Giuseppe Verdi
Giuseppe Verdi; drawing by David Levine

Until this year Giuseppe Verdi was the only major nineteenth-century composer whose works were not enshrined in a complete critical edition. Editions of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Weber, Wagner, Brahms, and Hugo Wolf were all prepared as a matter of course since German scholarship has dominated musicology. But there is also one critical edition of Berlioz with a new one under way, two of Chopin (both equally inadequate), and an unfinished one of Liszt (a new one, begun recently in Hungary, is inferior to the old in almost every respect). Most of these editions were already in existence by 1900. The greatest composer of Italian opera has had to wait until 1983 for a start to be made. This is not surprising. The monumental critical edition is an academic consecration, the ultimate guarantee of musical respectability, and nineteenth-century Italian opera is still not fully respectable.

Opera as a whole has a shabby reputation (it is also the most prestigious of musical genres, but that is the other side of the coin). It has been, and is, viewed with suspicion by most lovers of drama and of music—like the movies, it appears sometimes not to be art at all but only a pretentious variety of low entertainment. This is particularly true of Italian opera (German opera has partially escaped the stigma, perhaps because, as Lady Bracknell once remarked, German is an eminently respectable language). The editor in chief of the new Verdi edition, Philip Gossett, has amusingly attempted to caricature this common view in these pages:

Melodramatic plots, banal tunes over oom-pah-pah accompaniments, sopranos warbling in thirds with a flute, tenors bellowing high C’s…. 1

The catch is that this is not a caricature—most of the time nineteenth-century Italian opera is really like that; even a considerable part of Verdi’s finest work can be so described, except for the parallel thirds in the flute. The melodramatic plots remained with Verdi to the end of his career (Shakespeare’s Othello, as Bernard Shaw remarked, provided him with a ready-made, typical Italian opera libretto), as did the vocalizing sopranos and the bellowing tenors: only the oom-pah-pah accompaniments disappeared in the last two operas, although they can still be found in Aida.

The banality of the tunes is the heaviest charge, and this might seem to be a relative, even a subjective, matter—the banal is the over-familiar, the too-often-heard. But that was exactly what Verdi wanted, and he had the knack (picked up from Donizetti) of writing a melody that seems long familiar at first hearing. Both Donizetti and Verdi needed such tunes, at once original and instantly banal, for their dramatic structures to work: neither the Anvil Chorus nor “La donna è mobile,” to take only two examples, would have the slightest effect if they did not sound immediately as if one had known them all one’s life.

Verdi’s contemporaries understood this well enough. One of them described the effect of “La donna è mobile” at the premiere of Rigoletto, the first sustained masterpiece by Verdi:

Hardly had the first verse finished before there arose a great cry from every part of the theater, and the tenor failed to find his cue to begin the second verse. Verdi must have realized that the melody had always existed: he wished to shock the imagination with the commonplace fact that he had rediscovered it for himself.

This is quoted by Professor Roger Parker in his interesting essay on the music of Rigoletto,2 with the odd comment that “far from having ‘rediscovered’ the melody, Verdi obviously spent some time in honing it to his precise needs.” Parker quotes the sketch for “La donna è mobile,” which he calls “much simpler and more predictable.” The sketch is, in fact, less symmetrical than the final version, and the end of the first phrase, far from being predictable, is sadly unconvincing. Of course, Verdi worked hard to “rediscover” a melody that had existed since all eternity: he knew how well he had succeeded when he kept the tune secret—even the tenor was not allowed to see it until the dress rehearsal.

Parker remarks that “Verdi was perfectly aware of the potential popularity of this melody; and also that its tunefulness could conceivably undermine its dramatic effect.” This is again wide of the mark, and suggests absurdly that the dramatic effect is undermined once the tune is known, and therefore ceased to work after the premiere. On the contrary, the dramatic effect depends on the tunefulness at this point. In a recent production of Rigoletto which transferred the scene to New York in the 1950s, the Duke starts the tune by putting his coins in a jukebox: the director, Jonathan Miller, had the right instinct. It was understandable that Verdi should wish to reserve the shock of his rediscovery for the first performance, but that has nothing to do with its absolute dramatic adequacy, its aptness in the structure of the third act of the opera.


