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Verdi: Man and Musician By Frederick James Crowest Characters: 22681

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Origin of Opera-Melody in music-The first opera, Dafne-Monteverde's advances-Early opera orchestration-Gluck's reformed style in Orfeo and Alceste-A complete structure-Verdi's starting point-Wagner's methods-Verdi's early operas-Don Carlos and an altered style-Its reception-A Third, or matured period method-Its characteristics-A?da, Otello, and Falstaff-Verdi's disciples-Opera as a social need past and present-Its reasonable decline-Verdi's ultimate position-His lasting works.

To perfectly understand Verdi it is necessary to know something of the origin and development of opera, both as a form and an institution.

The Italian school of music had been a power since 1480-1520, when Pope Julian II. invited Belgian, or Netherlands school, musicians to Italy to take charge of its musical affairs. The first distinguished Italian master was Festa (d. 1545), remarkable for that grace and melody which have ever characterised the Italian school. Palestrina (1514-1594), Magister puerorum at St. Peter's, Rome, followed, and then came the awakening of opera. It was natural that this life should spring from Italy. The sky above, and the earth beneath, constituted a rare cradle of art. Melody in music is paramount; technically it forms the wings that give flight to every movement; without it, music would be a helpless mass, unendurable to consider. Once present, melody carries all before it. This was a perfectly natural growth in Italy, more so than it has ever been found to be in any other country, for the national life, habits, language, and physical conditions all favoured an expression of the mind in the melodically beautiful. In opera, melody was ever the great essential feature in the eyes of the Italians, and although there have been struggles to dislodge, or depose it, the evening of Verdi's career-the culminating point in the history of Italian Opera-furnishes the convincing proof that tune still remains the predominant factor in successful dramatic construction and realisation; for what would be the value of A?da, Otello, and Falstaff, if they had not melody?

Musical authorities accept Dafne, produced in 1594, as the first actual opera. It was the work of a few Florentine literati, who had banded together as a society, with the aim to revive the ancient Greek dramatic style-in fact to restore the theatre of ?schylus and Sophocles. It had words by Rinuccini and music by Peri. The feature of this dramatic-musical novelty was its musica-parlante-a species of monody, or declamation, claimed to be à la Grec. Out of this grew "recitative"-so important an element in vocal music that it is difficult to imagine how the art could exist without it. Song, tune, or melody, whichever name we apply to it, might be, and probably would have been, dispensed with, if all the notions and novelties of the Wagner cult had taken effect; but, recitative must always stand as a connecting link between the chorus and other concerted pieces in the opera.

The orchestral accompaniments to Dafne consisted of a harpsichord, chittarone-which was a sort of guitar-a lyre, and a lute. This meant a scanty orchestra compared with the vast instrumental resources adopted by Meyerbeer, Wagner, and by Verdi himself. When the second opera, Euridice, was produced-this was at Florence in 1600-it contained, for the first time, all the constituents wanting in opera, viz. recitative, air, chorus, and a hidden orchestra.

Opera proper was, therefore, purely an Italian product, which, with all its defects and inadmissibilities, has held its ground for three centuries. If, too, during this long period it has seemed as little more than a luxurious form of amusement for quality people in England, it must be remembered that the great middle class here have tasted it, while the student and amateur have considered and digested the musical stage-play, and found it invested with a noble influence and character that could scarcely fail to elevate, where the ordinary drama might lower the public taste and morals. In Italy the opera is as much the necessary food of the common people as of the aristocracy.

Monteverde (1566-1650) stamped a second period in opera. He invested recitative with greater strength and freedom, and astonished contemporary purists with his audacious orchestral designs. In his Orfeo, produced in 1603, Monteverde incorporated every known instrument, viz. two harpsichords, two lyres, ten violas, three bass violas, two violins, flute, clarions, trombones, guitars or chittaroni, and the organ.

It is easy to realise the almost boundless possibilities of music when it comes to be recognised and manipulated as a medium of expression or impression; while many readers will be familiar with the almost superhuman achievements of the great tone-poets in handling the resources of music to this end-the end and aim of all music worthy the name. It was that prince of Italian harmonists, Monteverde, who took opera to the borders of that almost limitless field, where the great melodists and colourists took it up, making a permanent life art-form and a speaking body from the otherwise lifeless art materials.

Scarlatti (1659-1725) impressed the aria or principal song, from which time melody began to receive that attention which led finally to its being the principal constituent in Italian opera. Lotti, Caldara, Gasparini, Jommelli, Porporo, and Buononcini, who followed, all gave prominence to the soloists at the cost of the chorus and other concerted pieces, thus leading steadily up to the great scenas which Verdi created.

