Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Music of the Great Composers – Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

Yes, his name really does translate into English as Joe Green. Born the same year as Richard Wagner, Giuseppe Verdi would become the first composer of Italy to achieve genuine international recognition, he would be the first in our series to live into the 20th century (just barely), and above all, Verdi's name and reputation form the very heart and soul of Italian grand opera. During Verdi's long and illustrious career, he wrote 26 operas, six or eight of which have become the backbone of the opera repertoire throughout the world.

In 1984, a lavish ten and a half hour mini series, "The Life of Verdi" starring Ronald Pickup. gained some popularity. The following are links to the trailers for various parts of this series:

1: La Scala, 1833: Giuseppe Verdi listens to Una Furtiva Lagrima
7: La Forza del Destino and Competition From Wagner

This series provides a tantalizing glimpse into times past and something of what it might have been like to have lived as one of the fashionable set of those days, as Verdi clearly became, living and working among those associated as they said of themselves, with “the theatre,” both as a business and a profession. The theatre they meant of course was the opera house, a unique kind of theatre built for the presentation of sung musical dramas.

The opera world of the 19th century was a time of relentless building up of the basic repertoire beyond baroque, classical and bel canto precursors. The romantic age set literature as a reservoir from which to draw inspiration. Opera was popular as entertainment for most classes but the very poor and influential as a means to comment on social affairs without those observations having an overtly political form. In this way Verdi was attracted to choose characters and situations for his operas involving great difficulty, often leading to insurmountably tragic results.

The real Giuseppe Verdi was a complicated man, who it must be told was dealt some very hard turns in life and perhaps had it not been for his natural resilience, the faith of a few good friends, and his commitment to opera and its institutions, he might not have survived at all. How few young and ambitions people start out in life with their sweet little family literally ripped away by epidemic diseases? These things did happen back then far more often, even during the early 19th century, which was not so long ago. The cynicism of those days had it that if war did not claim you, disease or famine surely might. Yet, it was almost as if fate rewarded Verdi for surviving the death of his family, the deep scars left on him from it must certainly have affected him for the rest of his life.

La Scala
Verdi's complexities led him to some political activism, however unlike Wagner's revolutionary participation in the troubles of 1848, Verdi's elevation to the new Italian parliament was through public acclimation. If Verdi and Wagner were each in their own right, politically active and nationalistic in their outlook for their countries, and they were, Verdi comes off as at once more naturally acceptable to his countrymen and his music far more easily understood, whether he accomplished very much for his country as a legislator (doubtful) or not.

Musically we could also say that Verdi did not make any real improvements on the technique of writing opera from his immediate predecessors, while Wagner was clearly taking many departures from those who came before him. Verdi's orchestration and the power of the human voice is far more focused; where Wagner is likely to get mystical and abstruse, Verdi is always very clear, down to earth and true to a range of explicit human emotions, as exemplified in the stylized careers of his operatic characters, some becoming so well known that their characteristic stereotypes define a veritable layer of Italian national consciousness. Wagner leans in the direction of the harmonically and emotionally complex or intellectual, whilst Verdi inclines one to pay closer attention to the simple and obvious features of human nature.

Peculiarities, this most Italian of composers was technically born a Frenchman; the section of Italy where he was born was in the possession of the French at the time of his birth. He seems to have had a proclivity to music but does not show quite the precocity of some notable forerunners, particularly Mozart. Verdi gives his first public concert at the age of 17 in the home of his future father in law. We don't know what he did, play the piano maybe? Whatever it was, it wasn't opera. By the age of 20 in 1833 (the year Brahms was born) we find Verdi in Milan studying music and getting more involved with the theatre, which is opera.

Three years later he is married. In the following two years his two children are born. They both die in infancy and in 1840 his wife dies of encephalitis. His family life is all over in a shocking four years!

