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Verdi: Man and Musician By Frederick James Crowest Characters: 22520

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

A born politician-Attempt to draw Verdi-The revolutionary ring of Verdi's music-Signor Basevi on this feature-National and political honours and distinctions-An inactive senator-England's neglect-The composer's nature and character-Bluntness of speech-A dissatisfied auditor-Verdi's alleged parsimony-Verdi and the curate-The gossips and his fortune-Life at St. Agata villa-An "eighty-two" word-portrait-Verdi's old-age vigour-Love of flowers-His hobby at the Genoa palazzo-Independence of character.

Had Verdi not been a musician, he would probably have proved an ardent, daring politician. Italy would be loving and honouring him to-day for his political principles and amor patri?, not less admiringly, not less fervently, than she now regards him for his vast harmonious gifts. As it was, he persistently declined to meddle with the tapes and wires of State matters. An attempt to draw Verdi politically was made in the spring of 1894, during the rehearsal of Falstaff in Paris. One of the singers put out a "feeler." "Don't, for goodness' sake," he answered, "talk to me about politics. I have never paid any attention to them, and I am not likely to do so at my time of life; I have quite enough to do with my music." We have seen how his countrymen made him their political idol, and would assuredly have him know that they were looking to him as a deliverer from the Austrian yoke, even though he spoke through a medium that is usually resorted to for peaceful, rather than for revolutionary ends. The temper of his music was just to their liking, and Verdi took no pains to hide his sympathy with his countrymen under their yoke of foreign overlordship, albeit the success of opera after opera turned upon his peace with the authorities.

In the chorus, "O mia patria, si bella e perduta," chanted by Hebrew slaves in I Lombardi, the Milanese saw a reflection of their own wretchedness. Purposely did Verdi write ardent exciting melodies. They had power to, and did move the populace; and if at times they seem commonplace, and even vulgar, they were thoroughly suited to the singers, auditors, and conditions with which he had to deal. Thus Verdi was an enlisted chief, an instrument, in the fortunes of the House of Savoy. V E R D I spelt the name of the composer. The capitals stood for the initials of "Victor Emmanuel, Ré d'Italia." How the impatient Lombardians seized hold of what seemed to them to be an inspired coincidence! Under cover of the name Verdi, avowedly their musical god, they could shout for Italian liberty and independence, right into the ears of Austrian spies and sentinels. "Viva Verdi! Viva Verdi!" from the mouths of the populace meant not only a tribute to the patriotic musician whom they idolised, but was another way of demanding Victor Emmanuel in lieu of the Archduke Francis. If the police interfered with the patriots, it was their beloved musician that had so moved them, and for whom they were shouting! "The streets," says a chronicler, referring to the time, "were filled with placards in white, red, and green, the Italian colours: VERDI in such big letters that nothing else was visible on the posters."[68]

Thus was Verdi, the musician and patriot, entwined inseparably round the hearts of his countrymen, to the lasting advantage of both, at a time when Italy stood in great need of the support and succour of all her sons.

In the eyes of Verdi the national liberty was a thing to be accomplished, and if he did not shoulder the rifle in the struggles of 1859 and 1860, which, beginning with the freeing of Lombardy, ended in a free and united Italy, the clarion he sounded was so certain that no one would mistake its intent. Directly he began to sing, the inflammatory ring of his music arrested and stirred the Venetians. Rossini may well have dubbed Verdi "le musicien qui a un casque" (the musician with a helmet). The first signs were detected in Nabucco, then in I Lombardi,[69] and with Ernani there was a further outburst of the musical liberator's mind. The highest pitch of enthusiasm followed his ardent strains, and scarcely a performance of the Ernani went by without political demonstration. Attila fired a further desire for liberty. The feelings of the Venetians-still clamouring for independence -when they heard the air, "Cara patria, già madre e regina," knew no bounds, and for a while the performance could not proceed. At the verse, "Avrai tu L'universo vesti L'Italia me!" the whole audience, seized with frenzy, shouted with one voice, "A noi!" "L'Italia a noi!" Then when Palma, the Spanish tenor, sang his air, "La patria tradita," in Macbeth, the people were so reminded of the foreign despotism they were suffering from that they became uproarious, and the Austrian Grenadiers had to be called in. La Battaglia di Legnano was purposely pitched in an aggressive key. Signor Basevi has said-"From 1849 onwards, during ten years of national strife and protests, Verdi carried on politics in music, as we have all done in literature and humour. He carried on politics in music because, perhaps, without himself being conscious of it, he drew from the restlessness and tumult of his soul a kind of music which responded precisely to the restlessness and tumult of our minds; but when these tumults, these spasms burst forth, then he no longer sought for subjects of the present day to render extrinsic in action the sentiments which he had divined so marvellously when they were shut up in the mind of the public for whom he wrote."[70]