Gluck (1714-1787) came with a regenerating mission. A century and a half's growth of opera in Italy had reduced it to a mere exhibition of singing, and to restore it to something of an embodiment of all the arts-architecture, painting, poetry, music, and dancing-was Gluck's mission. His reformed style, as given in Orfeo (1762), and later in Alceste (1767), certainly justified his demand for reform, and will always entitle him to be called "the saviour of opera." His influence bore more upon the French opera than the Italian, however, and it was left to his great contemporary Piccini (1728-1800) to bring the old Italian model up to the date of Gluck's new style. To this end he effected improvements in the arias, duets, and vocal pieces, curtailed the repeats, employed several themes instead of one for his finali, all of which tended to put a new complexion on Italian opera. Then arose Spontini (1784-1851), who advanced the dramatic side of opera; Rossini (1792-1868), insisting upon larger choruses and the strengthening of the wind and brass department of the orchestra; with, finally, Donizetti (1797-1848), and Bellini (1802-1835), whose melodic exuberance simply embarrassed and vitiated Italian opera.

Such, briefly, is the story of the rise and development of Italian opera, which, thanks to the labours of his great predecessors, was a reasonably complete art-form long before Verdi scored his first operatic success with Nabucco, albeit it had not many characteristics which it now has. The First period Verdi had no great need to improve, or add to, the structure of opera; what was before him chiefly was the work of embellishing and highly colouring the edifice of dramatic musical art (though we know he did immeasurably more)-a labour for which his rare sense of colour and combination peculiarly fitted him.

Verdi's starting point was where Rossini, Mercadante, Donizetti, and Bellini had left Italian opera; and, but for circumstances quite outside himself, he might have gone on writing operas of the Ernani, I Lombardi, and Il Trovatore type, leaving his later grander efforts, his chefs d'?uvre, unwritten. But a great object appeared suddenly in the musical firmament. Wagner (1813-1883), with his train of fads and fancies, swept across the horizon, leaving unmistakable traces of his passage. At first, content with the old traditional opera-with which he might have done wonders-this vast genius set about advancing and propagating unusual ideas concerning operatic usage and creation. The established forms and systems were chiefly attacked.

In Italian opera, music and melody were the prime considerations. Under the Wagnerian teaching, the full and right dramatic exposition became the chief aim. This unquestionably involved a subserviency of the beautiful in music. With Wagner the dramatic language is the most essential part of the work. In the music of the Meistersinger, for instance, he "fitted music to the thought expressed in language so imperceptibly that the latter is the dominant element." In Tristan und Isolde is the clear divorce from traditional form. Declamation, supported by music expressing the meaning of the words, displaces all the old-time operatic methods-dramatic ensembles, recitative alternated with song, closed and half closed forms, etc. This was a return to the long deceased monody of Peri and Monteverde, and in absolute contradistinction to all that the great Italian, German, and French music masters had done. Other and minor notions, such as the leit motif (the kiss theme), the ever-recurring phrases that were constructed in order to be identified with this or that character, distinguished the Wagnerian style-a style which it is necessary for the student of Verdi to be able to recognise, because, as we have seen, Verdi is alleged to have been largely influenced by Wagner, although most certainly he was not.

Verdi has written in all some thirty operas, which throughout are largely imbued with characteristics of his country's opera music. This is particularly a feature in such First period works as Nabucco, I Lombardi, Ernani, I Due Foscari, and Luisa Miller. In the Second period operas, Rigoletto, La Traviata, Il Trovatore, and Un Ballo in Maschera, are traces of outside influence, Meyerbeer, Auber, and Halévy being descernible despite the composer's natural abundance of graceful melody and charming na?veté; an unmistakable art-struggle suggestive of a transition process was, as we have seen, revealed in Simon Boccanegra. Verdi could not but have been aware that Weber and Spohr were investing German national opera with that romanticism which must always be its distinguishing feature. He felt impelled to give more character to, and to get more place for, his own country's opera; he set about imbuing it, therefore, with a stronger emotional element-an excess of that desperate passion characteristic of the southern temperament. Verdi's immediate predecessors, Rossini and others, had never left the accepted path of song after song of luxuriant warmth, suited to the whims and vocal abilities of this or that singer; but Verdi was to revolutionise all this. The chorus-concerted music generally-and grand finales were no longer to suffer in order to obtain a preponderance of songs to appease the vanity of the singers who sang them. His first attempt to do so was an utter failure!

