The Giant of Busseto

Letters of Giuseppe Verdi

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

Seven Verdi Librettos

with English text by William Weaver
Norton, 689 pp., $20.00

The Operas of Verdi: From Oberto to Rigoletto

by Julian Budden
Praeger, 510 pp., $20.00


by Joseph Wechsberg
Putnam's, 255 pp., $15.00

"Verdi, Ghislanzoni and 'Aida': The Uses of Convention"

by Philip Gossett
The University of Chicago, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 1, No. 2 pp.

Giuseppe Verdi
Giuseppe Verdi; drawing by David Levine

Most creators with Giuseppe Verdi’s stature have altered the language, the substance, and the direction of their art. But the giant of Busseto was himself something of an exception to this rule. Nurtured in a popular and regional tradition that he never completely outgrew, he nevertheless fashioned operas with a universality that has been rivaled by only two other composers. Yet his work is self-contained, and his path leads down a cul-de-sac.

For better or worse, contemporary music would be much the same if the composer of Aida had never lived, his influence being evident only in exceptional cases such as Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. But Verdi’s isolation from the post-Wagnerian, Debussy, Second Viennese School “mainstream,” if that is what it should prove to be, can be explained by the nature of his genius, that fusion of prodigious lyric and dramatic gifts expressed in a melos so indigenously Italian as to be untranslatable. Nor are the other dimensions of his music—formal, harmonic, rhythmic, coloristic—innovatory in a way that could be readily transmitted. Yet Verdi’s circumscribed universe has never seemed more appealing and the cultist progressivists never more ineffectual in their efforts to extirpate his pre-Boito work by treating it as a joke. The last laugh, and not only the one which is set to such glorious music in Falstaff, would seem to be Verdi’s.

Perhaps the neglect surrounding Verdi is at last beginning to dissipate. But not a single one of his operas is available in an accurate, let alone a critical, edition, and many of the countless mistakes in his scores remain uncorrected since the first printing. Worst of all, only nine of the operas are obtainable in full scores, as if the orchestral role—the textures and colors, dynamics and volumes, doublings and interactions with voices—were of no importance. This need for proper texts is especially deplorable now that recordings of a majority of the early operas are available, a phenomenon that can be explained only by the proliferation of recorded versions of familiar operas. Had Verdi been German, a Gesamtausgabe would long since have appeared, together with facsimiles of sketches, variorums of changes and revisions, complete scores of alternate versions, and a Kritische Bericht. As it is, the German editions of the orchestra scores are superior—if one overlooks such introductory comments as the following to the Philharmonia pocket Partitur of Rigoletto:

The work achieves true dramatic expression notwithstanding the typically Italian character of its music.

In so far as English editions are concerned, Verdi’s correspondence has been more disgracefully neglected than his scores, though it is among the most illuminating by any great composer about his art. Only a few hundred of the letters have been translated,1 and though more than sixty years have passed since the publication of his letter copy-books, that indispensable source covering all but the first years of Verdi’s life as a composer,…

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