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Verdi: Man and Musician By Frederick James Crowest Characters: 25087

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Verdi is engaged to Margarita Barezzi-His marriage-Seeks a wider field in Milan-An emergency conductor-Conductor of the Milan Philharmonic Society-His first opera, Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio-Terms for production-Its success-A triple commission-A woman's sacrifice-Clouds-Death of his wife and children-Un Giorno di Regno produced-A failure-Verdi disgusted with music-Destroys Merelli contract-The Nabucco libretto forced on Verdi-Induced to set the book-Production of Nabucco with success-Opposition from the critics-Mr. Lumley gives Nabucco in London-Its performance and reception.

When Verdi took the office stool in Barezzi's counting-house, there was little reason to suppose that he would get much beyond it; but he was to become something more than an employé. He was often invited to join the family circle, and so became acquainted with the eldest daughter, Margarita-a girl of beautiful disposition, with whom Verdi fell violently in love. The young lady returned his affection, and Signor Barezzi, with his usual kindly feeling towards Verdi, not opposing the engagement-albeit Verdi was extremely poor-the young people were married in 1836. Upon this occasion all Busseto turned out en fête.

Now had Verdi every incentive to work, for his young wife bore him a son and a daughter within two years of their marriage, and he longed for an operatic success that would add to his slender income. The prospect of a large family, and no means to support it with, was a painful piece of mathematics, the solution of which depended entirely upon himself. Alas! could he but have foreseen his almost immediate release from such love chains!

While thus musing, the fire kindled. Verdi made up his mind to relinquish working in Busseto and try his fortune in Milan. Accordingly, in 1838, he, with his wife and children, set out for that musical centre, carrying their belongings with them, and with his stock-in-trade-a score of a musical melodrama entitled Oberto, Conte di S. Bonifacio-under his arm. This composition was his first attempt at a complete opera. Every pain had been taken with the score; and not only was each note Verdi's own, but the full score, and all the vocal and instrumental parts, had been copied out with his own hand. What labour! and yet the hard (we might say thick) headed man rejoices in the belief that musicians, big and little, are a lazy lot!

None too speedily, an opening presented itself at the Milan Philharmonic Society. Haydn's Creation was to be given, and the conductor had failed to put in an appearance. Suddenly Verdi was espied, whereupon Masini, a director, approached and begged him to take the conductorship that evening. In those days conducting was managed, not with a baton and a rostrum, but from the pianoforte in the orchestra, and Masini considerately informed Verdi that if he would play the bass part merely, even that would be sufficient! Verdi acquiesced, and, amid starings and titterings, made for the conductor's seat and score. "I shall never forget," Verdi has said, "the sort of sarcastic approval that crossed the faces of the knowing ones. My young, thin, and shabbily-attired person was little calculated, perhaps, to inspire confidence." Yet Verdi astonished everybody. He gave not only the bass line, but the whole of the pianoforte part, bringing the performance to a successful termination. Not from that night need he have been without an appointment as a musical conductor; indeed, it was shortly afterwards that the conductorship of the Milan Philharmonic Society was offered to, and accepted by Verdi.

Possessed almost by the demon of the stage, Verdi sorely wanted a trial for his opera. To obtain a first hearing then, however, meant the surmounting of considerable obstacles. The avenues of art were not open as they now are-when a season is made up almost wholly of "first nights," and when wealthy or well-backed aspirants can have, not only their own theatres, but their own critics, and even their own newspapers and audiences. Such is money! Eventually Verdi got what he wanted. Oberto, Conte di S. Bonifacio was to be produced at La Scala theatre in the spring of 1839; but even this arrangement was put off because a singer fell ill. Sick at heart, Verdi was retreating to Busseto, when the impresario of La Scala sent for him unexpectedly. Signor Bartolomeo Merelli had heard from the singers who had been studying Oberto respecting the uncommon quality of its music, and the opinions of the vocalists Signora Strepponi and Signor Ronconi were not to be lightly regarded. The outcome of the interview was an agreement by which Verdi's opera was to be put upon the stage during the next season at Merelli's expense-Verdi in the meanwhile making certain alterations in the score, chiefly because of a change of artists from those for whom it was originally written. Merelli was to divide with Verdi any sum for which the score might be sold, in the event of the opera proving a success. He jumped at the offer, for in those days the fashion was for impresarii to demand, and to receive, large sums from unknown composers wishing to have their operas brought forward. Tempora mutantur. Nowadays the difficulty with managers is to find the talent! Oberto was duly produced on the 17th November 1839, the principal singers being Mesdames Raineri-Marini, and Alfred Shaw, while Signori Salvi and Marini filled the tenor and bass parts respectively. The opera saw several representations, and a further proof of its merit is seen in the fact that music-publisher Ricordi gave Verdi two thousand Austrian liri, or about £70 sterling, for the copyright of the work.

