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, apparently no English version is even contemplated. The same is true of the Carteggi verdiani, of the Muzio-Barezzi correspondence, and of those classic and compendious Italian biographies that include first-hand material. Surprisingly, even the Verdi-Boito correspondence, outlining the story of one of the most fascinating collaborations in the history of music, has not yet been fully published in English.

Nor is this a matter of mere quantity enlarging insignificant biographical detail. Alessandro Luzio, editor of the Carteggi, characterized the letters to Ghislanzoni,2 the versifier of Aida, as “a marvelous course in musical aesthetics in action”—although a more comprehensive description would be “a course in opera construction, words-and-music, and music history.” No less absorbing are the letters to the other librettists, Piave, Cammarano, and to Somma—the might-have-been co-author of King Lear, that masterpiece dis aliter visum—as well as those to publishers, impresarios, and performers. Yet even the Italian editions of the correspondence include only Verdi’s side of it. Luzio had not based his observation on a reading of all of Ghislanzoni’s letters, without which many points in Verdi’s are not completely intelligible.

Yet some new and forthcoming publications, together with studies presented at the International Verdi Congresses, indicate that a more just appreciation of the composer and his work may at last be imminent. The most eagerly anticipated is Hans Busch’s documentation of Aida,3 a work-in-progress that will include more than 800 letters relating to the opera. Professor Busch is exceptionally qualified for this challenging task, being at the same time an imaginative stage director, a cultivated musician from a renowned musical family, and a Verdi scholar with few peers.

Among the other good omens, meanwhile, are William Weaver’s translations of the seven most popular libretti. His versions seem to be the first to avoid the stilted style and inverted word order usually associated with opera translations. An odd publishing idea—who would think of encumbering himself in the theater with a heavy volume that includes the texts of six operas not being performed?—the book might be useful to buffs of opera recordings seeking painless methods of increasing their Italian vocabularies. Mr. Weaver’s (non-singing) versions consistently improve on earlier ones. To give a single example, he renders Aida’s “Pietà ti prenda del mio dolor” as “Have pity on my grief,” which reaches the point more directly than the standard version’s “Let pity for my sorrow move you.”


Another hopeful portent is Julian Budden’s study of the early operas. In fact this book towers above all others in English on any aspect of Verdi. Budden is an erudite expositor not only of Verdi’s own growth and distinguishing qualities, but also of the structures, contents, and conventions of opera in general during the years when he was learning his art. It is to be regretted, however, that the author did not publish his second volume together with the first, since a large book devoted entirely to the lesser-known earlier operas may not find the readership it deserves.4

Budden’s knowledge is impressive and his insights about the dramatist and the musician are equally acute. He keeps the larger perspectives of his subject in sight, furthermore, as in his chapter on Rigoletto, where he notes:

One looks in vain in Verdi’s writings for any consistent statement of his dramatic ideals. They varied according to the needs of his developing creative personality, which is one reason why as he grew older he repeated himself less and less.

Comparing the finished version of Gilda’s “Tutte le Feste” with the sketch for it, Budden both contributes a valuable statement about Verdi’s music as a whole and identifies a derivation:

[The incidence] of F minor instead of E minor proves yet again the absence of large-scale key-systems in Verdi, and at the same time makes clear the source of Gilda’s melody as the duet between Raoul and Valentine in Act IV of Les Huguenots.

A deduction or two of this quality would have been welcome in Mr. Wechsberg’s popular-style biography, in place of such remarks as, “There was no pretense about Verdi, nothing phoney.” In fact the evidence seems to indicate that Verdi was guilty of pretense, if unconsciously, in, for example, the legend he sought to establish about his youth.5 But the composer was more complex and ambivalent than is generally supposed or than his biographers have wanted to explore. Mr. Wechsberg’s is yet another portrait of Verdi as the wise and honest peasant, but it is time for an investigation of the conflicting motives, the “inexplicable” vindictiveness, the domestic tyranny, and the other manifestations of an almost morbidly secretive personality. Certainly a clearer understanding of the man would not reduce his heroic dimensions as an artist.

