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Verdi & Wagner

A comparison of two musical giants.

In the early years of the Nineteenth Century—the artistically rich and immensely intense era of full blown Romanticism, arguably the time that marks the pinnacle of Western Civilization—two very major figures of music come to life in the same year of 1813.  Richard Wagner, born in Leipzig, embodies the essence of German culture; Giuseppe Verdi, born in Roncole, in Northern Italy, would become the beloved composer who carried on the traditions of the Italian opera, elevating them to lofty heights.  They would die a few years apart:  Wagner in 1883, curiously in Venice, and Verdi in 1901 in Milan.

Against a historical backdrop of ardent artistic development, of kings and courts, of patrons and active audiences, of political upheavals and religious ferment, where philosophers tried to answer the same questions put forward by the Greeks many centuries ago, and with respective fatherlands still fragmented during the first four decades of their lives, Wagner and Verdi created some of the most poignant and transcendental operas the world had ever heard, many of them still in the active repertoire of any major opera company.  Both shared some similarities, but the differences between them were far more pronounced and evident.

Similarities between Wagner and Verdi are somewhat minimal from the point of view of their music, although slightly more numerous when considering the ethical side of their compositional activities.  Both were men of the theater, albeit with major divergent concepts.  Both were nationalistic in their aspiration of creating an art that would reflect their cultural milieu, though both cultures were different in substance, ways of life, expression and weltanschauung. Both longed for the unification of their motherlands, Wagner actively taking to the streets in Dresden, being subsequently persecuted by police forces, fleeing to Switzerland for political asylum, while Verdi enjoyed seeing his name inscribed on walls, posters and flags as Evviva Verdi (standing for Evviva Vittorio Emmanuelle Re D’ Italia, representing Italian unification under the House of Savoy).  Both wanted their fellow citizens to applaud and support them, Wagner often despising his audiences while Verdi looking to his public as part of a divine judgment of his operas.  Also, both were fighters, but Wagner, the true musical revolutionary, fought against his time, paying dearly for it, while Verdi simply continued the ennobled ideal of Italian opera inherited from Donizetti and Bellini.

Differences between both can be outlined easily.  Throughout history, some composers have altered or fully changed the technical and aesthetic aspects of music making.  These composers expanded form concepts, created bigger musical structures, pushed forward the boundaries of aural perception, renovated horizontal melodic and vertical harmonic procedures to invent a given new musical language, and increased the instrumental forces while imposing novel dramatic concepts of the theater, now married to music.  Those were legendary and revolutionary composers, from Guillaume de Machault to Arnold Schönberg, from Claudio Monteverdi to Igor Stravinsky, from the sons of Bach to Richard Strauss, from Ludwig Van Beethoven to Gustav Mahler, from Hector Berlioz to Richard Wagner.  Other numerous groups of composers remained in history as followers of an evolutionary creed, never as radical and innovative as the revolutionary ones, inheriting a given style and carrying it to perfection without seminal or epochal changes.  These are towering creators in their own non-remodeling ways, from Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina to Johann Sebastian Bach, from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Franz Schubert, from Felix Mendelssohn to Johannes Brahms, from Vincenzo Bellini to Giuseppe Verdi.  Easily, Wagner fits fully into the musical revolutionary category and Verdi into the cultivated traditionalists.

Invariably, the revolutionary composer exercises a far grander influence on coetaneous or subsequent generations.  Wagner’s preponderance will prove huge.  From the premiere of Der Ring des Nibelungen the shadow of Wagner extends rapidly throughout Europe, takes symphonic form with Anton Bruckner in Austria and Vincent D’Indy in France, enters Spain, where Felipe Pedrell becomes his far away follower, touches upon England, with Edward Elgar as the main exponent, and crosses the Atlantic to land in the United States, where Horatio Parker and George Whitefield Chadwick are prime illustrators, and in Latin America, as exemplified by the symphonic poems of Cuba’s Guillermo Tomás.  We have to wait until Debussy, who in his youth travels admiringly to Bayreuth to hear Parsifal, to finally witness the aesthetic breakage of the chains of Wagnerism.  By contrast, Verdi’s musical and stylistic weight is almost nil, despite the love and admiration of millions of devotees, mainly in Italy, who were deeply touched by his inexhaustible melodic inventiveness, which parallels Mozart’s.  As an aside, it must by pointed out that Verdi’s incredibly effective and beautiful vocal ensembles, from trios to septets, were modeled on Mozart’s ones.  Interestingly, more than in Europe, Verdi’s operatic style was generously copied in Latin America, where operas by Brazilian Antônio Carlos Gomes and Cuban Eduardo Sánchez de Fuentes followed closely Verdi’s musical trends.

