer, wrote his libretto for Verdi, whose opera was first presented at La Scala in Milan, on February 9, 1893.[1]

Giuseppe Verdi was born October 10, 1813, at Roncole, a village close to the little town of Busseto, in the former grand-duchy of Parma. He was consequently merely seven months younger than Richard Wagner. At the time of his birth, Italy formed part of the French empire, under Napoleon I. At Napoleon’s renunciation in 1814, the duchy of Parma was allotted to Marie Louise, Napoleon’s dethroned wife and daughter of the Austrian emperor. The following rule of persecution and oppression, though, was enthused by Vienna. Verdi’s adolescence and musical development coincided with the period of Italian struggle for liberation from the Austrian yoke. His parents made a meager living by keeping an inn as well as a small shop in Roncole. Even though brought up in the humblest surroundings, it was opportune that Giuseppe found incentive and understanding for his talents in a community which was powerfully musical. The village organist gave him his first lessons; the father bought him a rickety little spinet. In time he was sent to Busseto, 3 miles distant from Roncole, to get what basic knowledge the schoolteacher had to convey. At the same time as still a mere lad he was chosen to succeed the old organist at Roncole, who had died. Every Sunday and holiday saw him on the highroad, walking the three miles from Busseto to the little village church, where, to the great pride not merely of his parents however of all the worshipers, “Giuseppino” fingered the clattering keys and occasionally stretched his little foot for a profound pedal note that tremendously reverberated from the vaulted roof.

Busseto enjoyed the distinction of possessing an orchestra formed by capable amateurs, under the direction of a musician named Provesi. One of the most important spirits in this little band was a distiller, Barezzi, a friend of old Verdi’s. When Giuseppe had finished his school education, he entered the employ of Barezzi, who housed and treated him like a son. Barezzi possessed a thing very rare for those days, a grand piano of Viennese make; he as well possessed a pretty and musical daughter, Margherita. Young Verdi was much fascinated by both the precious instrument and the charming girl. His studies in counterpoint and composition were now directed by Provesi. The town of Busseto granted him a stipend which allowed him to search for further and better instruction in Milan. However upon his asking for admission to the Milan conservatory of music, it was refused by the director on account of “lack of technical equipment.” [2] Conceivably this is not so astonishing as it may appear. The academic training necessary in an institution of that kind, Verdi had not acquired. Had he been brought up in a way meeting the requirements to these academic standards, his natural impulse might have been dwarfed or diverted. He might have turned out to be an obscure composer of creditable masses and motets. As it was, he had been permitted to “grow up musically” in an unsophisticated world where a “tune” counted for everything, where popular taste was all for le belle romanze. Though, whereas the doors of the august conservatory remained closed to him, he found an outstanding teacher in Vincenzo Lavigna, conductor of the orchestra at La Scala, the grand opera house of Milan. This association with dramatic circles had a directing influence upon Verdi’s development. He started to compose more determined works; however none of them had noteworthy merits. Upon the death of Provesi, in 1833, the boy of twenty was invited to return to Busseto and become the successor of his old master as conductor of the little orchestra and organist at the cathedral. He did not get the latter position, due to strong objections from part of the town authorities to whom the young man’s musical tendencies appeared altogether “too worldly.” [3] Although Barezzi received his protégé with open arms, and two years later accorded him the hand of Margherita. The little town did not propose room enough for Verdi’s ambition; consequently he went, with his wife and two little sons, to Milan in 1837, aiming to enter the operatic field. He found a librettist in the nineteen-year-old poet Temistocle Solera, and in 1839 the first fruit of their collaboration, Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, was effectively produced at La Scala. All seemed to point to a fine future for the youthful composer. He was commissioned to write a comic opera, and was in the middle of his work, when his wife and both his children died within the space of two years. Under such mental stress it was not possible for him to give of his best. Even though he completed the opera, it was a failure. Disheartened by so much misfortune, he retired to Busseto. Although he found that merely renewed activity could actually bring the forgetfulness he required, so he ultimately returned to Milan. The director of La Scala offered him a libretto that had been rejected by Otto Nicolai, composer of The Merry Wives of Windsor. The libretto was that of Nabucco, a biblical story. Verdi felt attracted by the subject, and went to work. The accomplishment of the première on March 9, 1842, decided Verdi’s future. The leading soprano in the cast of Nabucco was Giuseppina Strepponi, who later became Verdi’s second wife.  [4]