It was not until Les Vêpres Siciliennes and Don Carlos that we see a determined détour from the accepted Italian lyric-drama lines. Don Carlos was modelled after the style of French Grand opera as formed by Rossini and Donizetti, and became Verdi-cum-Meyerbeer. The result was a failure and a sorry mixture-something of a musical salad, the ingredien

ts of which formed "a poor concoction calculated to derange the strongest musical digestion." The unadulterated Verdi, with the old familiar bel canto, was far better than the adulterated one. Those scenes where the established art-forms had been deserted in order to give vent to orchestral painting or new combinations were unanimously declared to be the failings of the operas.

With the important operas which have adorned the later years of Verdi's life-his Third period works-the master has undoubtedly presented his grandest aspect. A?da, Otello, and Falstaff are a tremendous art advance upon anything that Verdi had accomplished before. These are operas which will keep Italian opera alive, if that effete institution can be preserved by mortal means. In these compositions Verdi reasserts himself, and awakes to an altogether new and vaster sense of what his country's opera should be, as well as what he himself could make it. Familiarised as the public had been with Tannh?user and Lohengrin, it expected, in fresh works for the stage, a more logical and dramatic consistency. Any new Italian opera required merit as a drama, and needed to be something more than a series of pretty tunes. A?da was the full enunciation of Verdi's new principles. In this work were discarded such orthodox processes as the splitting up of the acts into recitatives, which meant a gain in dramatic action and continuity in the play. The old-fashioned forms, the aria d'entratà, the cabaletta, and canzonetta, were discontinued for less continued melody, piecemeal tunes, lending quite a different aspect to the complete work. The interest in the declamatory music considerably increased, and all was so welded together that a much more satisfactory and entertaining whole was the result. The orchestration was decidedly new for Verdi, partaking, as it did, of the gorgeous Meyerbeer rather than the Wagner character. There was much picture-painting both in the abstract and the concrete. The evident intent was to paint or colour instrumentally; to illustrate the text orchestrally, and to impart not only geographical, but local, personal colour. This was essentially what the world was pleased to call "Wagnerian"-hence the outcry and the allegation that Verdi had turned "Wagnerite." The fact was, that since writing Don Carlos, Les Vêpres Siciliennes, and La Forza del Destino, Verdi had become more "Germanised," although the term must not be taken to imply that he was less the Italian, or any the more a copyist or impressionist. His state was owing not to Wagner's nor to Meyerbeer's influence and model any more than to Weber's, but to the ambition of the master himself. If Meyerbeer could employ the orchestra slavishly and make it so important and successful a feature in the Franco-German operatic ensemble, why should not he, Verdi, do as much for Italian art?

Otello was yet a further emphasis. When first heard in London, musical minds immediately perceived not only a remarkable work for a composer full of years, but also an opera which fully confirmed the tactics advanced in A?da. Another opera had brought forth another demonstration of the composer's remarkable dramatic powers, ever developing in each successive opera. Otello was, unquestionably, worthy to rank with A?da; and performance after performance has proved this.

As a second example of Verdi's new conceptions respecting Italian national opera it contained much declamation, and consequently less of that purposely lavish and luxuriant melody, for which Verdi amongst all his contemporaries is most famous. Of so-called Wagnerian influence there was little or none. The leit motif and other fads credited to the Bayreuth master, though not wholly his, are conspicuous by their absence. Otello stood simply a thoroughly "up-to-date" Italian opera, a species of modern lyric drama by a great master who had seen musical changes going on about him, and had not disregarded them. It was natural that the Wagner cry should reach Verdi's ears; it was natural that the Italian master should give the world a taste of how far the new "gospel" had impressed him. Ever abreast of the times, Verdi saw a deeper and broadening meaning overtaking the lyric drama; and, reserving to himself the right to speak as he perceived, he published A?da. This language he again laid down in Otello, a splendid outcome of latter-day genius. The same may be said of Falstaff. It completes a triad of masterpieces which ought to breathe new life into the Anglo-Italian lyric drama, if so be the decrees of fashion, and not a dearth of operatic talent and novelty, have not already administered the death-blow to that relic of the good old times.

It is not difficult, even if it be premature, to deliberate upon Verdi's probable place in, and influence upon, musical art. His labours, exemplified in such dramatic-music masterpieces as A?da, Otello, and Falstaff, prove incontestably that perfected Italian opera, of such workmanship as these operas, crowning the later years of their great composer's life, can be, and is, a more refined art-production than either the most advanced or the least extravagant of the operatic models championed by Wagner, or any other reformer of the lyric drama.

Verdi has a young Italian school of imitators-Boito, Cortesi, Ponchielli, Marchetti, Faccio, Pedrotti, Pinsuti, Mascagni, and others. Can it be urged that these can, or will, take up opera as left by Verdi? Is Italy training a school of young composers capable of carrying on Verdi's work? The answer cannot be given in the affirmative. Verdi is declared to have said, "I can die in peace now that Mascagni has produced his opera." For our part, however, we remain dubious; moreover Verdi never made such a remark.