Two of Mr. Wechsberg’s most mystifying statements must be quoted. He writes that “Un Ballo in Maschera should be heard in Sweden”—is it not?—“where the details are historically and visually accurate.” (!!) And he says that “in Cremona, the Amatis, the Guarneris and Antonio Stradivari created the magnificent instruments which later sung the beautiful melodies of Verdi.” But one wonders how many poor fiddlers in the opera orchestras of the world have ever so much as held a Stradivarius. In Verdi’s time, as today, these treasures would have belonged to wealthy collectors or to Heifetzes, who were most unlikely to be using them to play arrangements of “La Donna è Mobile.”

Philip Gossett’s essay is important, both for its analysis of the use of cabalettas in Aida and for a convincingly argued thesis:

It was largely through his own doing [that] Verdi was faced with a totally conventional text, and it is hardly surprising that his musical response was dependent on earlier models.

Verdi’s attitude toward operatic forms in Aida was more conservative and more ambiguous than any pre-Gossett scholar has recognized. The composer starts by confiding to his librettist:

When the action demands it, I would abandon rhyme and stanza immediately, using irregular verses in order to say clearly and precisely everything that the action demands.

Before receiving the libretto for the last act, he writes to Ghislanzoni:

Make the characters say what they must say without concerning yourself about the musical form.

And at another moment in the same correspondence Verdi lets it be known that he is

open to free recitatives, in preference to stanzas with single metrical patterns.

Yet Verdi did not always say what he meant. On the one hand he asks for novelty and originality, exhorting Ghislanzoni to provide “new forms, something different,” and inveighing against the regularity and monotony of the conventional in music and verse, even proposing changes of meter and stanzaic length himself. Then, on the other, when actually given more standard structures, he often accepts them, belying his statements and revealing that he feels more at ease with the familiar. The most obstinate of men on other matters, in this one he acquiesces more often than not, making do with what Ghislanzoni sends. Moreover, Verdi himself initiates compromises, sometimes hinting that he prefers the older, established form. Thus he says, in one of the very same letters proclaiming his desire for originality: “Perhaps [the piece] should be changed to make a little cabaletta at the end.” Gossett shows that Verdi was responsible for further conventionalizing an already standard Radames-Aida duet, persuading Ghislanzoni to add a parallel stanza for the hero. But Verdi’s own comments evince his recognition of the weakness of this piece:


Perhaps the cause of the failure is in the situation, or maybe it is in the form which is more common than that of the preceding [Aida-Amonasro] duet. In any case, this succession of eight-verse cantabiles sung by one and repeated by the other will not keep the dialogue alive.

Nor was the composer surprised after the first Milan performance, when a Wagner-minded reviewer criticized the cabaletta as no longer in fashion. Verdi answered, “They scream against conventions but abandon one only to embrace another”; yet he tried to improve the offending number by revising its instrumentation.

As for the words themselves, Verdi insisted that they be “parole sceniche…carving out a situation or a character.” He is forever pretending not to interfere with his librettist’s vocabulary but at the same time proposes his own and writes a draft which Ghislanzoni scarcely modifies. Some of the musician’s specifications are extremely precise:

Give me four beautiful elevensyllable verses, and, to make them singable, place the accent on the fourth and eighth syllables.

He was also quick to reject any word or phrase that he found awkward or unsuitable, and, in this, his instincts were more reliable than those of his librettists. Thus he deleted Ghislanzoni’s couplet at the end of the Aida-Amonasro scene, immediately seeing that the heroine’s decision for her father over her suitor at this point would weaken the effect of her immolation at the opera’s end.

If Verdi had collaborated on Aida with Boito, the opera would have been less conventional, but would it have been as successful? Whatever the answer, the explanation for Verdi’s fifteen-year silence as an opera composer thereafter is partly his dissatisfaction with librettists. His sense of dramatic situation was superior to that of Ghislanzoni and Camille du Locle, who drafted the original scenario. It was Verdi’s, not his librettists’, idea to insert the reprise of Aida’s “Numi, pietà,” as well as to involve Amneris in the final scene, thereby injecting an irony that lifts the situation from the level of mere melodrama.

Yet Verdi was slow to institute reforms. For all the immense broadening of his dramatic scope in the operas preceding Aida (La Forza, Don Carlo, Un Ballo in Maschera), he was still addicted to such out-of-date devices as the one of mistaken identity, and of the slave who is really a princess. The principal weakness in Verdi’s operas as a whole—until Boito—is in the strain they put on credulity. Shrewd as the composer was in diagnosing mistakes in plot and construction, he seems to have been myopic in this other respect. But Verdi’s first concern is subject matter, the suitability of the story for music. Next in importance is character, and he visualizes every gesture of his people as well as the most minute details of external appearance. Plot and structure are last to be considered, and in spite of the attention he gives to them, here he is less successful.