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From that point on, Verdi’s career resembled that of all other Italian opera composers who had preceded him. Failures exchanged with successes. A constant demand for new works left no time to consider over either. The old “opera d’obbligo” was still essential to the Carnival season, and every year witnessed these competitor productions in all the larger cities of Italy. On February 11, 1843, I Lombardi, at La Scala, confirmed Verdi’s operatic ascendancy. Rossini had given up writing operas; Donizetti had however five more years to live, with his mental powers start to give way; Bellini had died, thirty-three years old, in 1835. That Wagner The Flying Dutchman was the contemporary of Verdi Nabucco is of interest, considering that it was thirty years before the Italian’s work became in the slightest degree similar to the German’s novel procedures. Eleven operas had followed I Lombardi (with merely Ernani, first performed March 9, 1844, as an outstanding success) before Rigoletto, on March 11, 1851, set Venice literally wild with enthusiasm.  [5] The text, fashioned upon Victor Hugo Le Roi s’amuse, had to be subjected to a variety of revisions before the Austrian censor would pass it. Verdi was recognized for his patriotic sentiments. Northern Italy was infested with spies, paid by the Viennese police. Any allusion, though veiled, to governmental abuses or longings for independence was ruthlessly prosecuted. Rigoletto was followed in quick succession by Il Trovatore and La Traviata. When Il Trovatore was sung for the first time, in Rome on January 19, 1853, the Tiber had overflowed the streets of the city. [6] Thus far, ankle-deep in water, people stood at the gates from nine o’clock in the morning, on the day of the first performance, so as to achieve admission. La Traviata appeared doomed to failure, owing to the poor interpreters at the première. Verdi remained silent for 4 years. In 1855 followed The Sicilian Vespers, written for the Opéra in Paris. Un Ballo in Maschera again attracted the censor’s attention in 1858, and the murdered King Gustavus III of Sweden had to be turned into a “Governor of Boston,” the opera coming too soon after the attempted assassination of Napoleon III by the Italian Orsini. However Napoleon, stirred to action at last, espoused the cause of Italy against Austria, and after the battles of Magenta and Solferino, in June, 1859, the dream of a United Kingdom of Italy was nearing its realization. The name of VERDI, standing for Vittore Emanuele Re d’Italia, turned out to be the battle-cry of the patriots.  [7]

Destiny appears as well to have had a hand in his consenting to represent Italy at the International Exhibition of 1862 in London. The Inno delle nazioni which he composed for the occasion was on a text by Arrigo Boito, whom he had met in Paris. The twenty-year-old Polish-Italian poet was there on a travelling scholarship awarded him by the Conservatorio of Milan. Eighteen years later, the cultured taste and fictional discrimination of this man were to offer the perfect complement to Verdi’s restricted intellectual equipment and mainly instinctive musical genius.

The last in this approximately continuous chain of operas was as well the revelation of a new and greater Verdi. It was Aida, written upon command of the Viceroy of Egypt, finished in 1869, and performed at Cairo in 1871. The composer could not be convinced to cross the Mediterranean. When the opera was given in Europe, Verdi had the contentment of winning serious and enthusiastic consideration from even the sternest music critics, who had up to that time spoken lightly of his “melodic facility and harmonic shallowness.” [8] However what seemed to these critics the composer’s marvellous swan-song was in reality merely the first of three works which eventually showed Verdi’s genius at its full stature. After one more pause of eighteen years he gave the world his superb Otello. In his eightieth year, 1893–as though at last in the happy calm of old age he had rediscovered the humorous vein that fifty-three years ago the obliteration of his young family had cut –he wrote that masterly Falstaff, conceivably the most excellent of all Italian comedy-operas, sparkling with youthfulness and subtle musical wit, the eventual proof of Verdi’s consummate artistry. [9]No sum of honors or distinctions could induce Verdi to discard the quietude of his country estate Sant’ Agata near his native Busseto. As a landed gentleman he chosen to live the summers amid surroundings beloved since childhood; his winters were passed mostly at Genoa.

In the case of Otello, Verdi set aside the composition twice, once for a Paris production of Aida, once to rework Simon Boccanegra, for which Boito, in his eagerness to entice him back to the Otello score, stoically undertook to elucidate the dramatic action. This approach of Verdi’s toward Otello may be credited partly to the fact that Rossini’s opera of the same name still held the stage, partly to Verdi’s inner longing for peace. In addition, by its nature and literary quality Otello required care such as Verdi had given to no previous score.