Not alone were the eyes of Italy fixed upon Verdi. He was the recipient of honours and marks of esteem which were far from confined to his own land. As a member of the National Assembly of Parma, to which the citizens of Busseto elected him in 1859, he voted for the annexation of the duchy to Sardinia. The French nation made him Corresponding Member of the Académie des Beaux Arts in the same year. In 1861 Verdi was elected a Deputy of the Italian Parliament. Cavour wanted to see in the first national parliament the real blood and sinew of the country-the men who, as he said, "had helped to make Italy, whether in literature, art, or science." The composer hesitated, and at last yielded to the statesman's entreaty; but he only attended a meeting or two, for, as he said, he loved and preferred retirement to political excitement. In the year 1862 Verdi was decorated with the Grand Cross of the Russian Order of St. Stanislaus, of the Paris Académie des Beaux Arts, being head of the poll with twenty-three votes. His own country has honoured him. Knowing how much Verdi had at heart the musical keeping of his country, the Italian Minister of Public Instruction, in 1871, selected him to visit Florence, to assume the post offered him for the improvement and reorganisation of the Italian Musical Institute. Then his sovereign recognised him. In 1872 he was created a Grand Officer of the Order of the Crown of Italy, and in the same year the Khedive of Egypt conferred on him the Order of Osmanie. The offer of the title of Marquis of Busseto was made to him after the production of Falstaff, but he declined it, preferring to remain plain Signor Verdi.

Following this recognition, Victor Emmanuel (by a decree dated 22nd November 1874) created him a Senator of the Italian Kingdom. The musician attended in due course to take the customary oath of office; but beyond this solitary occasion he attended no meeting of that solemn body. The honour was not a useless one, however, for one day an enterprising entrepreneur was found announcing A?da as the work of Maestro Senatore Verdi, thinking evidently of his political as well as of his musical status. With the year 1875 further honours were bestowed upon the illustrious composer. He was decorated with the Cross of Commander, and Star, of the Austrian Order of Franz Joseph; and, being already a member of the Legion of Honour, he was in May of this same year nominated a Commander of the Legion. The Italian Minister at Paris was charged to present him with the insignia of the Order, accompanied by a flattering letter from the Duke Decazes. Many and various other honours have fallen upon Verdi. When Otello was first performed in Paris, for instance, the President of the Republic (M. Casimir-Périer), before the beginning of the second act, invested the composer with the Grand Cordon of the Legion of Honour. Only England has done nothing. Good old insular England, that can distinguish and single out successful pickle-makers and milliners, but cannot find an honour to bestow on many a worthy and wondrous slave to Art and Science!

Many and many have been the less public attentions which Verdi has received at the hands of his fellow-countrymen. An early mark of recognition was the presentation by Prince Poniatowski of a gold laurel crown each leaf of which was inscribed with the title of one of his works. This was upon the occasion of the performance of Macbeth at Florence. When A?da was first performed, the artists presented the composer with an ivory sceptre ornamented with a star of diamonds; the title A?da was set in rubies, whilst Verdi, worked in precious stones, stood out on a branch of laurel. A further memento fell to the composer when A?da was given at the Paris Opéra. Delegates from the Italian colony waited upon the distinguished musician and handed him a crown of pure gold designed of laurel branches, the whole resting on a velvet cushioned stand, suitably inscribed. The Parisians placed a fine bust of the composer in the Grand Opéra foyer. It was by Danton, who had already made some capital out of the composer by caricaturing him at the keys of the piano, with a lion's mane and claws.

We venture the opinion that no better presentment of the famous composer's features than the full-length portrait at the opening of this volume has ever been given to English people. It is thoroughly characteristic of the man to-day. His face is fairly familiar to most of us. We all remember his thoughtful countenance and well-shaped head, with its finely-chiselled features, and dark eyes full of the fire of genius, the whole set off with a liberal gift of hair on the head and face. The slender build and highly-strung temperament at once arrest the eye; nor can we fail to be attracted by the tidily-attired exterior of the master. Verdi is best seen under the ordeal of some operatic triumph. Then through all the excitement he remains what he is-a quiet, calm, modest gentleman, one of those intellectual giants who scorn to trade upon their greatness.