Giuseppina Strepponi (1815-1897)
Professionally, at the same time Verdi was getting himself enmeshed in the opera business centring around La Scala in Milan, which was run by an impresario, Bartolomeo Merelli. Throughout cultural history there are many who deserve credit for helping or inspiring composers to create their music, for artists to paint their pictures, writers to pen their books, etc. Without Merelli, Verdi might have given up music after his wife's death. Instead, the world has Merelli to thank for Verdi's Nabucco which instantly made Verdi world famous. This fame came in 1842 when Verdi was 29 years old. He would write 14 more operas within the decade of his thirties, what he called his “galley years” either a reference to a slave ship or a small kitchen. Verdi, liking puns, could have easily meant both.

An important inspirational influence on Verdi was the opera singer Giuseppina Strepponi (1815-1897) who would eventually become Verdi's second wife. Defying the conventions of the day, they lived together many years before finally getting married in 1859. It is well known that whilst Verdi was baptised Catholic and raised (perhaps) with a little Jesuit education, he seems to have decided not to believe in anything (despite the liturgical contexts of some of his later works). This essentially secular / worldly attitude contributed one more strand to the fabric of a singular individualist, who would become commercially and financially as successful in his lifetime as Wagner was chronically impoverished. The various public annals ascribe to Verdi many genial and gracious qualities that his contemporary German counterpart certainly lacked.

La Fenice
Verdi brings his busy “galley years” to a close with Rigoletto, which premièred in Venice in 1851 (he was 38 at the time). In 1973, during my first visit to Europe, I was fortunate to see a bel canto opera performed in the same space (La Fenice - the Phoenix) where this Verdi opera was first heard. The original opera house was small, tall and intimate, a large room built for singing, as all great opera houses should be. It was destroyed by fire a few years after I was there. This wasn't the first time. La Fenice has been destroyed by fire three times in its history and was always rebuilt to something close to the original design. Two years later Verdi premièred Il Trovatore in Rome and La Traviata again in Venice where it flopped and was booed. Verdi was pushing the envelope describing middle class characters and highlighting the career of a prostitute trying to go legitimate. La Traviata is probably today one of the half dozen most popular operas of all time.

Between 1855 and 1867 (aged 42 to 54) Verdi writes five more operas including probably my favourite, La Forza del Destino (The force of destiny) which has an intriguing plot involving an accidental murder, confused or misrepresented identity, friendship, escaping the passions of the world through monasticism, discovery of true identity and the inevitable futility of revenge which accidentally destroys the character who was the original object of the first accidental murder. After Rigoletto, Verdi's operas each become more complicated and ingenious.

Verdi's famous Requiem was originally a project to honour fellow Italian composer Gioachino Rossini. Verdi was originally only to have to write one of the sections, the others were to be contributed by other composers. But the whole thing fell through which led to a few permanent professional and personal breaks between Verdi and some other musicians. Five years later (Verdi was 60) the Requiem was completed and presented for the first time in Milan a year later to honour Italy's most famous novelist and poet, Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873). I was told on my first visit to Italy back in 1973 that to really understand what was most central to Italian culture, it was necessary to read Manzoni's great novel, I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed). I still haven't read it.

Teresa Stolz (1834-1902)
is associated with Verdi's last years,
the Requiem and Aida
At the same time as Verdi was writing the Requiem he was approached to write a grand opera to celebrate the opening of the new Suaz Canal to be performed in a new opera house being constructed in Cairo, Egypt. The organizers wanted him to accept a commission but Verdi was reluctant to accept until others of his contemporary competitors were mentioned as possible contenders, especially Richard Wagner. Aida, the story of an ancient Egyptian princess who is buried alive for love (somehow that seems a stylized Egyptian theme), was given a world première in Cairo in 1871 (Verdi was 58).

But Verdi was not finished. He spent many years revising some of his operas, but in 1887 (74 years old) Verdi premièred in Milan what is regarded by some as his greatest tragic opera, based on Shakespeare's Othello. Otello is in addition not formally set up in traditional operatic sections and numbers, as are most operas, as if Verdi was admitting something of the freedom Wagner had discovered earlier. Verdi's last opera, Falstaff, is a brilliantly written and exquisitely sensitive comedy displaying Verdi's continuing development as a composer. The first performance of Falstaff took place at La Scala in Milan to great success. This was in 1893, the composer's eightieth year!