Verdi's next experience was a commission. Shortly after the production of Oberto, impresario Merelli, who "ran" the Milan and Vienna opera-houses, approached Verdi respecting the composition of three operas-one every eight months, for the sum of £134 for each opera, with an equal division of any amount arising from the sale of the copyrights.

This contract came opportunely, for Verdi was on the verge of appealing to his father-in-law for a £10 loan wherewith to pay rent overdue for his modest apartment. Now, Merelli was asked to make an advance, "on account," but he would not. Weak and dispirited after a long illness, Verdi was greatly distressed at the thought of failing to meet his rent. Here, however, came man's blessed balm when desperate moments face him-in the womanly unselfishness of a brave wife. Seeing her husband's anxiety, Signora Verdi collected her trinkets, went out and raised money upon them, bringing it all to Verdi. "How she managed it," related Verdi afterwards, "I know not; but such an act of affection went to my heart. I resolved not to rest until I had got back every article, and restored it to the dear one."

Cloud and sunshine, these are the alternating portions of the mortal's lot. No sooner did Verdi begin to feel easier at the prospect of earning some four hundred pounds by these three operas than his home was suddenly darkened. With the swiftness of a rushing avalanche all that was brightest in his home was swept away. Ere he could realise it, he had lost his wife, son, and daughter. Verdi tells the terrible story as only the sufferer himself can. "My bambino (little boy) fell ill early in April (1840), and the doctors failing to discover the mischief, the poor little fellow got weaker and weaker, and passed away finally in the arms of his mother. She was heart-broken. Immediately our little daughter was seized with an illness which also terminated fatally. This was not all. At the beginning of June my dear wife was cast down with brain fever, until, on the 19th, a third corpse was borne from my house. Alone! alone! In a little over two months three coffins, all that I loved and cherished most on earth, were taken from me. I had no longer a family!"

Here was room for grief. What a situation for one tied by an agreement to compose a comic opera, the score of which was already overdue! It was impossible. Yet bills were flowing in, and to meet these Verdi must, despite all terrible anguish, fulfil his engagement. He did. Among the libretti which Merelli had submitted was one renamed Un Giorno di Regno. This Verdi set to music. It was produced at La Scala Theatre on the 5th September following his wife's death, and was a failure. No wonder that Verdi desponded, and begged of Merelli that he would cancel the agreement, which he did, tearing the document to pieces. Verdi's resolute intention was never to compose another note! Ah! By some force of fate Verdi, many weeks afterwards, quite by accident, stumbled across Merelli, and although the composer was still obdurate, ere the two parted a libretto by Solera was forced into Verdi's coat-pocket, upon the chance, as Merelli put it, of his looking at and being tempted to set the book.

Strange to say, this "Nebuchadnezzar" libretto took hold of Verdi. Arriving home, the composer tossed the manuscript on to the table. It opened of itself at a truly felicitous passage, "Fly, O thought, on golden wings," which so interested Verdi that he read on. Finally, the whole poem was in his mind, and so disturbed his rest that he determined to return the book next day to Merelli. The impresario would not have it, and told him to take the libretto away and keep it until he could find the will to set it.

Nabucco was replete with beautiful passages, which, one by one, were set by Verdi, until, in the autumn of 1841, the entire opera was finished. Two stipulations Verdi now insisted upon. Signora Strepponi and Signor Ronconi were to sing in Nabucco, and the work was to be produced during the Carnival time. Merelli declared he could not manage the scenery in the time; but Verdi would not hear of waiting for new scenery, and consenting to risk the production with whatever chance canvas the resources of the theatre supplied, Nabucco found its way into La Scala bills for the 1842 season.