Verdi’s greatest power is in the creation of melody. “This entire scene can and must consist of nothing but pure melody,” he once wrote to Ghislanzoni, and attempted to distinguish “melody sui generis—a declaimed melody, sustained and lofty—[from] the melody of romances or cavatinas. The meter can be as you wish….” But this ignores the origin of the melodic form in the verse form, and of the verse form in the dramatic situation. Thus at one place Verdi recognizes that metrical regularity is unsuited to Aida’s “mental state” and he insists that her words be cast in a dramatic recitative. In a letter to Ghislanzoni, the composer observes, “I do not abhor cabalettas”—quite an understatement!—“but wish only that an appropriate subject and pretext be found for them.” The subjects and pretexts would become rarer, obviously, with the development of more psychologically sophisticated music dramas.

In this sense Aida is simply a good “penny dreadful,” whose plot develops not from character but from an accidental situation. In fact the characters are the most unidimensional in any of Verdi’s operas, with little life apart from their music. If Verdi seems not to have been aware of this, one explanation could be his love for Teresa Stolz—whatever the extent and the truth of their relationship, and the most convincing proof that it was a profound one is the intensity of his inspiration in Aida. His lyric genius sustains him from beginning to end, and at such heights that the shallowness of the characters makes little difference.

With his every resource, Verdi attempts to disguise the conventional basis of the opera’s construction. Thus the duets are made into dialogues; at any rate the personae sing in rotation more than they do simultaneously. Duets, moreover, are the opera’s chief ensembles: it has no fewer than five. Another factor is that although Aida is an action-packed spectacular, Verdi moves from event to event with almost cinematographic speed, as if he were in a hurry to dispense with the De Mille aspects of the script in order to reach the intimate drama of the last two acts. But even in the final scene, which more than any other by Verdi invokes his greatest epigone, Puccini, the drama does not linger.

In the same way the music is no less remarkably tight, and the continuity and unity are greater than ever before in Verdi. Repetition is virtually eliminated; in fact the listener would like more of certain melodies (Amneris’s “Voi la terra,” for one), but Verdi’s melodic prodigality is evidently such that he can afford to throw these jewels away. No wonder he was never a leitmotiv composer, which is not to ignore the powerful effect of the returning themes, especially the one at the beginning of the Prelude,6 as pregnant with anticipation as the first phrase in Tristan but always subtly varied on reappearance; he would have found it unbearable to limit himself to reiterations of the same motives.

If the ballet is one of the weakest episodes in the opera, it is nevertheless enjoyable, especially the Ballabile, to which the Nutcracker is surely indebted. But the fault lies in the limitation of the Kismet genre. Only in Mozart’s time, and perhaps only by that master himself, would it have been possible to compose dances for serious rituals in a temple; by the second half of the nineteenth century, the subject was beyond the typical “light” music associated with ballet.

Much writing about Verdi is devoted to his employment of voices, both solo and in every kind of combination, and though he had to reform before he could originate, he became the greatest of innovators. Finally, his use of voices is so personal and so inseparable from the roles in his operas that the Verdi singer at his or her best never quite suits any other music except that from which Verdi derived. (In the superb new Angel recording,7 Fiorenza Cossotto and Placido Domingo are true Verdians; Montserrat Caballé, with her spun-sugar high notes, is not, but she sings with great beauty, nevertheless.)

One seldom-mentioned but distinguished attribute of Aida is its instrumentation. The inadvertence can be explained in that Verdi stands in contradiction to the contemporary tendency toward the expansion of the orchestra and the creation of larger and more complex combinations. His instrumentation is discreet rather than massive, making novel use of solo instruments. Thus the flutes and oboe in Aida and the basses in the introduction to the “Giudizio” scene are as memorable as the voices they introduce and embellish. Yet Verdi was no less a master of mixed orchestral colors of extreme delicacy. The flute and string sonority in the Prelude to Act Three, for instance, is as “exquisite” as any effect in Debussy, though Verdi’s “sensibility” as an instrumental colorist has not even been considered comparable to that of the French master. But then, that aforementioned post-Wagner “mainstream” misses many of the varied beauties of musical art.

(This is the first of two articles on Verdi.)

This Issue

March 20, 1975