On 17th April 1842, in a borrowed box at the Teatro Regio in Parma, a shopkeeper burst into tears as his son was crowned with laurel and repeatedly recalled to the stage for ovations. The shopkeeper was Carlo Verdi, owner of the village shop in the tiny hamlet of Le Roncole, and the reception granted to this production of Nabucco marked his son Giuseppe as a superstar in waiting.

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Born in 1813 at the height of the Napoleonic wars, Giuseppe Verdi would relate that his mother hid him in the belfry of the village church for fear of marauding Russian troops. He died at a ripe old age, wealthy and revered by his countrymen: his funeral, set to the strains of Va, pensiero from Nabucco and the Miserere from Il Trovatore, remains the largest ever public assembly in the history of Italy. A century on, he vies only with Mozart as the composer whose operas are most performed, with Rigoletto and La Traviata featuring consistently in the top ten.

La donna è mobile, the Great March from Aida and a dozen other arias and choruses are instantly recognised by even the most casual of opera fans, but Verdi was far more than a brilliant tunesmith. Almost single-handedly, he transformed the way that music was applied to drama - not in a single, revolutionary stroke, but by a stream of individual innovations over the course of a long creative career. Verdi always worked within the musical establishment of his day, but continually pushed at and moved the boundaries of what could be put on an operatic stage.

When Verdi was seven, his parents bought his first instrument: an old spinet, which was refurbished free by the local organ repairer, who was taken with the little boy’s enthusiasm. He remembered that “...for my parents it was a large sacrifice to get me this wreck, which was already old at that time; having it made me happier than a king”. His next break came when his father got him a job in Busseto, the nearest town, with Antonio Barezzi, a merchant who supplied his father’s shop and was the president of the Busseto Philharmonic Society. Verdi worked in Barezzi’s office during the day, participated enthusiastically in music-making in the evenings and subsequently lived in Barezzi’s house, falling in love with and marrying his daughter Margherita.

Barezzi and the head of the local music school, Ferdinando Provesi, patronised Verdi’s musical education, obtaining a series of grants and places with teachers in Milan and elsewhere - although the Milan conservatoire rejected Verdi, to its undying shame.

In the space of two years from 1838 to 1840, tragedy struck: Verdi’s two adored children died, followed by the death from encephalitis of Margherita. The tragedy marked his writing: many of the operas contain father-daughter scenes that are exquisitely poignant. Verdi did find love again, in the shape of Giuseppina Strepponi, who had created the role of Abigaille in Nabucco. The couple lived together unmarried for over a decade, causing considerable scandal and severe family discord. They finally married in 1859: no-one is quite sure why they chose that moment to conduct a thoroughly secret wedding ceremony in a small town near Geneva. Whatever their reasons, the marriage was happy, lasting nearly four decades until Strepponi’s death in 1897.

Verdi’s career was a long one, spanning over half a century from his first public performances in the Busseto Philharmonic Society through to his Stabat Mater in 1897. While most of his output is in the core form of serious Italian opera, there are several divergences from this: Les vêpres siciliennes and Don Carlos first appeared as classic French Grand Operas, Aida is an unashamed spectacular for the opening of the Cairo Khedivial Opera House and his Requiem a unique fusion of operatic and church music styles. La forza del destino, written for performance in St Petersburg, contains overtones of Russian vocal writing and orthodox liturgical music. Perhaps the most surprising excursion of all was his last opera, Falstaff, written at the age of 80, his only comic opera and one of the greatest ever written.

The "parola scenica"
The way in which Verdi would develop what he felt was a "dramatically critical phrase" is shown in this example, from the correspondence between Verdi and Antonio Ghislanzoni, the librettist of Aida. Here is Ghislanzoni's original text, Verdi's idea for what would have more impact, and the finished product, which retains the librettist's original concept but achieves the economy required to be set to the most dramatic music.
Original In volto gli occhi affisami
E mente ancor se l’osi:
Radamès vive
Look into my face with your eyes
and lie again if you dare
Radamès lives
Verdi's
suggestion
Con una parola
strapperò il tuo segreto
Guardami, t’ho ingannata
Radamès vive
With one word
I will rip out your secret
Look at me, I deceived you
Radamès lives
Final libretto Fissami in volto
io t’ingannava
Radamès vive
Look me in the face
I was deceiving you
Radamès lives

Verdi’s statements about his past are notoriously inaccurate, but his statement that “Nobody taught me about orchestration, or how to treat dramatic music” was close to the truth. He was 19 and an active composer before he saw his first top class performance. He forged his individual style from his own ideas of how music could create dramatic effect, blended with what he had learned from studying the works of Mozart and other composers. Verdi would correspond at length with his librettists about particular words or phrases that he felt had the potential for dramatic impact, and would pay extraordinary attention to the music around them: he coined the term "parola scenica" to apply to such dramatically critical words or phrases (see inset). Where the music of many later operas is clearly subordinate to the text, the emotion in Verdi often comes directly from the music and vocal timbre: the contrast between tenor and baritone voices can speak more loudly than the words.