The opera was given on 9th March, and both Signora Strepponi and Signor Ronconi sang in it.

"With this score," subsequently related Verdi to Signor Giulio Ricordi, "my musical career really began. With all impediments and difficulties Nabucco was undoubtedly born under a lucky star. All that might have been against it proved in its favour. It is a wonder that Merelli did not send me and my opera to the devil, after the furious letter which I sent him. The second-hand costumes, made to look equal to new, were splendid, while the old scenery, renovated by Perrani, might have been painted for the occasion."

Nabucco took everybody by surprise. It was a species of melodic vein and choral combination that the Milanese dilettanti had never before heard; such instrumentation, too; such novel and impressive effects were not within the memory of the oldest habitué of La Scala. The Italians could not resist its peculiar "carrying-along" power. The work was unanimously declared the true ideal of what a tragic musical drama should be. Little wonder that during its rehearsals the workmen stopped to listen to the music of the new piece. Many years afterwards, in his success, Verdi referred to this incident in sympathetic words:--

"Ah!" said Verdi, "the people have always been my best friends, from the very beginning. It was a handful of carpenters who gave me my first real assurance of success."

I scented a story, and asked for details.

"It was after I had dragged on in poverty and disappointment for a long time in Busseto, and had been laughed at by all the publishers, and shown to the door by all the impresarios. I had lost all real confidence and courage, but through sheer obstinacy I succeeded in getting commonly contracted in Italy-rehearsed at the Scala in Milan. The artistes were singing as badly as they knew how, and the orchestra seemed bent only on drowning the noise of the workmen who were busy making alterations in the building. Presently the chorus began to sing, as carelessly as before, the 'Va, pensiero,' but before they had got through half a dozen bars the theatre was as still as a church. The men had left off their work one by one, and there they were sitting about on the ladders and scaffolding, listening! When the number was finished, they broke out into the noisiest applause I have ever heard, crying 'Bravo, bravo, viva il maestro!' and beating on the woodwork with their tools. Then I knew what the future had in store for me."[4]

Some idea of the novel character of the Nabucco

music may be gathered from the discovery that the usual chorus of La Scala was adjudged too small to give effect to it. Merelli, apprised of this, would not hear of increasing the staff because of the expense. Then a friend volunteered the extra cost. "No, no!" thundered in Verdi. "The chorus must be increased. It is indispensable. I will pay the extra singers myself." And he did! The success of Nabucco was remarkable. No such "first night" had marked La Scala for many years, the occupants of the stalls and pit rising to their feet out of sheer enthusiasm when they first heard the music. "I hoped for a success," said Verdi; "but such a success-never!"

The next day all Italy talked of Verdi. Donizetti, whose melodious wealth had swayed the Italians, as it subsequently did the English, was among the astonished ones. He had deferred a journey in order to hear Nabucco, and was so impressed by it, that nought but the expressions; "It's fine! Uncommonly fine!" could be heard escaping his lips. With Nabucco the impressionable Italians were agreeably warned that a master-mind was amongst them.

Verdi sold the score of Nabucco to Ricordi for 3000 Austrian liri, or £102, of which, by the terms of the contract, Merelli the impresario was to share one half. He generously returned Verdi 1000 liri.

In the year 1846 Nabucco was brought to London. Mr. Benjamin Lumley elected to open the season with it. Her Majesty's theatre had been newly painted and embellished, and all London was on the tiptoe of excitement at the prospect of the inauguration of the new salle. No more striking novelty than Nabucco could have been selected, perhaps, since the work had already become popular on the Continent, and had in some places created a furore. The English public, it should be stated, already knew Verdi through Ernani, which opera, as the reader will learn later on, had been performed in London the previous year, and had startled the susceptibilities of our critics. The object in presenting this Nabucco by Verdi was to afford the public an opportunity of a further judgment upon the ear-arresting composer of Ernani. In obedience to a prevalent sentiment precluding the slightest connection of a Biblical subject with stage representation, Nabucco had to be rechristened. It received the alias "Nino, Re d'Assyria," and was brought forward.