Verdi is a man of deep human sympathy. The loss of his first wife and his children shrouded him in a sad mood, which he cannot throw off, and the peculiarly gloomy and tragic nature of many of his operas has been attributed to his domestic afflictions. Again, when the great poet and distinguished author of I Promessi Sposi died, Verdi was quite overcome. Only when he had poured forth his Requiem to his dead friend's honoured memory, did he feel that his tribute of affection towards Manzoni had been at all adequately made. Verdi's goodness of heart is seen in his treatment of his favourite librettist Francesco Piave, when dire misfortune befell him. The man w

ho had written the libretti of I Due Foscari, Macbeth, Il Corsaro, Stiffelio, Rigoletto, Traviata, Simon Boccanegra, and La Forza del Destino, was one day discovered unhinged in body and mind, unfit for every place save the lunatic asylum. Finding his patient poet thus afflicted, Verdi settled a pension on him for life, and quieted the poor fellow's mind by undertaking the charge of an only child and providing for her welfare. Nothing weak marks Verdi's character; on the contrary, he, like most good musicians, has a firm will, rather prone at times to be susceptible and suspicious. One day, during the rehearsal of Les Vêpres Siciliennes in Paris, the maestro received a slight from the members of the orchestra, who did not relish the pains which Verdi was taking to secure his points. Upon explaining to the chef d'orchestre, the next attempt was a plain annoyance; whereupon the master seized his hat, and did not appear again at the theatre! Stories of his bluntness of speech are plentiful. At a rehearsal of Falstaff at Milan, the singers and musicians gave him an ovation when he entered the Opera-house. In response he said, "I thank you all; but will thank you more if you do better in your performance than last time." When La Traviata was a failure at Venice, Varesi, the baritone, and other interpreters of the work, thinking to console Verdi, paid him their condolences; but he only exclaimed, "Make them to yourself and your companions, who have not grasped my music." Withal, the master can enter into the spirit of a joke. When the A?da was produced at Milan in 1872, a certain person named Bertoni went from a neighbouring village to hear it; his outing, including supper, cost him fifteen francs ninety centimes. He happened not to like the opera. However, the next day, on finding it praised on all sides, he resolved to give it another trial. Accordingly, when it was again performed, he went for a second time to hear it, spent twenty francs, and was more dissatisfied than ever. Full of anger, he wrote to Verdi, telling him that the opera was a failure, doomed to early oblivion, and asking for the return of thirty-five francs ninety centimes, which sum, he alleged, he had wasted on going to hear it! Verdi was not offended. He sided with the aggrieved one. Taking a pen in hand, he authorised his publisher to send Signor Bertoni thirty-one francs fifty centimes, adding, "It is not quite as much as the gentleman demands, but I think he could have had his supper at home!" The composer made the stipulation, too, that the melomaniac should not again attend the representations of the composer's works at his expense, except upon his written order. Quite natural too!

He has a great love for his fellow-men, especially the poor people. Thus he often creates work on his estate in the shape of quite unnecessary alterations and buildings, chiefly to give occupation to the poor people. One day the inevitable organ-grinder struck up the strains of Il Trovatore within hearing of his studio. Carducci, the Tennyson of Italy, was with him, and seemed irritated. "How do you like it?" said he. "Let him go on-it pleases me; and besides, we must all live somehow," was the reply.

Verdi has been charged with being mean, but the above anecdotes do not tell against him; nor indeed does his long and unbroken association with his music publishers (the famous house of Ricordi) show that Verdi has been asking impossible prices for his works. Naturally he fixes his figure with his publisher; but with a bargain once struck the matter ends. As a point of fact the maestro is a very benevolent man, who often sends gifts of money anonymously to those in distress and poverty. But he has a great dislike to his gifts being made public.

Numerous philanthropic works, and in particular the hospital at Busseto, owe their existence to Verdi. Thereof an anecdote is told. The hospital is directed by the Mayor of the Commune. One day he went to Verdi to complain of the curate, who, as chaplain of the hospital, took advantage of his position to meddle with all the affairs of the administration. The curate was of a certain age, and very despotic; and the Mayor, in order to get rid of him, asked Verdi what he should do. The maestro grew tired of the long details produced by the Mayor in support of his complaint, suddenly cut him short, and said, "The curate is charged with the confession of the patients, and their burial when they die. If he interferes with anything else, kick him out of doors."

A signed photograph of Giulio Ricordi

The inscription reads

"All' Egregio Signor Crowest / Giulio Ricordi"

The gossips have been busy with the disposition of Verdi's supposed enormous fortune. The following is a sample of many tales that have been the round of the European press: "Verdi is credited with the intention of doing something both handsome and original with the fortune which he has accumulated during his lifetime.... Verdi has no son, and he does not recognise any obligation to enrich any distant relations that he may possess. He therefore directs that the ten million lire which he will leave behind him shall be employed in making happy those who helped him to earn them-namely, musicians and lyric artists. A magnificent palace is to be built in his grounds, and this is to form the home of any Italian musicians and singers who may find themselves in straitened circumstances at the close of their career."

