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The Eternal Verdi

by
Aurelio de la Vega

The wind was blowing fiercely. Water was pouring from Heaven in a perpetual cascade. It was a black day. In a very modest abode there was a birth, a male child entering the world as all children do, crying, gesticulating. Was he going to be destined to continue running a tavern as his parents were doing to earn a living?; was he going to be a lawyer, a politician, a merchant sailor, a physician, a soldier, a pimp?; or was he marked for the priesthood, for the beggar’s trail, or for a marriage with a princess? Through the small village streets soldiers from Napoleon’s armies walked, protected by thick capes. Suddenly the rain ceased and the leaves on the trees became peaceful. The sun came out, bursting out festive and happy. It was October 10, 1813. The little town was three miles from Busseto, in what is today upper central Italy, then the Duchy of Parma. The appearance of the sun after the storm occurred in the village of La Roncali—in French Le Roncole. The new baby was Giuseppe Verdi.

Later, this Verdi was going to witness, finally, the unification of Italy, all foreign troops and rulers—French, Austrian and Spanish—gone. Although that would bring happiness to him, his presence on this Earth would mark another milestone in Italian culture. No small feat was this conquest of his, attaining a high place in the country’s history. After all, Italy had been, and is, the longest uninterrupted active culture that the world has ever witnessed, from the Etruscans to today. In the reign of the arts it had produced colossus after colossus—Virgil, Giotto, Dante, Da Vinci, Palestrina, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Bellini, Manzoni, Croce, D’Annunzio, Eco, to name a few, taken at random. Verdi was to become the crowning jewel of the Italian XIX Century—a century that many consider the pinnacle of Western Culture. Life itself had determined that he was going to be a tremendous composer, a defining creator in the pantheon of the immortals. Incidentally, from his childhood on, Verdi himself was going to celebrate his onomastic on the 9th of every October. His mother had told him that such was the date of his birth, and he was always, as William Berger said in 2000, “a man of habit”.

After Napoleon’s downfall in 1815, the Congress of Vienna gave Parma to Marie Louise, Napoleon’s wife and also the daughter of the Austrian emperor. Thus Nabucco’s famed chorus Va, pensiero was going to be transformed, by Verdi’s admirers and Italians at large, from a Jewish plight into a rallying cry against the occupying Austrians. The biographical details of Verdi’s life, from his years in Busseto, initially as an organist then as a member of Antonio Barezzi’s prosperous household—including his marriage to Margherita Barezzi, passing then through his ascending, meteoric, successful creative career as a major rival to Richard Wagner, his trials and tribulations, his long association with soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, first as lover then as husband—to his glorious last years and death in Milan in 1901, cover parallel ups and downs of Italy’s XIX century history. Verdi’s biography, with all of the anecdotal minutia which colored it, can be checked in myriads of books. What can be interesting is to comment briefly on some aspects of his music and his artistic bequest.

Verdi was the direct musical heir of Rossini and Donizetti. From them he learned the Italianate treatment of the human voice, the breath of an aria, the beauties of duets and trios and, above all, the concertante ensembles of from five to eight or more voices—a constructive manipulation first splendidly developed by Mozart and then by Beethoven in his Fidelio, finally finding varied and constant use in Verdi. Verdi was a superb melodist, one of the most remarkable ones in the history of music, clear descendant of Mozart, Bellini, Chopin or Schubert. He redefined the use of melody, making it directly connected to humanity, with all the color and the passion of daily existence. His melodic invention was the language of a given character, and he configured his horizontal levels with care and developmental finesse, infusing them with perpetual elements of surprise and sophistication. He was magically able to manipulate time and space in such a way that the most absurd constriction of these elements seemed invariably natural and most effective. With a few musical strokes he delineated a given personage so perfectly as to make him or her clear and ever present in the minds of the public. Verdi’s orchestration was never obtrusive or overwhelming. With sure hand his instruments sounded always right when underlying a dramatic situation, and there were marks of refinement and delicacy that balanced commandingly the massive choral moments or the endings of acts. The use of the clarinet and the cello, possibly Verdi’s favorite instruments, invariably accentuate some of the most poignant and tender moments in his operas, and even paved the way for many early XX century orchestral palettes of composers like Respighi, Delius or even Debussy. Then, when hearing the mighty Dies Irae of his Requiem one feels that Verdi was updating Beethoven’s Ninth symphony.

