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   Chapter 1 BIRTH, PARENTAGE, AND CHILD-LIFE

Verdi: Man and Musician By Frederick James Crowest Characters: 16468

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Verdi's birth and birth-place-Dispute as to his township-Baptismal certificate-His parentage-The parents' circumstances-The osteria kept by them-A regular market-man-A mixed business-Verdi's early surroundings and influences-Verdi not a musical wonder or show-child-His natural child-life-Enchanted with street organ-Quiet manner as a child-Acolyte at Roncole Church-Enraptured with the organ music-Is bought a spinet-Practises incessantly-Gratuitous spinet repairs-To school at Busseto-Slender board and curriculum-First musical instruction-An apt pupil.

Verdi was born at Roncole, an unpretentious settlement, sparsely inhabited, hard by Busseto, which, in its turn, is at the foot of the Appenine range, and some seventeen miles north-west of Parma, in Italy. The red-letter day, since such it deservedly is, on which this universal melodist first saw the light was the 10th October 1813. Terrible events shadowed his infancy. In 1814 the village was sacked by the invading allies. Then the frightened women took refuge in the church-safe, as they believed, near the image of the Virgin-until the soldiers forced the doors, and slew women and children till the floor reeked with blood. One woman, with infant at breast, flew to the belfry and hid there, thus saving herself and her child. The child was the infant Verdi!

Whenever a son of man is born into the world who, in the mysterious course of events, turns out to be what mankind calls "great," there is inevitably a community jealous to claim ownership of the illustrious one, alive or dead. The subject may have lingered through troublous long seasons, craving vainly for the stimulus of even scanty recognition. He has only to become "great" to find hosts of persevering friends. Verdi having risen to great eminence, more than one locality has claimed him. He has been styled "il cigno di Busseto,"[1] and "il maestro Parmigiano"; but he was neither the swan of Busseto nor the master of the town of cheeses. Roncole alone is entitled to the sonship of Verdi; and as both Parma and her smaller sister town, Busseto, have disputed his parentage, the point of interest has been very properly investigated. The result is that the question has been decided once and for all. A certificate written in Latin has been traced, which establishes beyond dispute both the time and place of Verdi's birth. The following is the text of the original document:-

"Anno Dom. 1813 die 11 Octobris-Ego Carolus Montanari Praepositus Runcularum baptizavi Infantem hodie vespere hora sexta natum ex Carolo Verdi qm Josepho et ex Aloisia Utini filia Caroli, hujus parocciae jugalibus, cui nomina imposui-Fortuninus Joseph, Franciscus-Patrini fuere Dominus Petrus Casali qd Felicis et Barbara Bersani filia Angioli, ambo hujus parocciae."

This dog Latin, translated into English, runs as follows:-"In the year of our Lord 1813, on the 11th day of October, I, Charles Montanari, placed in charge of Roncole, did at the sixth hour of this evening baptize the infant son of Charles Verdi and Louisa Utini, daughter of Charles, married in this parish, under the name of Fortuninus Joseph Franciscus. The sponsors were Father Peter Casali qd Felicis and Barbara Bersani, daughter of Angiolus, both of this parish."[2]

The abode in which the infant Verdi first opened his eyes was one of the best known and most frequented among a cluster of cottages inhabited by labouring folk who found work and small wage in the immediate neighbourhood of Roncole, a three miles' stretch from Busseto. It was a tumble-down stone-and-mortar-mixture building of low pitch.

Padre Carlo Verdi and his good wife Luigia Utini were the licensed keepers of this small osteria, whereat wine, spirits, and malt, with their close relations pipes and tobacco, were matters of trade between Boniface or la signora and the frugal contadini who lived in and about Roncole. Wine and music! Another illustration of the curious union between harmony and alcohol-a connection which harmless as it really is, has been discouraged and taken fearfully to heart by a sensitive sort of people, but which has never yet been satisfactorily disproved or accounted for by all the Good Templar philosophy. Bacchanalian aids were not the only commodities dealt in by the honest, though illiterate Carlo Verdi and his brave wife. The inn stood also as the local dép?t for such unromantic necessaries of existence as sugar, coffee, matches, oil, cheese, and sausage-all indispensable items in housekeeping, even in Italy.

The business air pervading the home of Verdi's childhood seems not to have affected his young mind, and, pecuniarily profitable as such an establishment for the sale of the liquids and solids of life may have been, the future musician does not appear to have shown any disposition towards becoming a vendor of unromantic necessaries or alcoholic unnecessaries of life. Happily, the fire of genius-the feu sacré-was in Verdi.