Until the publication of his letters to the composer, Boito was given full praise for the adaptation of the play. These papers illustrate that even a master librettist could learn points of lyric stagecraft from Verdi. [10]  In the first draft, Boito had Iago return at the close of Act I to gloat over the lovers’ impending doom; Verdi urged the conclusion on a note of tender serenity.  It was as well his thought to insert the Cypriote peasants’ madrigal in Act II as a brief contrast to the mounting tension, to substitute for a quintet with which Boito proposed to end Act II the triumphant off-stage chorus that rings forth as Otello collapses in the deserted hall, to evoke the lovers’ lost happiness with the motif of their kiss, certainly the most emotional stroke in modern opera. Also the setting with which he embodied the tragedy marked a sublimation of his distilled new style, illumining each secret spring of meaning within the lines, carrying Italian operatic form to undreamt of heights. [11]

Verdi’s next collaboration with Boito was his greatest action for the regeneration of Italian opera; however no documents which narrate its genesis or evolution have been preserved. His earliest reference to Falstaff is in a letter written to the poet two years after the première of Otello (1887), in which the project appears to be settled. This note, though, discloses Verdi’s misgivings regarding attempting such a venture at the age of seventy-six. But Boito kept to his task, which could barely have been less exacting than his adaptation of Othello. While the one required the most delicate structural adjustments in a poetic masterpiece, the other required condensing a sprawling farce, put together in a fortnight at Queen Elizabeth’s wish to see the plump knight of Henry IV in love. Even in the Folio, which Boito followed, it is only a sequence of duperies imposed on a burly clown. By omitting all but the main trick and all but the principal characters, and by borrowing lightning flashes of characterization from Henry IV, Boito wrought a compact, swiftly moving book and rehabilitated the buffoon of the Merry Wives of Windsor as the true Sir John, in all of his lordly unscrupulousness and high glee. [12]

When Giulio Ricordi broached a publication date, Verdi protested that Falstaff was only a pastime, that he might permit it to be given just at “Sant’ Agata,” if at all, that he might not even complete it. This was conceivably a ruse to cover the risk of his comedy not crystallizing to his satisfaction. Nothing could be less characteristic of the businesslike Verdi than to fight with a new opera for his private pleasure. Whatever his doubts, he created as unique a comic masterpiece as Wagner had at middle age or Mozart in his prime. Among the riches which went to its making, one had gone to that of no previous comedy: mastery perfected by a half century of composing. Merely a hand as practised as Verdi’s could have adapted a style, developed to the highest degree for tragedy, to the fleet pace of Boito’s book, or have drawn Shakespeare’s characters with a touch as fine as Mozart’s yet no less individual than in his own earliest scores.

After the production of Falstaff (1893), the disbursement of his great wealth in the endowment of philanthropic institutions turned out to be Verdi’s engrossing interest. Giuseppina’s death in 1897 severed his last link with his operatic world, and during the four following years the curtain steadily descended on the drama of his own life. The autographs of his scores for the Italian theatres went to Ricordi, in Milan, those of his scores for the Opéra to the Paris Conservatoire. His youthful marches for the Busseto town band and his songs inspired by the romance with Margherita Barezzi remained at “Sant’ Agata,” [13] although his historic “spinet” accompanied the fortune willed to the Casa di riposo per musicisti which he had founded in Milan. This decrepit instrument on which he first learned to compose had become the token of a lost faith in his music; Verdi meant it to go down through the years with veterans who had voiced that music. “Born poor. . . I had no means of acquiring training. They put an absurd spinet in my hands, and I settled down to compose. Note after note, nothing but notes. That is all! It is sad at my age to have to doubt the worth of all those notes.” [14] This instance of humility, after writing notes that sustained Italy in her struggle for political freedom and safeguarded her operatic ideal, is not the least among Verdi’s enduring gifts to the world.

Much of Verdi’s motivation responded to a purely popular note. No composer’s melodies have been sung and whistled by a greater number of people than his. A Requiem Mass, composed in 1874 in remembrance of the poet Manzoni, is more theatrical than churchly, and it can barely be counted a departure from Verdi’s style. The public of Italy that attended the first opera performance at Venice in 1637 had grown into the public of the world. And that public looked to Verdi for its greatest joys, with almost extreme devotion. His last two operas, enlightening all his ripened mastery, are not those most often performed. It is still the wealth of sensuous melody contained in Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and Aida that sends thrills through the crowded opera houses of both hemispheres and perpetuates the magnificence of Italian opera in the work of Italy’s greatest maestro.

Work Cited

Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music; W. W. Norton, 2001

Gerald Abraham. Romanticism (1830-1890); Oxford University Press, 1990

Mary Ann Smart. Mimomania: Music and Gesture in Nineteenth-Century Opera; University of California Press, 2004

Stanley Sadie, George Grove, Stanle Sadie. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians; Oxford University Press, USA; Rep Sub edition, 2000

[1] Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca, pp 90-91
[2] Mary Ann Smart, 67-71
[3] ibid, 73-74
[4] Stanley Sadie, George Grove, Stanle Sadie, 141-143
[5] Mary Ann Smart, 88
[6] Stanley Sadie, George Grove, Stanle Sadie, 133-134
[7] ibid, 167-169
[8] Mary Ann Smart, 91
[9] ibid, 96-98
[10] Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca, 103-105
[11] ibid, 105
[12] Gerald Abraham, 39
[13] ibid, 60-61
[14] ibid, 63