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Verdi: Man and Musician By Frederick James Crowest Characters: 12535

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Verdi goes into the world-Office-boy in Barezzi's establishment-Congenial surroundings-An exceptional employer-Verdi becomes a pupil of Provesi-A painstaking copyist-Verdi wanted for a priest-Latin elements-Appointed organist of Roncole-A record salary-Barezzi's encouragement of Verdi's tastes-Father Seletti and Verdi's organ-playing-Provesi's status and friendship towards Verdi-Milan training for Verdi-Refused at the Conservatoire-Experience and training needed-Study under Vincenzo Lavigna of La Scala-Death of Provesi, and assumption of his Busseto duties by Verdi.

When ten years of age, Verdi went into the world. Could the parent have foreseen the future that lay in store for his boy, he might have given him a little more learning, and have risked being a little the poorer. He saw nothing, however. His child had been to school, and could read, write, and add figures-an ample education for the son of a poor locandiere! Beside which the parents at no time entertained any greater musical ambition than that their boy might, one day, become organist of the village church!

When the industrious parent used to trudge from Roncole to Busseto to replenish the "general" department of his business, it was to purchase from the wholesale grocer's store which, as we have seen, was presided over by Antonio Barezzi. It was a flourishing concern, and its owner was a fairly rich man. What was worth more than his money, however, was a good disposition and kindliness which endeared him to his traders. Verdi senior was an especially welcome visitor. With him the storekeeper gossiped, the conversation turning betimes upon the little fellow at home and his budding musical tendencies. Music and culture, it should be stated, were dear to Barezzi, and had placed him at the head of everything musical in Busseto. Thus he was President of the local Philharmonic Society, for which he held open house for rehearsals and meetings. Barezzi's instrumental ability was considerable, and he could perform on the flute, clarionet, French horn, and ophicleide.

As luck would have it, young Verdi was to be thrown into the service of this Barezzi. In the course of their gossipings, innkeeper had hinted to merchant that the son would have to be bestirring himself; and Barezzi, having a vacancy for an office-boy, offered to try Giuseppe. The matter was speedily arranged, and the boy soon proved that he could make himself useful to Barezzi-merchant in spirits, drugs, drysaltery, and spices.

The average business man views a predilection for music, or indeed for any art study, as fatal to duty and discipline. Not so Barezzi. He encouraged the musical proclivities of the office-boy, and, as we shall discover, most generously and materially assisted him towards an inevitable artist career. In time he began to regard Verdi as one of his family, and allowed him the use of the pianoforte.

Let us see what happened. Without neglecting his daily duties in the office, young Verdi availed himself of every moment of spare time to add to his musical knowledge and practice. He seldom missed an opportunity of attending the rehearsals held in Barezzi's house, or the public concerts given by the Philharmonic Society under the conductorship of Giovanni Provesi, organist and bandmaster of the duomo of Busseto. In return Verdi copied the instrumental parts for the various performers, working at "string" and "brass" parts with a neatness and accuracy that quite won the hearts of those who had to play therefrom. Some people would declare such copying to be inconceivable drudgery, but young Verdi relished the excellent insight into orchestration which such practice afforded him. Provesi, on his part, was so pleased that he gave the lad some gratuitous instruction, of which Verdi took such advantage that at the end of two or three years the master frankly owned, like Baistrocchi, that the pupil knew as much as he himself did.

No wonder that Provesi, struck with the lad's musical promise, one day advised him to think of music as a profession. It so happened, however, that the lad just then was dangerously near to becoming a knight of the cowl instead of the baton. The priests had got hold of him, and one ecclesiastic, Seletti by name, had commenced to teach him the Latin tongue, with the view, some day, of making a priest of him! Thus Verdi might have been for ever meditating in the cloister, instead of ministering to great demands, choreographic and otherwise, of a modern lyric drama stage! "What do you want to study music for?" said the priest, at the same time backing up the query with the not very comforting nor accurately prophetic warning that he would "never become organist of Busseto"-a position which he did subsequently fill. "You have a gift for Latin, and must be a priest," was the confessor's parting shot.

Now the organist of Roncole died, creating a vacancy. Officialism and bumbledom, usually connected with organ elections, did not operate here. All concerned were agreed that, although young, the son of townsman Verdi was musically and morally fitted for the post, and he was thereto appointed. The salary was not overpowering, the exact payment being £1:12s. yearly! Thus the parents' wish was gratified, for their little son was duly appointed in Baistrocchi's stead, and from his eleventh to his eighteenth year Verdi performed his duties in the dusty old organ-loft at Roncole, supplementing his salary with small fees for such additional services as baptisms, marriages, and funerals. Every Sunday and Feast-day he trudged on foot from Busseto to Roncole to perform his duties. Sometimes it was scarcely daybreak, and on one of these excursions he fell into a ditch, and would assuredly have been drowned, or frozen to death, save for the timely aid of a peasant woman, who had heard his groans.