Verdi maggiore was distinctly a retail trader, running, with great good-nature, what are vulgarly known as "ticks" with the Roncolese. He went to market once a week, to buy in wholesale quantities grocery of one Antonio Barezzi, storekeeper, distiller, etc., who, as circumstances proved, was to figure prominently in the Verdi dénouement.

It is a sorry reflection that several of our greatest musicians have had poverty and untoward circumstances as a "set off," as it would seem to be, for their bounteous musical gifts. A study of the lives of the great tone poets will reveal the saddening but not astonishing truth that, while the world's fairest minstrels have been shaping melodies and harmonies to gladden hearts and brighten homes for all ages, they themselves have frequently been enduring lives of misery, and sometimes want. Verdi at no part of his career has ever been in abject poverty, but his was by no means a luxurious early life, nor was his home particularly predisposed towards music. At first, there was not a pianoforte in it, nor can it be said that Verdi passed his childhood amongst surroundings to favour the muse, such as the paint pots, canvases, and stage lights upon which Weber's young imagination fed. The social and physical conditions in and around Busseto were ill calculated to inspire the mind with anything approaching the sublime or the ideal, the poetic or the beautiful; and there seemed to be insuperable difficulties in the way of the son of the chandler's shopkeeper ever becoming a musician of any importance. But many most surprising episodes were to unfold themselves. This unpretentious spot of Italian soil was to prove the cradle of the revolutioniser of Italy's national music-drama. To-day it is incontrovertible that in Verdi's music, especially in his later writings, there is far more than could ever have been expected of any Italian master. His melody is the pure chastened current of the sunny South, and no one of his countrymen has written loftier operatic music than that in A?da and Falstaff. Much of the flow and beauty throughout his compositions must, of course, be accounted for by the inability of any Italian son of art to compose else but luscious melody, while the life and gaiety, together with that irresistible "go" which so distinguish Verdi's tunes and colourings, may have borrowed their genesis out of the lively times and good humour that prevailed at that earliest home-the inn.

The unsophisticated Italian loves music much as a lark loves liberty, and it is not in Italy, as it used to be here, regarded as degrading to aspire to being a virtuoso. No other occupation is so natural to the son of the South as music, and although Italians are keen business people when they once taste commercial success-even if it be of ice-cream born-yet they make better musicians. Verdi senior did not press his son into the service of Orpheus, and no steps appear to have been taken towards forcing the offspring into becoming a manipulator of chords and cadences. Young Verdi enjoyed a perfectly natural child-life, playing with children indoors and out of doors until he was old enough to be sent to school. He was no forced exotic.

There is a feature sometimes attaching to the lives of great mu

sicians which, happily, in the case of Verdi does not require to be put forward. He proved no wonder-child or prodigy who-adroitly boomed-made the round of Europe with advantage financially and corresponding disadvantage musically. From the outset his career has been perfectly legitimate, and free from episodes or situations partaking of the supernatural-no circumstances presenting themselves to impede his quiet progress along the artistic way which he seems to have been content to travel.

What will he become? This is the question, pregnant with blissful uncertainty, which nearly every decent parent has to ask himself of a young hopeful. Doubtless Verdi senior applied the interrogatory to himself respecting Giuseppe, but it has not transpired that the subject of the inquiry furnished much solution to the problem, beyond the fact that he was always overcome when he heard street-organ music. No sooner did an organ-grinder appear in Roncole, with his instrument, than young Verdi became an attentive auditor, following the itinerant musician from door to door until fetched away. This was the first hint he gave of musical aptitude, and probably no one would have predicted that he would one day furnish melodies, almost without end, for these instruments of torture in each quarter of the globe. One particular favourite with little Verdi was a tottering violinist known as Bagasset, who used to play the fiddle much to the little fellow's delight. This obscure musician urged the osteria-keeper to make a musician of his son, and is said to have received many favours from the son since he became famous. The old itinerant, very grateful, used to exclaim, "Ah! maestro, I saw you when you were very little; but now--!"

The Verdi who was to create such streams of sparkling melody, and need an Act of Parliament[3] to stop them, was a quiet thoughtful little fellow as a child, possessing none of that boisterous element common to boys. That serious expression seen in the composer's face, the first impression that a glance at any of his present-day portraits would convey, was there when a child. Intelligent, reserved, and quiet, everybody loved him.

