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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 11618

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

In 1872 the Khédive of Egypt, an oriental ruler, whose love of western art and civilization has since tangled him in economic meshes to escape from which has cost him his independence, produced a new opera with barbaric splendor of appointments, at Grand Cairo. The spacious theatre blazed with fantastic dresses and showy uniforms, and the curtain rose on a drama which gave a glimpse to the Arabs, Copts, and Francs present of the life and religion, the loves and hates of ancient Pharaonic times, set to music by the most celebrated of living Italian composers.

That an eastern prince should have commissioned Giuseppe Verdi to write "Aida" for him, in his desire to emulate western sovereigns as a patron of art, is an interesting fact, but not wonderful or significant.

The opera itself was freighted, however, with peculiar significance as an artistic work, far surpassing that of the circumstances which gave it origin, or which saw its first production in the mysterious land of the Nile and Sphinx.

Originally a pupil, thoroughly imbued with the method and spirit of Rossini, though never lacking in original quality, Verdi as a young man shared the suffrages of admiring audiences with Donizetti and Bellini. Even when he diverged widely from his parent stem and took rank as the representative of the melodramatic school of music, he remained true to the instincts of his Italian training.

The remarkable fact is that Verdi, at the age of fifty-eight, when it might have been safely assumed that his theories and preferences were finally crystallized, produced an opera in which he clasped hands with the German enthusiast, who preached an art system radically opposed to his own and lashed with scathing satire the whole musical cult of the Italian race.

In "Aida" and the "Manzoni Mass," written in 1873, Verdi, the leader among living Italian composers, practically conceded that, in the long, bitterly fought battle between Teuton and Italian in music, the former was the victor. In the opera we find a new departure, which, if not embodying all the philosophy of the "new school," is stamped with its salient traits, viz.: The subordination of all the individual effects to the perfection and symmetry of the whole; a lavish demand on all the sister arts to contribute their rich gifts to the heightening of the illusion; a tendency to enrich the harmonic value in the choruses, the concerted pieces, and the instrumentation, to the great sacrifice of the solo pieces; the use of the heroic and mythical element as a theme.

Verdi, the subject of this interesting revolution, has filled a very brilliant place in modern musical art, and his career has been in some ways as picturesque as his music.

Verdi's parents were literally hewers of wood and drawers of water, earning their bread, after the manner of Italian peasants, at a small settlement called La Roncali, near Busseto, where the future composer was born on October 9, 1814.

His earliest recollections were with the little village church, where the little Giuseppe listened with delight to the church organ, for, as with all great musicians, his fondness for music showed itself at a very early age. The elder Verdi, though very poor, gratified the child's love of music when he was about eight by buying a small spinet, and placing him under the instruction of Provesi, a teacher in Busseto. The boy entered on his studies with ardor, and made more rapid progress than the slender facilities which were allowed him would ordinarily justify.

An event soon occurred which was destined to wield a lasting influence on his destiny. He one day heard a skillful performance on a fine piano, while passing by one of the better houses of Busseto. From that time a constant fascination drew him to the house; for day after day he lingered and seemed unwilling to go away lest he should perchance lose some of the enchanting sounds which so enraptured him. The owner of the premises was a rich merchant, one Antonio Barezzi, a cultivated and high-minded man, and a passionate lover of music withal. 'Twas his daughter whose playing gave the young Verdi such pleasure.

Signor Barezzi had often seen the lingering and absorbed lad, who stood as if in a dream, oblivious to all that passed around him in the practical work-a-day world. So one day he accosted him pleasantly and inquired why he came so constantly and stayed so long doing nothing.

"I play the piano a little," said the boy, "and I like to come here and listen to the fine playing in your house."

"Oh! if that is the case, come in with me that you may enjoy it more at your ease, and hereafter you are welcome to do so whenever you feel inclined."

It may be imagined the delighted boy did not refuse the kind invitation, and the acquaintance soon ripened into intimacy, for the rich merchant learned to regard the bright young musician with much affection, which it is needless to say was warmly returned. Verdi was untiring in study and spent the early years of his youth in humble quiet, in the midst of those beauties of nature which have so powerful an influence in molding great susceptibilities. At his seventeenth year he had acquired as much musical knowledge as could be acquired at a place like Busseto, and he became anxious to go to Milan to continue his studies. The poverty of his family precluding any assistance from this quarter, he was obliged to find help from an eleemosynary fund then existing in his native town. This was an institution called the Monte di Pietà, which offered yearly to four young men the sum of twenty-five lire a month each, in order to help them to an education; and Verdi, making an application and sustained by the influence of his friend the rich merchant, was one of the four whose good fortune

it was to be selected.

