[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



His Music, Life and Times

George Martin

London, Macmillan, 1965; rebound in green cloth with the title VERDI blocked on the spine in yellow; yellow slip case.

In the course of this comprehensive but very readable biography, George Martin refers to a remark of Goldoni, the Venetian playwright, about life in Milan in the eighteenth century: ‘La mattina una messetta, l’apodnisar una bassetta, la sera una donnetta.’  ‘A little mass in the morning; a little cards in the afternoon; a little woman in the evening.’  There is something gratifyingly Italian about all that – like spaghetti, Ferrari, or Zegna.  Or Verdi.  His preferred game after lunch was billiards.  In this he took after Mozart, although we may doubt whether this preference was exclusive.  Giuseppe Verdi (‘Joseph Green’) was nothing if not Italian, and Anglo-Saxons may take leave to doubt whether Latins devoted their entire siesta to resting.

Opera was born in Italy, and we like to see it as an Italian art form.  In the first half of the 19th century, Italian opera was sustained by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti.  In the second half of that century, the scene was dominated by Verdi.

Verdi was deeply involved in the endeavours to unite Italy, and he became greatly loved as embodying the voice of Italy.  Through works such as Rigoletto, La Traviata, A Masked Ball, Aida, Falstaff and Otello, he dominated Italian opera from 1845 until his death in 1901.  He wrote nearly thirty operas and he gave to Italian music and opera the kind of identity that Wagner did for the Germans.

Verdi had trouble with the censors, but he followed the advice of Beaumarchais who said that ‘What is too dangerous to say in words can be sung in music’.  His operas spoke directly and movingly to the Italian people who chanted ‘Viva Verdi’.  Operas like Aida, Rigoletto, Don Carlos and The Force of Destiny were obviously inspired by a loathing of inequality and oppression.  For about half a century, Verdi was the voice of all that was universal and generous in what was becoming one Italian nation.  Italy was unified, and when Verdi died, the whole nation mourned.

Verdi was born to parents who owned a tavern in a village close to Busseto in the Parma region of northern Italy.  Shortly after he was born, Russian troops committed an atrocity in the local church of San Michele.  The mother of Verdi hid with Giuseppe in the bell tower and survived unharmed, but the incident left its marks.  The family was poor, but the young boy showed talent with music – which failed to get him to pass the entrance exam for the conservatory at Milan.  He took private lessons and got some work in conducting, and he then got the job of director of the Philharmonic Society at Busetto.  He married and then moved north to submit his first opera which has survived to the management at La Scala.  He became known for being single-minded and for getting straight to the point.  With help from a young soprano called Giuseppina Strepponi, La Scala accepted his unsolicited offering and Oberto, which is not offered now, was a success.  La Scala offered Verdi a contract for a further three operas.

In 1840, the deaths of his son, daughter and wife sent him into a depression.  He wrote a bad comic opera, but in 1842 he produced Nabucco.  It is a biblical tale with a political message that was just right for the people of Italy at that time.  The Slaves’ Chorus spoke directly to the needs of the Italian people, and this opera secured the fame of Verdi throughout Italy.  In the next eight years, he composed thirteen operas, most of them tragic and nearly all historical on commission from Milan, Rome, Naples and Venice.  He had begun living with Strepponi, and they would marry in 1859 in a relationship that lasted for half a century.  She was the ideal companion for a man who could be blunt and without humour.

In 1851 he produced Rigoletto, an opera based on a story by Victor Hugo, and it was followed by Il Trovatore and La Traviata.  He was now internationally famous and he became very wealthy.  He was obsessed with Shakespeare.  Macbeth was an early opera, but Otello and Falstaff are among his most mature masterpieces.

My attitude to Falstaff has changed over the years.  This character is from The Merry Wives of Windsor and is quite unlike the ultimately unlovely hero of King Henry IV Parts I and II.  Some might then see this opera as lightweight.  A stunning performance by the AO a few years back and constant replaying have made this opera now my favourite.  This for me is music drama at its most evolved.  Wagner claimed to have written a comedy in opera – Die Meistersinger.  Some time ago I was offered two of the best seats in the house for this work.  I declined them.  My back can no longer take that kind of punishment, and ‘comedy’ does not trip lightly off the lips with Wagner.  As Mr Martin reminds us, the whole of Falstaff takes less time in performance than the last act of Die Meistersinger.

The most famous and wealthy composer in the world set up a retirement home for musicians in Milan funded by his huge royalties.  He died of a stroke in 1901.  He had prescribed for his funeral ‘One priest, one candle, one cross’ but it became an occasion for national mourning.  A huge orchestra, conducted by Toscanini, played at the burial grounds.  A quarter of a million people attended the procession.  They sang the Slaves’ Chorus from Aida.

For sustained production and popularity, only Mozart, Wagner and Puccini can come close to Verdi.  He managed to blend drama and melody and his mature works gave opera a whole new direction.  About a dozen of those are still in constant circulation.  He had a natural ear for melody, and some of his greatest music can remind you of listening to a village band playing in an Italian village rotunda.  From Rigoletto onwards, Verdi was able to devise melodies that were striking and that expressed the deepest emotions without sacrificing what sounds like simple tunefulness.  Opera covers a broad range of art, but no one else ever sounded like Giuseppe Verdi.

One biographer of Verdi said this:

What, then, remains in his work if the ephemera of time and place are drained away?

First, the potential nobility of man.  In his early and middle years, Verdi saw men and women risking life and personal happiness to further an ideal, and in his operas he celebrated them, holding them up as models to be copied.  In La Traviata, Verdi wept for Violetta, but he presents her decision in her circumstances as right.  His operas, though with artistic restraint, are didactic: they urge men and women to be noble.

As a corollary, however, his work throughout sounds a constant note of melancholy.  Life, he suggests, is hard, happiness fleeting, and to death the only certainty.  He never pretends in his call for generous, noble actions that these do not often end in suffering, but offers them as the best response to death.

Sir Isaiah Berlin wrote a paper called The Naiveté of Verdi.  In it, he said:

Noble, simple, with a degree of unbroken vitality and vast natural power of creation and organisation, Verdi is the voice of a world which is no more.  His enormous popularity among the most sophisticated as well as the most ordinary listeners today is due to the fact that he expressed permanent states of consciousness in the most direct terms, as Homer, Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Tolstoy have done. 

George Martin says:

…..he was above all the composer of the human heart, of love and grief, despair and joy, the simplest human emotions.  With the magic of his music, he had touched depths of feeling often unsuspected in those who listened, and by it had declared to them the universality of their human condition.  For many who had been surprised to tears for Violetta, or lured to sympathy for Rigoletto, he had literally stretched the bounds of their humanity.  To be alive, to be loved, he seemed to say, was to suffer; and in the largeness of his understanding and compassion, as D’Annunzio wrote in a famous memorial ode, ‘He wept and loved for all.’

Well, people have for centuries said much the same thing about the English playwright whom Verdi revered as a god, and who gave to Verdi the scheme of three of his greatest operas.  Anyone who can make any kind of contribution to our feeling sane deserves our reverence.

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