How long Verdi remained in the employ of Barezzi has not transpired, but important subsequent events prove that he retained the friendship and esteem of the merchant long after being released of the tedium of bills and quantities calculations. He continued to receive musical training from Provesi until he was sixteen years of age, and it is not improbable that his generous employer, observing the musica

l inclinations of his clerk, allowed him to drift naturally into a harmonious haven. A story told of the young musician this while is ominous. It came to pass that Father Seletti, who would have the born-opera-composer a monk, was officiating at mass on an occasion when Verdi happened to be deputizing at the Busseto organ. Struck with the unusually beautiful organ music, the priest at the close of the service expressed a desire to see the organist. Behold his amazement on discovering his scholar whom he had been seeking to estrange from harmony to theology! "Whose music were you playing?" inquired Seletti. "It was beautiful." Verdi, feeling shy, informed the priest that he had brought no music with him, and had been improvising. "So I played as I felt," he added. "Ah!" exclaimed Seletti, "I advised you wrongly. You must be no priest, but a musician."

Provesi had an extensive musical practice in and around Busseto, to which he gradually introduced Verdi. More and more frequently he deputized for Provesi, and the sight must have been worth seeing, of the diminutive organist, fifteen years old, on the high seat in the great organ-loft in the dim cathedral of Busseto-all unconscious, as every one else was, of the great future before him. When, from advancing years, Provesi resigned the conductorship of the Philharmonic Society of the town, Verdi was unanimously selected for the vacancy. His chief delight was to compose pieces for the Society and to perform them. These early compositions are preserved among the archives of Busseto.

The master musician is not an easily moulded quantity. He has first to traverse the whole surface of musical science; even then, Nature may have denied to him those gifts of colour and glow which are the wings of music, and lacking which, he may remain for ever a mathematical musical machine, too many of whom, loaded with academical degrees and distinctions, and the consequent array of scholastic millinery, have been given to the world.

Verdi's ambition was to become a successful opera composer, but ere he could succeed, there were branches of study which could only be mastered in an establishment such as the Conservatoire at Milan. To it Verdi's friends, notably Provesi (who prophesied that one day Verdi would become a great master), urged him to go. There was one undeniable obstacle-the money! This difficulty was, however, eventually overcome. One of the Busseto institutions was the "Monte de Pieta," which granted premiums to assist promising students in prosecuting their studies. Verdi's petition was sent up, and with the wheels of benevolent machinery turning, as usual, slowly, the decision was long delayed. At this crisis stepped in Barezzi, grocer and gentleman, as he proved, who agreed to advance the money, pending the decision of the institution. This enabled Verdi to turn his face towards Milan. He did not forget the kindness, but returned Barezzi the money, in full, from the first savings he was able to make from his art.

It is a grim commentary upon the usual way of managing the things of this life, to witness a man who has made melody for the whole world for now over half a century being refused an entrance scholarship at the training institution of his own land! It is a fact, nevertheless, that Verdi was actually denied admittance to the Conservatoire di Musica of Milan, on the ground of his showing no special aptitude for music! Yet the world goes on, gaping and wondering at its monotonous mediocrity, while seven-eighths of its energy is being exhausted in repairing the consequences of the genius of its blunderers, who somehow are generally and everywhere in power, and rampant. Chiefly from shame, the rejection of Verdi at the Conservatoire has been industriously excused, but the mistake shall always stand to the discredit of Francesco Basili, the then Principal. Men like Verdi-men of metal-may be hindered, but are rarely defeated by obstacles, or long-refused justice. Verdi had fixed his heart and eyes on a mark which he has never left, and in this respect, if in no other, he is a model for every earnest struggling student.

Verdi had now to look elsewhere for that training which he had hoped to obtain at Milan. "Think no more about the Conservatoire," said his friend Rolla to him. "Choose a master in the town; I recommend Lavigna."

Vincenzo Lavigna was an excellent musician, and conductor at the theatre of La Scala. To him, accordingly, Verdi went for practical stage experience and familiarity with dramatic art principles. This was in 1831, when the pupil was eighteen years old. Lavigna could not have desired a more exemplary pupil than Verdi was, and the master lost no time before taking his charge into the broad expanse of practical theatre work. All the drudgery of harmony, counterpoint and composition generally, had been learned and committed to heart long before; it was practice and experience in the higher grades of planning and spacing libretti, and the scoring of scenas and concerted numbers for operas, that Verdi needed. This Lavigna could and did give him. Verdi, on his part, showed such aptitude for dramatic composition that Lavigna was greatly pleased. "He is a fine fellow," said Lavigna to Signor Barezzi, who had called to inquire as to the progress of his protégé; "Giuseppe is prudent, studious, and intelligent, and some day will do honour to myself and to our country."

The death, in 1833, of Provesi, the guiding musical spirit of Busseto, meant another episode in Verdi's career. By the conditions of the loan from the trustees of the "Monte di Pieta" of Busseto, he was to return home from Milan to take up Provesi's duties. Such a heritage of work, including the post of organist at the duomo, the conductorship of the Musical Society of Busseto, much private teaching, etc., kept Verdi well employed; but it did not deter him from a regular and assiduous prosecution of his operatic studies. He worked with an almost unbounded will and pride in Busseto. Why? Because there was present there a power which fired him with enthusiasm and ambition; otherwise the call from Milan might have been a difficult step for him to take; one word, however, will explain all-Verdi was in love!

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