The allowance thus obtained with some assistance from Barezzi enabled the ambitious young musician to go to Milan, carrying with him some of his compositions. When he presented himself for examination at the conservatory, he was made to play on the piano, and his compositions examined. The result fell on his hopes like a thunder-bolt. The pedantic and narrow-minded examiners not only scoffed at the state of his musical knowledge, but told him he was incapable of becoming a musician. To weaker souls this would have been a terrible discouragement, but to his ardor and self-confidence it was only a challenge. Barezzi had equal confidence in the abilities of his protégé, and warmly encouraged him to work and hope. Verdi engaged an excellent private teacher and pursued his studies with unflagging energy, denying himself all but the barest necessities, and going sometimes without sufficient food.

A stroke of fortune now fell in his way; the place of organist fell vacant at the Busseto church, and Verdi was appointed to fill it. He returned home, and was soon afterward married to the daughter of the benefactor to whom he owed so much. He continued to apply himself with great diligence to the study of his art, and completed an opera early in 1839. He succeeded in arranging for the production of this work, "L'Oberto, Conte de San Bonifacio," at La Scala, Milan; but it excited little comment and was soon forgotten, like the scores of other shallow or immature compositions so prolifically produced in Italy.

The impresario, Merelli, believed in the young composer though, for he thought he discovered signs of genius. So he gave him a contract to write three operas, one of which was to be an opera buffa, and to be ready in the following autumn. With hopeful spirits Verdi set to work on the opera, but that year of 1840 was to be one of great trouble and trial. Hardly had he set to work all afire with eagerness and hope, when he was seized with severe illness. His recovery was followed by the successive sickening of his two children, who died, a terrible blow to the father's fond heart. Fate had the crowning stroke though still to give, for the young mother, agonized by this loss, was seized with a fatal inflammation of the brain. Thus within a brief period Verdi was bereft of all the sweet consolations of home, and his life became a burden to him. Under these conditions he was to write a comic opera, full of sparkle, gayety, and humor. Can we wonder that his work was a failure? The public came to be amused by bright, joyous music, for it was nothing to them that the composer's heart was dead with grief at his afflictions. The audience hissed "Un Giorno di Regno," for it proved a funereal attempt at mirth. So Verdi sought to annul the contract. To this the impresario replied: "So be it, if you wish; but, whenever you want to write again on the same terms, you will find me ready."

To tell the truth, the composer was discouraged by his want of success, and wholly broken down by his numerous trials. He now withdrew from all society, and, having hired a small room in an out-of-the-way part of Milan, passed most of his time in reading the worst books that could be found, rarely going out, unless occasionally in the evening, never giving his attention to study of any kind, and never touching the piano. Such was his life from October, 1840, to January, 1841. One evening, early in the new year, while out walking, he chanced to meet Merelli, who took him by the arm; and, as they sauntered toward the theatre, the impresario told him that he was in great trouble, Nicolai, who was to write an opera for him, having refused to accept a libretto entitled "Nabucco."

To this Verdi replied:

"I am glad to be able to relieve you of your difficulty. Don't you remember the libretto of 'Il Proscritto,' which you procured for me, and for which I have never composed the music? Give that to Nicolai in place of 'Nabucco.'"

Merelli thanked him for his kind offer, and, as they reached the theatre, asked him to go in, that they might ascertain whether the manuscript of "Il Proscritto" was really there. It was at length found, and Verdi was on the point of leaving, when Merelli slipped into his pocket the book of "Nabucco," asking him to look it over. For want of something to do, he took up the drama the next morning and read it through, realizing how truly grand it was in conception. But, as a lover forces himself to feign indifference to his coquettish innamorata, so he, disregarding his inclinations, returned the manuscript to Merelli that same day.

"Well?" said Merelli, inquiringly.

"Musicabilissimo!" he replied; "full of dramatic power and telling situations!"

"Take it home with you, then, and write the music for it."

Verdi declared that he did not wish to compose, but the worthy impresario forced the manuscript on him, and persisted that he should undertake the work. The composer returned home with the libretto, but threw it on one side without looking at it, and for the next five months continued his reading of bad romances and yellow-covered novels.

The impulse of work soon came again, however. One beautiful June day the manuscript met his eye, while looking listlessly over some old papers. He read one scene and was struck by its beauty. The instinct of musical creation rushed over him with irresistible force; he seated himself at the piano, so long silent, and began composing the music. The ice was broken. Verdi soon entered into the spirit of the work, and in three months "Nabucco" was entirely completed. Merelli gladly accepted it, and it was performed at La Scala in the spring of 1842. As a result Verdi was besieged with petitions for new works from every impresario in Italy.

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