In the summer of 1849 Verdi bought the villa St. Agata, some two miles from Busseto, which ever since has remained his favourite residence. The house is well off the high road, concealed from view by large trees and shrubs-a condition which probably favoured the operations of the "crack and jemmy knights," who a year or two back succeeded in burglariously disturbing the peaceful harmony of the composer's home. Adjoining are all the appurtenances of a country gentleman's estate. Some years after the loss of his first wife and children Verdi married Madame Strepponi, who happily is to-day spared to the master. Most of the year is passed at St. Agata, the winter months being spent at Genoa, where the climate is more genial.

Certain reports have credited Verdi with living the life of a recluse, whose only companions are two enormous Pyrenean hounds, while days are said to be spent by the master in his studio, which is shut off from the castle, and from which room Verdi is credited with emerging only for the purpose of obtaining sleep. No one, the wild reports went, was admitted save those who came by special invitation; so that often a distinguished personage would make his way to the guarded stronghold only to be met by the information that there was no admission. Naturally shy and reserved, Verdi has ever studiously avoided the public stare, and repeatedly, when he has been petitioned to visit this or that town, he has firmly but respectfully declined, especially when he has foreseen that no purpose was to be served beyond that of honour to himself. The artistic temperament, especially in a great musician, differs from that of the city man and merchant, and precludes him from living ostentatiously, often vulgarly, or keeping so-called open house. All his close artist acquaintances, and many a musical stranger, have been visitors or guests at either the luxurious villa St. Agata or the Genoa Palazzo Doria, and there are many living who could testify to the charm and hospitality of the composer at home.

One of the best word-portraits of Verdi was drawn by the Paris correspondent of The Globe in 1894, at the time when the maestro was presiding over the rehearsals of his Otello, which was to be produced at the Grand Opéra:-"Verdi, in spite of his great age," the sketch ran-"he is now close on eighty-two-has preserved, both as a man and as a composer, the ardour and warmth of his youth. He is reproached with being short-tempered, and even violent; thus it is that, in spite of his well-known kindness, it is not always easy to get on with him. He wears his white hair and beard long. His features are a little hard, but remarkably intelligent. His customary attitude is that of meditation. He walks with his head bent down, and with long and measured steps. Few persons have seen him smile, much less laugh. It is said he has never been able to console himself for the loss of his two sons (son and daughter), who died in the same year as their mother. Neither fortune nor glory has sufficed to make him forget his terrible bereavements."

The secret of Verdi's wonderfully maintained vitality is the old mens sana in corpore sano principle. He is an early riser, and after his cup of black coffee, the early morning finds him about his garden or farm. Flowers form his favourite hobby. Behind the old palazzo at Genoa is a terrace with a large garden, beyond which may be seen the fine expanse of the Gulf of Genoa. This garden is Verdi's care; but that the attentions of its gardener are often unequal to the energy of Nature may easily be discerned. Sometimes the lines of pots of camellias and geraniums on the terrace present rather a dried-up and neglected appearance. But no one must meddle with them. It is Verdi's special duty to tend and water these, although they are evidently often disregarded. No one dare tamper with these flowers, and if a visitor appropriates a blossom unasked, it annoys Verdi considerably. Yet never is the musician prouder, or more the grand man, than when presenting any particular visitor with one of his horticultural specimens. He rides almost daily, and composes a little each day. Then he lives sparingly, and is most abstemious, taking, after the Italian fashion, more cheese and eggs than meat. Verdi cares little for music in his home, and seldom visits the opera save for business purposes. "At St. Agata," he wrote to Filippi, the Italian critic, "we neither make nor talk about music; you will run the risk of finding a piano not only out of tune, but very likely without strings." To talk "shop" in Verdi's hearing is objectionable to him, and no act of indiscretion could be greater than the one of begging a musical question or discussion. His chief indoor amusement is a game of cards or billiards with his wife and relations. All reading he leaves until the evening, and this partakes mostly of poetry and philosophy.

All through life Verdi has been a God-fearing man. Pandering to nobody, he has maintained a perfectly independent, straightforward method. Nor has he countenanced any but honest dealings; while to place himself in the hands of his artists, great or small, has been quite beyond him. He has demanded only the best efforts of his workers. Thus on the eve of the production of A?da he wrote to a friend: "I wish nothing more than a good, and, above all, intelligent vocal and instrumental execution and mise en scène. As to the rest, à la grace de Dieu; for thus I began, and thus I wish to finish my career."

[68] Life of Verdi (Roosevelt), p. 33.

[69] The chorus, "O Signore dal tetto natio," from I Lombardi, being sung in the streets of Venice and Milan, fomented the first demonstration against Austrian rule.

[70] Verdi (Pougin-Matthew), p. 123.

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