 

Verdi’s sense of drama sets him apart from the composers who preceded him. Even in the best serious operas of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, one is likely to be struck by the occasions in which dramatic impact is lost: everything stops for one of the singers to do their big number, or a sublime, melodic cavatina is followed by a surprisingly jaunty cabaletta. Verdi uses cavatinas, cabalettas and most of the conventions of earlier Italian opera. But his sense of theatre rarely falters, and the music is always totally appropriate to the action of the moment. Verdi can transform even an indifferent libretto into a dramatically transcendent work (and his output includes several libretti that even diehard fans admit to be below par).

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Rigoletto and La Traviata trump Verdi’s other operas on grounds of sheer melodic output; “all those fabulous tunes” is an oft-heard phrase. But Verdi had an essentially gloomy character, and both operas are utterly serious. In Rigoletto, we are confronted with a character of many facets: sardonic, manipulative jester, tenderest of family men, overbearing parent, hunchback persecuted for his deformity, monstrous, violent murderer. Melodrama though it is, Rigoletto gives us an unflinchingly honest portrait of humanity, warts and all, with the beautiful tune of Caro nome or the impossibly catchy La donna è mobile sitting in acute contrast to the darkness of the prevailing mood. Verdi fully understood the tune’s catchiness: to preserve secrecy, its music was not even shown to the orchestra until shortly before the première, and La donna è mobile was being whistled in the streets of Venice on the following morning.

La Traviata has plenty of scenery of glittering high society, and some productions (and, indeed, audiences) may not delve too deeply. But even a moderately engaged production will bring out the searing indictment of the way the society of the time treated low-born women, and a joyous number like the brindisi (in which Alfredo tells us that love’s kisses are sweeter when experienced through goblets of wine) is soon followed by the tubercular coughing that reveals Violetta’s fatal condition. As so often with Verdi, an apparently conventional series of arias, duets and choruses is bent into the shape of the dramatic narrative.

By a strange twist of fate, Verdi and Richard Wagner were born in the same year. The two men despised each other’s music. Wagner considered Verdi reactionary and an impediment to musical progress, while Verdi had no interest in Wagner’s symphonic style: on his score of Lohengrin, he complained that the work was mediocre, slow-moving and boring, although he approved of the instrumental effects. Yet the intentions of the two men were more similar than either might have cared to admit: both sought to transform opera from a series of pretty numbers into a unified dramatic entity.

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But while Wagner's music has generally been held in high critical esteem through the years, critics have always taken a decidedly mixed view of Verdi. There were some triumphs, such as the première of La Forza del Destino, but even when Rigoletto was packing opera houses and making Verdi a rich man, one appalled critic described its libretto as “a gold mine of transgressions”; German critics considered Verdi facile and “part of a declining Italian opera tradition”. For a while, in the first half of the twentieth century, his work was considered barely worthy of serious study. But times have changed and there is now a substantial body of academic literature about the subtleties that lend his work what Gabriele Baldini called its “direct immediate economy of style”.

For Italians, Verdi occupies a special position in history. He lived in the time of the risorgimento, in which Italy changed from a multiplicity of foreign-dominated states into a unified nation. Nabucco, Verdi’s third opera, was set on the subject of Hebrew emancipation from Babylon, and Va, pensiero, the chorus sung by the Hebrew slaves, came to be seen as a rallying cry for Italian unity. Intentionally or not (Verdi certainly had nationalist sympathies, but no-one really knows the extent to which he deliberately injected these into works such as Nabucco or Attila), Verdi and his music became associated with the cause of unification, with his name being turned into an acronym (Vittorio Emmanuele, Re DItalia) for the future king of the united Italy. To this day, Italians revere his work as a national treasure.

Outside Italy, we may not fully share in the reverence, but we can still be entranced by the music. Verdi’s operas remain the closest thing in the repertoire to a perfect fusion of accessible, beautiful music with dramatic intensity that attacks the emotions, and their popularity in the world’s opera houses looks set to endure. Perhaps we can best celebrate his 200th anniversary by repeating the words of one nineteenth century writer about Rigoletto:

 

“Is there anyone who does not know this, Verdi’s Song of Songs? There will you find an unhappy man: one who should command our deepest sympathies”.

 

Bibliography
Gabriele Baldini, The story of Giuseppe Verdi : Oberto to Un ballo in maschera, ed. Fedele d'Amico, trans. Roger Parker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980)

Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, Verdi : a biography (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993)

Gregory W. Harwood, Giuseppe Verdi : a research and information guide (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012)

Charles Osborne, The complete operas of Verdi (London: Gollancz, 1985)