Even in his most complex moments Verdi’s music reached the Italian public directly and profoundly. Verdi’s Italian XIX Century was a triumphal one. By the end of his life Verdi had become a wealthy man. Besides an acclaimed composer he was a successful landlord and a member of the Italian Parliament in a unified Italy, and had enough income as to be able to construct and establish that touching institution, the Casa di Riposo in Milan, destined to be a comfortable retirement place for old musicians. But during the years of his life, Verdi’s music was mostly unknown in the rest of the world. Germany slowly took him in, although the musicologists and critics of the moment put him down as a minor composer—Meyerbeer, and above all mighty Wagner, looming large and potent. Sporadically, there were performances in Saint Petersburg, Paris, New York, Buenos Aires, London, Vienna, or Rio de Janeiro, but in many big cities of the Americas, for example, there were operative Wagnerian Societies but not Verdian ones. Novelist Franz Werfel, in the 1920s, wrote extensively on Verdi, and subsequently German opera houses started paying more attention to his music. Then, in the 1930s, due to the writings of Francis Toye, the English-speaking world began to hear Verdi’s operas more frequently. Whatever opposition to Verdi existed—from English critic Ernest Newman, who continued to spew forth negative opinions about that “second rate musician” named Verdi, to Pierre Boulez’ vitriolic disregard for “the um-pah-pah composer”—by the late 1950s it was obvious that Verdi’s universal appeal was now total. Writers were talking about a Verdian Renaissance, discovering hidden treasures in Simon Boccanegra, praising the harmonic refinements of Otello, and feeling amazed at the wildest moments of La Forza del Destino or at the depths of Don Carlo. Even critics dared to mention that a few bars from Rigoletto outbalanced and overshadowed all the atonality and twelve-tonism of the XX Century. Verdi, undoubtedly, was not going to disappear, and some scholars began to consider if they had not misjudged Verdi after all. By the 1960s, every major and minor opera house on the planet played Verdi’s operas, in many cases more numerous times than the ones of Mozart, Puccini or even Verdi’s arch-rival Wagner. When in 1978 Julian Budden publishes his erudite and impressive three-volume analysis of Verdi’s operas, the composer from tiny Roncole had already become Italy’s most precious modern cultural asset.

Expressing concern and amazement of why even at present many academicians, musicologists and critics still keep putting down Verdi, treating him as a secondary composer, William Berger puts forward a fascinating theory: he considers Verdi’s operas dangerous…because they can not be killed. He wisely comments on the fact that, while old fashioned, these operas are never passé. Even if the world today is very different from Verdi’s one, the humanity with which he developed his dramatic characters remains eternal and distant from fashion and changing ethics. New operas come and go, and even when launched with a propaganda machinery that would have been the envy of Wagner and of Stravinsky, they seem to fade away rather quickly, while Verdi remains at the forefront. Other composers throughout history, operatic ones or not, produced more intricate works than him regarding construction, philosophical considerations or mere musical achievements in harmony or orchestration, but Verdi’s music persists vital and alive almost two centuries after it was put on paper. One wonders if revolutionary composers like Machaut, De Lasso, Monteverdi, Johann Christian Bach, Beethoven, Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner or Schoenberg remain more present in the public eye than composers who inherited a given musical vocabulary and perfected it exultingly, like elder Bach, or Schubert, or Brahms, or Verdi. At the bottom of the eventual permanency or vanishment remains the fact that beyond innovation, beyond initial shock, beyond fashion, beyond fireworks, beyond biographical entrapment, the intrinsic value and honesty of any artistic creation is what persists, what remains with us through the ages. Verdi is one of those few composers that have managed to transcend the limits of his own time. He remains very much in the limelight and, at present, even his obscure operas like La Battaglia di Legnano, Stiffelio, Il Corsaro, or his supposed ugly duckling Alzira, are part of the repertoire of many opera companies.