Starting with Der Fliegende Holländer (“The Flying Dutchman”) Wagner is going to change the concept of opera, slowly creating a total fusion between music and theater, between poetry and scenography, between lights and orchestral color, and a completely new conceptual vision of singing at the service of the dramatic plot.  All of this, coupled with orchestral interludes within the acts, commented on the rationalistic undercurrents of German history, Nordic mythology and Christian beliefs.  To properly implement his ideas, Wagner wrote his own texts, contrary to Verdi, who always used various writers for his libretti. Wagner’s texts, often long and convoluted, are always filled with philosophical and metaphysical elements.  On top of everything mentioned before, Wagner, as another of his revolutionary contributions, expanded the harmonic tapestry of the musical language, increasing chromaticism to the point where, like in many moments of Tristan und Isolde, tonality disappears.  This will be the harmonic direction followed by Mahler, which reaches its final goal with Schönberg’s atonality.  Wagner’s harmonic language is going to go hand in hand with his use of expanded instrumental forces, which will eventually include instruments of his own creation, like the Wagner tubas that add a unique new color to the orchestra.

Again by contrast, Verdi’s harmonic language remained anchored within the traditional boundaries of European developed tonality, his voice usage followed the lines of a slightly evolved Italian bel canto style, his orchestra was the conventional Beethoven one, his theatrical manipulations were effective but not terribly innovative, and his operatic characters never left the level of realism or progressed beyond known human behavior.  There were no gods, no giants, no dwarfs, no underworld activities, no Amazons on flying horses, no extra-human curses, no metaphysical soul cleansing in his operatic vision.  What made his music magical was the soaring melodies, his theatrical sense of time and space, his moving portrayal of characters, and his firm and effective use of the traditional orchestra.

Curiously—with the exception of his first opera, Das Liebesverbot (“The Prohibition of Love”), which is untypically clearly related to the Italian operatic style of the time—Wagner, whose stage characters inhabited extra-terrestrial worlds, was most careful to make them musically dialogue like human beings:  one person speaks, the other listens.  Verdi, by contrast, the non-metaphysical composer, the portrayer of people that are always of this Earth, makes them sing at the same time mixing words and sentences, in a way that only when humans are mad with each other this simultaneity occurs.  As incongruent as it may seem, we must remember that in Verdi this superimposition of terms happens in love duets, congenial trios and sympathetic ensembles

Another important difference between Wagner and Verdi is based on the Nineteenth Century romantic concept of art, interpreted so opposedly by both.  For Wagner, German instrumental music was most important; for Verdi, Italian vocal music reigned supreme.  The intensity of Wagner’s artistic belief was of such proportions that it fitted perfectly into his egocentric, egotistic and narcissist character.  For Wagner, Verdi scarcely existed.  One will seek in vain for Verdi’s name in the copious essays and letters that Wagner wrote.  By contrast, Verdi’s more noble character, attuned to the Italian way of contemplating life with a broad smile, surfaced clearly when in a letter to Giovanni Ricordi, his friend and publisher, dated one day after Wagner’s death, he says:  “I was, as it were, prostrated with grief.  Here we do not discuss the matter.  A great personality has gone from us, a name which will leave the most powerful imprint upon the history of art”.