The issue of the whole matter turns upon quite another pivot. Verdi's labours, achievements, and successes are unquestioned; but it is the point of the vitality of the institution-the opera-house here-which forms the doubtful feature. Fifty years ago this luxurious appendage of fashionable and not always well-behaved society was a necessity. Then there was no Club-land, and the place for meeting everybody who was anybody was the opera-house. Its "omnibus" box was crowded with "blood," who came not to listen to the opera, but to yawn and chatter. Then was the opera-house the resort and rendezvous of the élite of rank and fashion, when an enterprising impresario was justified in burdening himself with the unenviable task of steering the difficult craft, assisted as he was by willing subscribers, most of whom could be depended upon to, and did, pay ample subscriptions beforehand. Such is not the case now. All is changed in London.

Nowadays society uses the opera fitfully, and not from a sense of necessity; attending it when so disposed, and leaving the burden of "ways and means" upon the manager bold enough to embark upon the perilous enterprise. The march of time has altered the opera as it has altered everything else, save the weather and the seasons. The three-volume novel is out of fashion with publishers; the principles of Christianity are being preached and practised more and more outside the churches built for the exposition of such principles; and among other vast changes, opera is fast declining in England and elsewhere. When our gracious Queen was young, an able critic and laudator temporis acti, lamenting the then condition of opera in general, and welcoming Verdi to England, wrote-"A better state of things is, however, we trust, approaching. The appearance of a composer of so much originality of genius as Verdi heralds, it may be hoped, that of a new and more ambitious school, whose masters will not be satisfied with tickling the ear and pleasing the fancy, but will seek for the more permanent and legitimate sources of effect."[80]

Nowadays people care little or nothing for the opera compared with the old-times feelings. They are indifferent as to whether it stands or falls. It is not thought worth while to abuse or blame a composer, as Verdi was long journalistically treated after he came here. There are no choreographic triumphs now. Such ballets as Giselle and Diane, with stars of the ballet like Taglioni, Grisi, and Cerito, have disappeared from the opera stage for ever. A vast change has come over operatic matters for the worse, and now that the legitimate drama is established, and the "Variety" entertainment has caught on at the music halls, the slow continued decline of Italian opera may reasonably, if regretfully, be expected.

But of Verdi, apart from this unhappy prospect? Some of his early works, like those of other composers, are getting out of date and declining in popularity. Rarely is one of his First period works given in England now; while of his Second period operas not one, according to certain critics, will long hold ground. The Trovatore, the music of which has traversed every known region of the globe, and would be taken up by the masses again save for the attractions of the music halls, is already relegated by ambitious critics to the "retired list," and responsible censors describe La Traviata as that "sickly opera,"[81] never omitting to note the falling off in the attendance when it and other purely Italian school operas are performed.[82] Occasionally, however, they undoubtedly serve a purpose, as when brought forward as the late Mr. Mapleson gave La Traviata at Her Majesty's Theatre (in the 1887 season), with Madame Patti in the title r?le, and prices were trebled. It is fairly safe to predict that Verdi's First and Second, or traditional period operas will all go in time, but they possess such melodic vitality that it would not be safe to say how soon. Many generations may yet hear them.

Verdi's Third period works, A?da, Otello, and Falstaff, change the argument. They are the greatest and grandest specimens ever contributed to the répertoire of Italian opera. In them Verdi has reached the perfection of his art as he knows it, and has brought the musical drama to a point which cannot consistently be passed. It is doubtful whether another Italian composer will ever be found to extend the national opera as left by Verdi in these matured period works-compositions which, everything considered, are more satisfactory, and probably more permanent, because more reasonable, than any musical drama that has emanated from the modern German school. These Third period works, by the illustrious Italian, will last so long as there is a dramatic lyric stage, whether this be in England or abroad.

Verdi must ever be remembered for the extravagant ear-taking melodies of his early operas, which have amply justified their existence; but he will best live musically by his Third period operas and his Requiem Mass. These compositions must always furnish a glorious summit to Verdi's pinnacle of musical fame. At the same time it will be, we predict, many a long day before the last is heard of Il Trovatore and Rigoletto.

[80] Illustrated London News, 5th July 1845.

[81] Athen?um, 26th May 1888.

[82] "The curious falling off of public interest in works of the purely Italian school was again exemplified on Thursday last week when Rigoletto was given, the audience being much smaller than usual."-Athen?um, 15th June 1889.

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