Historically, Verdi’s music ran parallel to the unification of Italy, and the composer himself became a coalescing artistic creator on par with Garibaldi, Vittorio Emanuele or Count Camillo Cavour, the political dramatis personae of the final emergence of Italy as a truly Italian independent kingdom ruled by the House of Savoy, with no more Hapsburgs, Bourbons or Louis-Philippes dictating the destiny of the country. These socio-historical developments which served as frame to Verdi’s musical inventiveness helped the composer’s career, since Verdi became a symbol of national pride and was somewhat transformed into an emblematic patriotic icon. Did the historical developments of the Risorgimento influence Verdi’s music? Yes and no. While his fame in Italy rose with each triumph towards Italy’s unification, making his life easier both financially and artistically, Verdi never changed his aesthetic or technical creeds because of what was taking place around him In reality he kept his art separated from his public life. He continued writing operas that, with the exception of La Traviata, Luisa Miller and Stiffelio (in fact the first verismo operas ever written), dwelt in the past.

One of the exceptions to his operatic creation was Verdi’s excursion into the realm of religious music. Verdi was strongly anti-clerical, but remained all his life a deeply religious person, a Roman Catholic at heart if not by action. Famed Italian poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni died in May of 1873. The city of Milan, so centered in Manzoni’s writings, commissioned Verdi to write a Requiem to commemorate the first anniversary of the poet’s death. Some time back Verdi had written a Libera me segment for a Rossini Requiem, to be created by several Italian composers of the moment, a project that never materialized. It became the inspirational spark for Verdi’s acclaimed Requiem, one of his most moving works, remaining unequaled in the genre with the exceptions of the Mozart and Berlioz ones. There were to be a few more digressions into the vastness of sacred Christian music. A Pater Noster from 1873, the same year of his Requiem, for five-part chorus, and an Ave Maria from 1880, for soprano and strings, were to be followed by Quattro pezzi sacri, composed between 1886 and 1897. They consisted of Laudi alla Vergine Maria (1886, for unaccompanied female chorus), another Ave Maria (1889, for unaccompanied chorus—the most musically advanced piece that Verdi ever wrote), Te Deum (1895-1896, for double chorus ad orchestra) and Stabat Mater (1896-1897, for chorus and orchestra). Published in 1896 by Ricordi, they were premiered at La Scala through the good deeds of Arrigo Boito—the composer of Mefistofele and the librettist of Verdi’s two last operas, who became an inseparable amico of Verdi during his Winter years, and who helped so dearly in the dissemination and publication of the composer’s works.

The other non-operatic works of Verdi form a catalogue that by itself would constitute the pride of many composers. There are 19 songs, composed between 1838 and 1894, two piano works (Valzer, 1852, resurrected by Nino Rota in 1963 and orchestrated by him as the music for the film Il Leopardo, and Romanza senza parole, 1884), a well known and much played String Quartet in E minor (1873), and five works for orchestra, including three symphonies. To this extra catalogue, on must add two non-sacred choral works: Suona la tromba (1848), a hymn for chorus—Verdi’s only foray into patriotic music—and Inno delle Nazioni (1862), a cantata for tenor, chorus and orchestra on a text by Boito.

Would it be possible for a new Verdi to exist, create and prosper in today’s Italy? No. Verdi was the product of a given moment in Western Culture that is no longer in existence. The structure and characteristics that nurtured and formed him have totally disappeared.

Music is the most complex of all the arts, the most abstract, the last one to materialize in any given civilized time in its more decanted manifestation. Witness any moment of Greece, the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and observe that, while theatre, sculpture, painting, poetry and even philosophy turn up splendidly active and developed, music is the last indicator of the human intellect to appear fully matured. Great composers were the pinnacle of a particular moment of Western Culture. Bach was not born in the Amazon jungle, Haydn did not manifest himself on the steppes of Mongolia, nor is Bruckner the product of the heart of Africa. All the important composers of history were the handiwork of very sophisticated and evolved societies, and those societies needed to have the structural and socio-economic enhancement required to nurture said composers.

The type of music Verdi gave us was the direct exudate of Italy’s XIX Century: a stratified non-equalitarian community where religion still was a powerful ingredient not only of cult but of creativity, with theatres and publishers promoting operas, a populace that demanded this musical medium as an everyday form of entertainment, an educational system that taught the young the meaning and worth of artistic expressions, and a citizenry that learned to respect, value and applaud the most illustrious creators. Verdi was born, grew and flourished in the midst of that fellowship. Today’s cultural climate is radically different. Hierarchical values are no longer accepted, and one hears continuous proclamations of a tabula rasa formula that states that Beethoven’s art is as valid as the utilitarian furniture concocted by a carpenter. Handel is today’s commercial composer, and Mahler is substituted by the local rapper. The old opera lovers are today’s crowds that digest doses of car chase and super explosion movies. God has been replaced by recreational drugs, and the new coterie’s role models are the baseball player, the rock and roll semi-naked guitarist, or the boxer capable of inflicting bloody punches which grossly disfigure the faces of opponents. On top of all, the speed of life demands things short, fast, explosive, clip-like, shattering, rapidly changing, visually kaleidoscopic. All these lineaments have produced a hysterical, non-developmental, repetitive loud noise, accompanied by clapping of hands, tribal body movements and hypnotic rhythmic drones—elements, all of them, entirely alien to Verdi’s art.

