Dinner Topics for Friday
The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. ~Isaiah 11:9
Triumphal March from “Aida”
Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (10 October 1813 – 27 January 1901) was an Italian Romantic composer, mainly of opera. Musically, he was part of European Romanticism, and was one of the most influential composers of the 19th century. His works are frequently performed in opera houses throughout the world and, transcending the boundaries of the genre, some of his themes have long since taken root in popular culture – such as “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto, “Va, pensiero” (The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Nabucco, “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” (The Drinking Song) from La traviata and the “Grand March” from Aida.
Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves
Verdi’s masterworks dominate the standard opera repertoire a century and a half after their composition.
Verdi was born the son of Carlo Giuseppe Verdi and Luigia Uttini in Le Roncole, a village near Busseto, then in the Département Taro which was a part of the First French Empire after the annexation of the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza. The baptismal register, on 11 October lists him as being “born yesterday”, but since days were often considered to begin at sunset, this could have meant either 9 or 10 October. The next day, he was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church in Latin as Joseph Fortuninus Franciscus. The day after that (Tuesday), Verdi’s father took his newborn the three miles to Busseto, where the baby was recorded as Joseph Fortunin François; the clerk wrote in French. “So it happened that for the civil and temporal world Verdi was born a Frenchman.”
When he was still a child, Verdi’s parents moved from Piacenza to Busseto, where the future composer’s education was greatly facilitated by visits to the large library belonging to the local Jesuit school. Also in Busseto, Verdi was given his first lessons in composition.
Verdi went to Milan when he was twenty to continue his studies. He took private lessons in counterpoint while attending operatic performances, as well as concerts of, specifically, German music. Milan’s beaumonde association convinced him that he should pursue a career as a theatre composer. During the mid 1830s, he attended the Salotto Maffei salons in Milan, hosted by Clara Maffei.
Returning to Busseto, he became the town music master and, with the support of Antonio Barezzi, a local merchant and music lover who had long supported Verdi’s musical ambitions in Milan, Verdi gave his first public performance at Barezzi’s home in 1830.
Because he loved Verdi’s music, Barezzi invited Verdi to be his daughter Margherita’s music teacher, and the two soon fell deeply in love. They were married on 4 May 1836 and Margherita gave birth to two children, Virginia Maria Luigia (26 March 1837 – 12 August 1838) and Icilio Romano (11 July 1838 – 22 October 1839). Both died in infancy while Verdi was working on his first opera and, shortly afterwards, Margherita died of encephalitis on 18 June 1840, aged only 26. Verdi adored his wife and children, and he was devastated by their untimely deaths.
Sometime in the mid-1840s, after the death of Margherita Barezzi, Verdi began an affair with Giuseppina Strepponi, a soprano in the twilight of her career. Their cohabitation before marriage was regarded as scandalous in some of the places they lived, but Verdi and Giuseppina married on 29 August 1859 at Collonges-sous-Salève, near Geneva. While living in Busseto with Strepponi, Verdi bought an estate two miles from the town in 1848. Initially, his parents lived there, but, after his mother’s death in 1851, he made the Villa Verdi at Sant’Agata in Villanova sull’Arda his home until his death.
As the “galley years” were drawing to a close, Verdi created one of his greatest masterpieces, Rigoletto, which premiered in Venice in 1851. Based on a play by Victor Hugo (Le roi s’amuse), the libretto had to undergo substantial revisions in order to satisfy the epoch’s censorship, and the composer was on the verge of giving it all up a number of times. The opera quickly became a great success.
With Rigoletto, Verdi sets up his original idea of musical drama as a cocktail of heterogeneous elements, embodying social and cultural complexity, and beginning from a distinctive mixture of comedy and tragedy. Rigoletto’s musical range includes band-music such as the first scene or the song La donna è mobile, Italian melody such as the famous quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore”, chamber music such as the duet between Rigoletto and Sparafucile and powerful and concise declamatos often based on key-notes like the C and C# notes in Rigoletto and Monterone’s upper register.
There followed the second and third of the three major operas of Verdi’s “middle period”: in 1853 Il Trovatore was produced in Rome and La traviata in Venice. The latter was based on Alexandre Dumas, fils‘ play The Lady of the Camellias, and became the most popular of all Verdi’s operas, placing first in the Operabase list of most performed operas worldwide.
Between 1855 and 1867, an outpouring of great Verdi operas followed, among them such repertory staples as Un ballo in maschera (1859), La forza del destino (commissioned by the Imperial Theatre of Saint Petersburg for 1861 but not performed until 1862), and a revised version of Macbeth (1865). Other somewhat less often performed include Les vêpres siciliennes (1855) and Don Carlos (1867), both commissioned by the Paris Opera and initially given in French. Today, these latter two operas are most often performed in their revised Italian versions. Simon Boccanegra followed in 1857. Verdi’s grand opera, Aida, is sometimes thought to have been commissioned for the celebration of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, but, according to one major critic, Verdi turned down the Khedive’s invitation to write an “ode” for the new opera house he was planning to inaugurate as part of the canal opening festivities. The opera house actually opened with a production of Rigoletto. Later in 1869/70, the organizers again approached Verdi (this time with the idea of writing an opera), but he again turned them down. When they warned him that they would ask Charles Gounod instead and then threatened to engage Richard Wagner‘s services, Verdi began to show considerable interest, and agreements were signed in June 1870.
Verdi and Wagner, who were the leaders of their respective schools of music, seemed to resent each other greatly. They never met. Verdi’s comments on Wagner and his music are few and hardly benevolent (“He invariably chooses, unnecessarily, the untrodden path, attempting to fly where a rational person would walk with better results”), but at least one of them is kind: upon learning of Wagner’s death, Verdi lamented, “Sad, sad, sad! … a name that will leave a most powerful impression on the history of art.” Of Wagner’s comments on Verdi, only one is well-known. After listening to Verdi’s Requiem, the German, prolific and eloquent in his comments on some other composers, stated, “It would be best not to say anything.”
Final years and death
Otello, based on William Shakespeare‘s play, with a libretto written by the younger composer of Mefistofele, Arrigo Boito, premiered in Milan in 1887. Its music is “continuous” and cannot easily be divided into separate “numbers” to be performed in concert. Some[who?] feel that although masterfully orchestrated, it lacks the melodic lustre so characteristic of Verdi’s earlier, great, operas, while many critics consider it Verdi’s greatest tragic opera, containing some of his most beautiful, expressive music and some of his richest characterizations. In addition, it lacks a prelude, something Verdi listeners are not accustomed to. Arturo Toscanini performed as cellist in the orchestra at the world premiere and began his friendship with Verdi (a composer he revered as highly as Beethoven).
Verdi’s statue in the Piazza G. Verdi, Busseto
Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, whose libretto was also by Boito, was based on Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor and Victor Hugo‘s subsequent translation. It was an international success and is one of the supreme comic operas which shows Verdi’s genius as a contrapuntist.
Verdi was initially buried in Milan’s Cimitero Monumentale. A month later, his body was moved to the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, a rest home for retired musicians that Verdi had established. In October 1894, the French government awarded him the Grand-Croix de la Legion d’honneur. He was the first musician to receive the Grand-Croix.
He was an agnostic. Toscanini, in a taped interview, described him as “an atheist”, but “agnostic” is probably the most accurate description. His second wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, described him as “a man of little faith”.