To totally appreciate how the music of these two Nineteenth Century splendid composers came about, and to thoroughly comprehend the different ways by which they attained immortality, one must fully understand the inner nature of both men, their environment and their goals.  Although Wagner’s work was the embodiment of Romantic opera in a field prepared by Weber, Marschner and Meyerbeer, Wagner was a different composer than were his predecessors and contemporaries.  He considered himself not as a pure musician but rather as a music-dramatist, like trying to emulate a combination of Beethoven and Shakespeare.  He envisioned the world as a recipient of his complex and new artistic-philosophical message.  As Alfred Einstein said, “Even when he did not conquer the world he certainly did conquer the Nineteenth Century”.  He thought he was primordially a dramatist, a poet, who would immerse the word in music to make it more powerful.  He wanted to use music as a means of explaining the world, of influencing it, of intoxicating it, of seducing and at the same time enhancing it.  His courage, his self-reliance, which never diminished even in his darkest hours, was able to move a king—Ludwig the Second of Bavaria—to put at his disposal the coffers of the state as to permit him to complete The Ring, help with the public donations to construct in Bayreuth his theater, his ideal house for the performance of his operas—which he considered as a gift to Germany, far beyond an admiring public—so Parsifal could have a proper frame for its first performance in 1882.  This last of his operas he called “a sacred legend for the stage”, subsidized by King Ludwig with the promise that it was only to be heard at Bayreuth in the Festspielhaus.  In fact, Parsifal was not produced outside Bayreuth until 1913, when it was done in Zürich.

Wagner’s personal life was much more turbulent than Verdi’s.  The tormentous first marriage, his love for Mathilde Wesendonck (wife of one of his most generous patrons), his adulterous relation with Cosima von Bülow (daughter of Franz Liszt, his friend and admirer, and wife of an outstanding conductor who revered Wagner), his escapes from creditors, and his disdain for anything that would not serve his artistic aims were all facets of the portrayed romantic artist.  But Wagner was able to convert all these dubious aspects of his existence into great music works, from the Wesendonck-Lieder of 1858 and Tristan und Isolde of 1859, to Die Meistersinger of 1867 (his second comic opera and his only truly German national work), the Siegfried Idyll of 1870 (composed as a Christmas gift for his now wife Cosima) and Parsifal of 1882.  This last work, the libretto of which was the last straw that separated Friedrich Nietzsche from Wagner, due to its Catholic content after an earlier admiring friendship born of the heroes and heroines of The Ring, was a sort of self redemption and purification for the composer, and stands as a towering concluding document of the Romantic epoch.

By contrast, Verdi’s works remain as the opposite to Wagner’s orchestral operas.  Verdi always based his art on his evident “Italianness”.  He once wrote:  “We, Italians, are positivists, and, to a considerable extent, skeptics.  We are not inclined to believe much, and are not able to believe for long stretches in the fantastic conceptions of the German foreign art, which is deficient in naturalness and simplicity”.  So Verdi erected his art and his music on no other fact as being truthful to his feelings and to the clarity and directness of the melodic expressions.  He distinguished himself from his Italian forerunners Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and the rest, by his earnestness.  He was angry when people referred to opera as “entertainment”, but, at the same time, refused to bring to his art metaphysical elements, larger-than-life heroes, obscure symbolisms, prophetic parleys or rites of salvation through fire.  For him, life was more an everyday affair than a transcendental, mysterious theorem.  In opposition to Wagner, Verdi’s characters do not inhabit in pre-determined environments, except in Aïda, which he composed as a show opera for Cairo.  If he needed to concoct a scene with a specific background (as for example the thunderstorm in the last act of Rigoletto, or the lonely field at the start of Act II of Un Ballo in Maschera) he did it with a few ingenious musical gestures, as opposed to the pomposity of Wagner’s orchestral painting.

In many ways, each of these grand composers was truly loyal to his own artistic belief and to his own culture.  Each one spoke eloquently in different artistic and conceptual languages, and each one traversed, with musical honesty, his own diverse and at times difficult path.  Their art left pedestrian and commercial routes to others, and soared to those excelled heights which are only achieved by very few in each historical period.  Always, the key to fully understand their epic legacy is to approach their music with full knowledge of what it was when composed and what it is today when we listen to it.  The cliché classifications must be left aside.  In reality, Wagner is no bigger or better than Verdi, and Verdi is no bigger or better than Wagner.  Each one of them was a colossal creator in his own way.  Each one of them was movingly true to a given way of expression.  Each one of them remains forever in history.  Each one of them, when their music is rightly performed, brings out the best in each one of their auditors.  May each one of them, tonight and every night, day or place where their effulgent music is heard, touch hearts and minds in ways in which one leaves behind the ugly emptiness and noise of daily vulgar life, thus entering the portals of beauty and exalted emotions.

Aurelio de la Vega
Northridge, California, March of 2010