Margherita Barezzi

"In a popular sense," writes Mr. Lumley, "the opera was a decided success; the choral melodies especially suiting the public taste. The libretto, although faulty in many respects, was dramatic, and afforded scope for fine acting and artistic emotion. Nabucco, in short, floated on the sea of the Anglo-Italian stage where, whilst one current was always rushing towards novelty, another tended to wreck all novelty whatever, in the interests of so-called 'classicism.' Much had been done to place the opera with splendour on the stage, but though it pleased on the whole, no decided success attended the venture of the two new ladies. Sanchioli, wild, vehement, and somewhat coarse, attracted and excited by her 'power, spirit, and fire,' but she failed to charm. As a 'declaiming, passionate vocalist' she created an effect; but the very qualities which had rendered her so popular with an Italian audience, acted somewhat repulsively upon English opera-goers. The lack of refinement in her style was not, in their eyes, redeemed by the merit of energy. The electric impulse that communicated itself to the Italians, fell comparatively powerless on the British temperament. Sanchioli, however, was in many respects the 'right woman in the right place' in this melodramatic opera. The other lady, Mademoiselle Corbari, though destined in after times to please greatly as an altra-prima on the Anglo-Italian stage, and though she was considered from the first charming, even 'fascinating' in her simplicity and grace, was not yet acknowledged as a leading vocalist. The nervousness and inexperience of a novice, which she showed at that stage of her career, somewhat lessened the success due to a sweet voice and feeling style, though the prayer allotted to her character Fenena, was encored nightly. Fornasari pleased those who remained of his old enthusiastic admirers, by his emphatic dramatic action and vigorous declamation, and thus far worked towards the success of Verdi's opera." [5]

The libretto of Nino or Nabucco is based upon the history of the Assyrians and Babylonians at the epoch when these two nations were distinct. Ninus, the son of Belus, the first Assyrian monarch, is engaged in exterminating the Babylonians. He profanes their temple, insults their faith, and finally falls a victim to the vengeance of Isis. He goes mad. His supposed daughter, Abigail, obtains possession of the kingdom, to the exclusion of his lawful heiress, Fenena, who is about to be sacrificed with the Babylonians, whose faith she has embraced, when Ninus, repenting of his evil deeds, recovers his reason in time to save her from death, and the drama winds up with the submission of the proud monarch and his whole court to Isis.

"This opera," wrote a capable critic at the time, "the first by which the young composer achieved his exalted reputation, and which has been received abroad with enthusiasm, is a most remarkable work. It is characterised by merits of the highest order. This is shown in the splendid finale of the first act, commencing with the charming terzettino which has been for some time already a favourite with English dilettanti; the canon preceding the punishment of Nino, in the second act; the duet 'Oh! di qual onta' between the latter and Abigail in the third act, in which the voices are made to combine in the most exquisite manner; the charming chorus, 'Va, pensiero,' flowing and plaintive; and the final prayer 'Terribil Iside,' sung without instrumental accompaniment. These morceaux require to be studied in detail for their beauties to be fully appreciated; but they nevertheless produce, at first hearing, an effect which pieces abounding, as they do, in imagination and remarkable excellence of construction, do not always obtain. They are more highly characteristic. The opening chorus, 'Gli arredi festivi giu cadono infranti,' is severe and characteristic, and altogether peculiar in its construction. The first aria of Orotaspe is very remarkable in point of composition. The first part of the solo of Abigail, which is much admired, did not produce at first hearing any deep impression on ourselves; the second part is very good, and characteristic of the vengeful Amazon. The prayer for soprano at the end of the opera, 'Oh, dischinso e il firmamento,' is a charming little bit of melody. In fine, in the music of the opera the composer has shown himself possessed of all the legitimate sources of success. It bears the stamp of genius and deep thought, and its effect upon the public proved that its merits were appreciated." [6]

This favourable view, however, was far from being endorsed by all the leading critics-inasmuch as it was with Nino that Verdi experienced more of his early and remarkable castigations in the English press.

