October 2003 --The following anecdote, although probably apocryphal, goes to the heart of Giuseppe Verdi's music: When he was finishing Il Trovatore, Verdi was visited by a famous critic, and the composer solicited his opinion on some of the opera's numbers. "What do you think of this?" Verdi asked, playing the "Anvil Chorus."
"Trash," said the critic.
"What about this?" asked Verdi, offering him the "Miserere."
"And this?" Verdi asked of the tenor's aria "Di quella pira."
Verdi got up and embraced the man. "My friend, I have been writing a popular opera. If you liked this music, no one else would. Your distaste assures me of success."
If the exchange actually happened, it involved no cynicism on Verdi's part. In the nineteenth century, Italians attended the opera to enjoy a work of music, not to gape at experiments in compositional craftsmanship. Verdi (1813-1901) thoroughly embraced that Italian tradition, even as he employed his craftsmanship to enrich it. While writing tunes as memorable as any produced during the bel canto era (1810-1848), Verdi sought to heighten the impact of his songs by integrating them into coherent and continuous music dramas, ones in which fully realized human beings expressed fully intelligible emotions.
To ground his music dramas, Verdi insisted on better and better libretti, drawing on such highly Romantic authors as Schiller, Hugo, Byron, Dumas fils, and, of course, Shakespeare, the last of whom he used for Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff, as well as the projected but never completed King Lear and Hamlet. And though, inevitably, his librettists diminished the work of these masters, Verdi's music restored their characters to full height. As Harold Schonberg wrote in The Lives of the Great Composers: "His interest is in the expression of human passion in song, to which all else is subordinated; and through that medium he creates a musical structure of sensuous beauty and emotional power, . . . with an appeal so profound, so elemental, that it can hardly be conveyed or even intelligibly discussed in any other language than that of music itself."
This article was originally published in the October 2003 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.