It took centuries of artistic development to arrive at Verdi. With all its evident faults Western Culture was an awe-inspiring pyramid, and out of its tip protruded the great artists. The First World War shattered the pyramid; the Second leveled what was left. It will take again long hundreds of years to rebuild it, although it will be quite different from the one gone. Verdi’s music remains at present as a resplendent legacy enjoyed by survival minorities, but it can not be the forceful and real expression of the dissonant present, so devoid of long hours of reflection and peaceful bliss, of romantic utterances, of elegance, of reposeful pulse—so given to irreverence, to cynicism, to histrionics, and so sadly disrespectful of history.

When life left Verdi in Milan that early afternoon of January 27, 1901, the whole city went on a death vigil. Boito, Teresa Stolz (the Czech soprano who was briefly Verdi’s lover and then friend of him and of Giuseppina Strepponi), the Ricordis, Maria Carrara and her family, and a few close friends were present. Silent crowds gathered in front of the Grand Hotel, where Verdi passed his last days. The government declared two days of National Mourning. The funeral cortege passed through the streets of the city, filled with two hundred thousand people, and, after a brief blessing at a church, entered the Cimitero Monumentale, where Verdi’s body was placed next to that of his wife Guiseppina. Thirty-two days later both bodies were re-entombed in a crypt at the Casa di Riposo. This time the crowd swelled to three hundred thousand. Toscanini conducted a chorus of eight hundred and twenty singers intoning Va, pensiero. An impressive chapter of Italian history had come to a close.

Verdi must have been very conscious of his own importance and of the size and meaning of his legacy. His gift to Italy, through his music, was immense. What he probably never envisioned was the permanent omnipresence of his artistic creation and the absolute universality that his music would attain. All through the XX Century his operas swept aside doubts, criticisms, wrong evaluations and ephemeral artistic fads of every kind. His overtures, his arias, his ensemble numbers, his choruses invaded all of Europe, the Americas and both the Far and Near East. Like a scimitar, they crossed plains, climbed mountains and put to rest many other radical compositional voices that had tried so fervently to dismiss him. In the threshold of the present century he reigns more supreme than ever, his operas more performed than ever. The composer who Gabriele D’Annunzio described as “a man who sang and wept for all” entered into history as an Italian modern pillar of a multi-millenary culture. That man, Giuseppe Verdi Uttini, gave the world a glorious treasure of sound and emotional charge that transcends aesthetic pronouncements and geographical location. For that we are most grateful, since the indebtedness is full of admiration, of joy, of exultation and of beauty.

Santa Fe, NM
August of 2013

© Copyright 2013 by Aurelio de la Vega


Bibliography:
Verdi with a Vengeance—William Berger; Vintage Books, New York, 2000
The Verdi Companion—William Waver and Martin Chasid, editors; Norton, New York, 1979

Aurelio de la Vega was born in La Habana, Cuba, on November 28, 1925 and became an American citizen in 1966.  Since the early 60s he has been an important force in the United States and in the Latin American musical scene. In 1971 he was awarded the Outstanding Professor Award for the entire California State University system. At present, he is a Distinguished Emeritus Professor of said University, and is a Member of the Academy of Arts and Letters of Chile, and of the Brazilian Academy of Music. His compositions have been played by major orchestras, ensembles, important soloists and singers in numerous cities of Europe, the United States and South America. The recipient of numerous prizes, commissions, awards and distinctions (having twice received the prestigious Friedheim Award of the Kennedy center for the Performing Arts), as well as honors and decorations from various foreign governments for his contributions to North and Latin American music, he is also a well-known essayist on the pictorial art of Latin America.

Aurelio de la Vega, Distinguished Emeritus Professor of California State University, Northridge, is an internationally known composer, and is a member of the Executive Board of the Verdi Chorus.