Henry Fothergill Chorley, English musician, art critic, novelist, verse writer, journalist, dramatist, general writer, traveller, etc., was musical critic of the Athen?um from 1833 to 1871, a period which covers Verdi's career down to the production of A?da, and it is fair to assume, therefore, that the contributions, signed and unsigned, which appeared in the Athen?um were the views and expressions of that gentleman-deceased. James William Davison, English composer and writer (1813-1885), was musical critic of The Times to the day of his death, so that that gentleman, also deceased, may be credited with the emanations respecting Verdi and his doings which appeared in its columns. Now, when Nabucco, in its Anglicised form as Nino, was produced here, the former critic wrote: "Our first hearing of the Nino has done nothing to change our judgment of the limited nature of Signor Verdi's resources.... Signor Verdi is 'nothing if not noisy,' and by perpetually putting his energies in one and the same direction, tempts us, out of contradiction, to long for the sweetest piece of sickliness which Paisiello put forth.... He has hitherto shown no power as a melodist. Neither in Ernani nor in I Lombardi, nor in the work introduced on Tuesday (Nino) is there a single air of which the ear will not lose hold.... The composer's music becomes almost intolerable owing to his immoderate employment of brass instruments, which, to be in any respect sufferable, calls for great compensating force and richness in the stringed quartette.... How long Signor Verdi's reputation will last seems to us very questionable."[7] Of these remarks we would say that Verdi and his reputation both live to-day!

It need hardly be pointed out that the critical faculty in its perspicacity and highest degree are wholly wanting in this criticism. Verdi has shown himself to be a born melodist; his reputation for his melodies has been great and world-wide, even those of such early operas as Ernani and I Lombardi are still with us-to wit, that lovely excerpt "Come poteva un angelo" from the latter work; while the orchestral excessiveness charged to him, thus early, was just the thing for which thirty years later, when A?da was produced, he was by many musical minds declared to be indebted to Wagner, and abused consequently.

The Times criticism on Nino was less despairing. "The melodies" (we were told) "are not remarkable, but the rich instrumentation, and the effective massing of the voices do not fail to produce their impression, and a 'run' for some time may be confidently predicted."[8]

Mr. Lumley revived Nino (Nabucco) towards the close of his memorable and vicissitudinous management. It was during the 1857 season. Mademoiselle Spezia made a decided mark in the part of Abigail, but the object of interest was Signor Corsi, who made his début on the occasion.

"This celebrated singer," Mr. Lumley informs us, "had acquired so high a reputation in Italy as the legitimate successor to Georgio Ronconi, in the execution of lyrical parts of dramatic power, that the liveliest curiosity was excited by his first appearance."[9] Signor Corsi failed, however, to establish his claim to public favour either as a singer or actor. Curiously enough, this same season witnessed the production of the work under the name of Anato by the rival London opera company, under Mr. Gye, at the Lyceum Theatre.

Nowadays we hear little of Nabucco. The world can well afford to go on with one opera the less, even though it be a good one; but fifty years have worked a vast change in operatic values, and, although the revival of Nabucco might not be called for now, it must not be forgotten that, when it first appeared, it was, as an able critic has put it, "almost the only specimen the operatic stage has of late years furnished of a true ideal of the tragic drama."[10]

Much that Nabucco contained demonstrated the fully-trained composer, the scientific musician, and the able contrapuntist. The splendid chorus "Gli arredi festivi," sung by all the voices, and taken up by the basses alone; the charming chorus of virgins, "Gran Nume," beginning pianissimo and swelling up to a glorious burst of harmony; and the grand crescendo chorus Deh! l'empri, these manifested indisputable originality and learning. Other notable numbers proved to be the chorus "Lo vedesti," and the "Il maledetto non ha fratelli" movement; while the canone for five voices, "Suppressau gi'istanti," the scena, "O mia figlia" (which Fornasari was wont to render so feelingly), and the duet "Oh di qual onta aggravesi," are remarkable examples of characteristic musical composition, sure indications of greater artistic triumphs by their author. Among the many orchestral points of Nabucco, the harp accompaniment in the Virgins' chorus, and the employment of the brass instruments in the great crescendos are particularly novel and effective. Little wonder that such a work struck the keynote to Verdi's future greatness.

[4] Dr. Villiers Stanford in The Daily Graphic, 14th January 1893.

[5] Reminiscences of the Opera, p. 145 (Lumley).

[6] Illustrated London News, 14th March 1846.

[7] Athen?um, 7th March 1846.

[8] The Times, 4th March 1846.

[9] Reminiscences of the Opera, p. 416.

[10] Musical Recollections of the last Half-Century (1850 Season), May 31.

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