In 1897 Verdi collects together and finishes his Quattro Pezzi Sacri (Four Sacred Pieces). The themes are all standard traditional Roman Catholic forms, at times luminously dressed in Verdi's ever progressing orchestral style. The four pieces are usually performed in the following order:

1. Ave Maria (unaccompanied chorus, in Latin, composed 1889)
(Orchestra e coro del teatro alla Scala, Daniel Barenboim, Teatro alla Scala. 22 dicembre 2009)
2. Stabat Mater (orchestra and chorus, in Latin, composed 1896-1897)
(Orchestra and chorus of National University of Mexico, directed by Enrique Ricci, Mexico City, April 2003)
[PART 1]  
[PART 2] 
3.Laudi alla Vergine Maria (unaccompanied female voices, in Italian, composed 1886-1888)
(Angelica Leánykar and the Angelica Girls' Choir
Vezényel / Conductor: GRÁF Zsuzsanna
MOM Művelődési Központ Kupolaterme (Budapest, Hungary)
6 March 2009)
4. Te Deum (orchestra and double chorus, in Latin, composed 1895-1896)
(Orchestra and chorus of National University of Mexico, directed by Enrique Ricci, Mexico City, April 2003)
[PART 2]
It seems a worthwhile question to ask why Verdi decided to bring these works together when he was known for so long to be a confirmed sceptic. Was he perhaps having second thoughts? After all, he had seen just how quickly and savagely death came and went through his own life. At a very ripe old age for the times, was Verdi perhaps coming face to face with his own imminent departure? This music with its very clear searching magnificence remains to my ears some of the most astounding music of his entire output!

In 1900 the King of Italy was assassinated which deeply affected him. Then in January 1901, the first year of the dawning 20th century, the composer suffered a stroke and died within a week. He was 87 years old.

I vividly recall my first introduction to Verdi when I was young. Of course I was taken to the opera, but before that I had visited some business associates of one of my mentors; a family that was certainly committed to a music I knew existed but of which I hadn't really any first hand knowledge. It was of course opera, operatic singing and the music was all by Verdi. It was warm, robust, succulent music. If Rossini was a spaghetti composer, Verdi was a composer for dishes of greater substance, thicker sauces, meatier, with a unique and unforgettable poignancy, as if while others might seem more superficially gifted than Verdi, few of them really knew what it felt like to be truly alive. If you get nothing else from acquaintance with any of Verdi's great operas, you will encounter real feelings, real love, real sorrow, real pain, all on a very human and eloquent scale, so much so that in art some things just aren't done any better. Those who consider Verdi, not just among the greatest composers of all time, but THE greatest composer of all time, certainly have good reasons for their undying loyalty and affection for the greatest opera composer of all time.

Verdi's operas each take a few hours to perform. Those interested in Verdi should best check out their local opera companies for scheduled performances of his greatest works, there will be many as his appeal is undying to this day. But here are a few of my favourites:

The overture to La Forza del Destino (1862)
New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert conductor, 2011)

and after that, one would normally sit back (or forward) as the curtain rises above the orchestra pit, the stage set brightens and this great tragic opera begins.

And then, who could possibly forget the Drinking Song that opens La Traviata (1853)? Here is my favourite tenor, Placido Domingo and Teresa Stratas to perform it in a very pretty opera cinema production directed by Franco Zeffirelli.

Glyndebourne Festival Opera
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Bernard Haitink, conductor

When you attend to your next Verdi opera (if you haven't been yet, you really are missing something, particularly if the opera company recognizes they are playing with real emotional dynamite rather than tired saltpetre) be prepared for quite a few surprises. Study the progress of his characters through the dramas he has quintessentially distilled for your delectation. If the production is any good at all, you'll have something to remember fondly for many years to come.

Just as a natural diet requires variety, a musical diet cannot be maintained on intellectually rigorous material (many of the works of J.S. Bach for instance) and requires a little Joe Green (Giuseppe Verdi) to give a musician balance and greater emotive depth.
Verdi's Masonic photo

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