Perhaps it was this good and melancholy temperament that attracted the attention of the parish priest, and which led to Verdi's receiving the appointment of acolyte at the village church of Le Roncole. He was now seven years old, and it was in connection with his office as "server" that we are introduced to the first episode, a really dramatic one, in his career. One day the ecclesiastic was celebrating the Mass with young Verdi as his assistant, but the boy, instead of following the service attentively with the priest, which no acolyte ever does, got so carried away by the music that flowed from the organ that he forgot all else. "Water," whispered the priest to the acolyte, who did not respond; and, concluding that his request was not heard, the celebrant repeated the word "water." Still there was no response, when, turning round, he found the server gazing in wonderment at the organ! "Water," demanded the priest for the third time, at the same moment accompanying the order with such a violent and well-directed movement of the foot, that little Verdi was pitched headlong down the altar steps. In falling he struck his head, and had to be carried in an unconscious state to the vestry. A somewhat forcible music lesson!

Possibly it was this incident, and the child's unbounded delight at the organ music which he heard in the street, that set the father thinking of his son's musical possibilities, for at about this time, 1820, the innkeeper of Roncole added a spinet or pianoforte to his worldly possessions. This indispensable item of household belongings was purchased for the especial benefit of the boy-child, thus pointing to some indications of budding musical aptness on his part. More soon followed! Young Verdi went to the instrument at all hours, early and late, playing scales and discovering chords and harmonious combinations. Sometimes he would forget or lose one of his favourite chords, and then there was an outburst of genuine native passion that stood in strange contrast to his usual quiet demeanour. A story goes that once, when he was labouring under one of these fits of temper, he seized a hammer and commenced belabouring the keyboard. The noise attracted the attention of his father, who stemmed his son's impetuosity with a sound box on the ears, which stopped the craze for pianoforte butchering. On the whole, however, every one was pleased with the little fellow's devotion to the instrument, and one friend went so far even as to repair it for him gratuitously, when it wanted new jacks, leathers, and pedals, which it soon did, owing to the boy's phenomenal wear and tear of the instrument. This spinet remained one of Verdi's most treasured possessions. It was stored at the villa at St. Agata, and no doubt has often recalled to the veteran's mind moments and feelings of his childhood. Inside it is an inscription, a testimonial creditable alike to the application of the little musician as also to the goodness of the generous local tradesman, who, conscious, perhaps, of a future greatness for the child, had become one of his admirers. It runs: "I, Stephen Cavaletti, added these hammers (or jacks) anew, supplied them with leather, and fitted the pedals. These, together with the hammers, I give as a present for the industry which the boy Giuseppe Verdi evinces for learning to play the instrument; this is of itself reward enough to me for my trouble. Anno Domini 1821."

It was when he was about eight years of age that little Verdi's education became a subject for active consideration. His parents' deliberations ended in the resolve to send him to a school in Busseto. By virtue of an acquaintance with one Pugnatta, a cobbler, the future composer of the Trovatore and Falstaff was boarded, lodged, and tutored at the principal academical institution in Busseto, all at the not extravagant charge of threepence per diem! How this was managed history relateth not. Young Verdi's receptive faculties did not need to be severely extended, therefore, to spell "quits" to padre Verdi's generosity in the matter of letters and "keep" for Giuseppe. After events abundantly prove that the little harmonist was not slothful in grappling the mysteries of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Whether, added to a fair knowledge of the three Rs, he, like most boys, made an acquaintance with another R, of pliable and impressive properties, is not known.

Concurrently with the scholastic training, Verdi's father provided some regular musical instruction for his son. The local organist of, and the greatest authority upon music in, Roncole was one Baistrocchi, and to him young Verdi was entrusted for the first training in music that he received. The terms for the music lessons were not extravagant, and were requited by a system of Dr. and Cr. account at the inn. Nevertheless, the instruction imparted was sound and solid, young Verdi proving smart at music. The measure of the musical merits of Baistrocchi has not transpired, and the world is uninformed as to whether he knew much, or little, musically; but whatever store of harmonious erudition was possessed by him he poured into his young charge. At the end of twelve months Baistrocchi felt bound to confess that Verdi knew all that he had to teach him. Thus, either the teacher had an unusually small store of information to impart, or the student possessed an abnormal appetite for musical learning.

[1] Rossini used to be styled the "Swan of Pesaro," but in his old age he laughed at this compliment, and endorsed a Mass which he had composed as the work of "the old Ape of Pesaro," thus parodying the "swan" or cigno sobriquet which had been given him.

[2] There is in existence another Certificate of this musician's birth. This is in the Registry of the état Civile of the Commune of Busseto for the year 1813, and is written in French, Italy being at the time under French rule.

[3] Mr. Michael T. Bass, M.P., "Bill for the Better Regulation of Street Music in the Metropolitan Police District."

Antonio Barezzi

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