A Genius and a Gentleman

Letters of Giuseppe Verdi

selected, translated, and edited by Charles Osborne
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 280 pp., $7.95

Giuseppe Verdi
Giuseppe Verdi; drawing by David Levine

A few years before his death Verdi wrote: “Never, never shall I write my memoirs! It’s good enough that the musical world has put up with my notes for so long a time. I shall never condemn it to read my prose.” I don’t think, however, that he would have any objection to our reading this selection of his letters, admirably translated and edited by Charles Osborne. It contains no embarrassing “human” documents, no love letters, for instance. Whether this is because Verdi never wrote any or because Mr. Osborne has had the good taste to omit them, I don’t know. Anyway, I am very glad. There is only one letter that could possibly be called “private and confidential,” Verdi’s reply to his old benefactor, Antonio Barezzi, who had taken him to task for not regularizing his relationship with Giuseppina Strepponi by marrying her.

I have nothing to hide. In my house there lives a lady, free and independent, who, like myself, prefers a solitary life, and who has a fortune capable of satisfying all her needs. Neither I nor she is obliged to account to anyone for our actions. But who knows what our relations are? What affairs? What ties? What rights I have over her or she over me?… I will say this to you, however: in my house she is entitled to as much respect as myself, more even.

As we know, they did finally get married in 1859. All that is puzzling, in view of how obviously well suited to each other they were, is why they did not do so earlier. My guess would be that it was she rather than Verdi who kept putting it off. There is one other piece of information in the letters that leaves me curious. In 1844-45 Verdi came near to a nervous breakdown, suffering severely from psychosomatic headaches and stomach cramps. What can the psychological trouble have been?

As we all recognize, the nineteenth century was the Golden Age of Opera, but I doubt if any of us, whether composers or opera-goers, would have liked to live in it. So far as composers were concerned, they were terribly overworked. It was a common clause in a contract that the finished score of a full-length opera was to be delivered within four months after the composer received the libretto. (Of all the great opera composers of the age, the only one who was not prolific was Bellini, and I have always wondered how this was financially possible for him.)

Then there were problems of copyright. In 1855 the House of Lords decreed that no foreign opera in England would have copyright unless the composer conducted the first performance himself. Then there was censorship. The setting of Ballo in Maschera had to be transferred from Sweden to Boston, and changes had to be made in the text of Rigoletto.…

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