Verdi’s genius lay as much in the dramatic use he made of such tunes as in their creation, but neither he nor Donizetti had the ability to write the long aristocratic melodies of Bellini. These melodies were the object of Verdi’s admiration and envy, but he would have had no use for them in his own operas. Serious opera had changed radically in Italy and France during the 1830s and 1840s, as Verdi reached his maturity as a composer; it lost what was left of its aristocratic character, and became a form of popular art. Verdi was its greatest master.

“Popular art” is a loaded term: it has a number of different meanings, impossible to define with any precision, that range from folklore to junk. The two poles are clear enough, but the meanings tend to blur. The Hollywood Western of the 1930s and 1940s, for example, has elements of folklore but is better understood as popular trash: this did not, of course, prevent masterpieces from being produced in that genre. Like the Western—and the Elizabethan revenge tragedy, as well, of Kyd, Marlowe, Tourneur, and Shakespeare—nineteenth-century opera in France and Italy is closer to junk than to high art or folk art. We cannot escape the normative connotation of these terms, but it should be evident from these examples that there can be great trash, just as there is bad high art (and, of course, the special category of trash pretending to the status of high art, for which the only existing term is the German edel Kitsch or “noble trash”: the movies of Ken Russell, the plays of Maxwell Anderson, the operas of Erich Wolfgang Korngold—everyone can make up his own tendentious list).

The relation of high art to popular art is always complex—partly because, as we have seen, the concept of “popular art” is ambiguous and slippery. The operettas of Jacques Offenbach, the musicals of George Gershwin and of Harold Arlen, the waltzes of Johann Strauss, Jr., are great popular art; none of them claims to be high art. Schubert and Brahms, however, often used popular Hungarian gypsy themes as material for works which are clearly intended to be sublime: the slow movements of Schubert’s last symphony and of his Piano Trio in E-flat Major; the finale of Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G Minor. In a similar fashion, Berlioz uses a ballroom waltz in the Symphonie Fantastique.

The case of Verdi is a very different one: he took a popular genre—bourgeois melodrama set to music, a genre that had already found a master in Donizetti—and without changing much of its fundamental nature, transmuted it into high art. We need to use terms like “trash” for this genre, nevertheless, as the plots and the librettos of the operas of Donizetti, Verdi, Mercadante, Halévy, and Meyerbeer are, with almost no exceptions, as coarse and as absurd as the scripts for the films of Greta Garbo and the epics of Cecil B. De Mille—and the music reflects that coarseness.

I take it for granted that the drama of the nineteenth century must also be considered with some sympathy, a suspension of distaste as well as disbelief, and few music lovers today have any difficulty in surrendering to the finest moments in Donizetti, or even in Meyerbeer (on the few occasions when the latter is performed with some musical intelligence). Nevertheless until the essential trashiness of the genre is faced, the achievement of Verdi, one of the greatest in music, will remain incomprehensible.

The change of serious opera from a courtly art into popular trash was, in reality, part of a long political development that starts slowly in the eighteenth century before the French Revolution. At the end the changes were rapid, and confirmed by the revolution of 1830, after which the Paris Opera was rented out for commercial exploitation. Serious opera is almost always political in nature, and a political interpretation of the stylistic changes is not a modern critical luxury; it was explicitly made at the time. Doctor Véron, a rich amateur who leased the Paris Opera in the early 1830s and quickly made a fortune running it, wrote that since the revolution of 1830 had brought the bourgeoisie to power, he decided to make the Paris Opera the Versailles of the bourgeoisie, the symbolic manifestation of its new status.

One must not imagine, however, that by becoming representative of the new middle-class taste, serious opera became commercially profitable in any real sense. Véron was frank: when asked how he had been able to make a fortune out of the Paris Opera in a few years, he always replied that he got out before the government subsidy was reduced. Serious opera has almost always been subsidized by the state from its inception, sometimes by indirect means as well as by direct grants. Aristocratic support for the opera continued throughout Europe, indirectly for the most part—it was a status symbol to have a ballerina as a mistress. This aristocratic patronage should not fool us into thinking that the music reflects aristocratic taste. There is no aristocratic taste in France and Italy after Napoleon. Just as the paintings of Paul Delaroche appealed to a wide range of middle-class taste, although they were acquired largely by aristocrats rich enough to pay the high prices they brought at the time, grand opera after 1830 embodied the artistic and political ideals of the middle class, although a government subsidy then as now made it possible for the bourgeois music lover to afford a ticket.3


The political message of many of these operas is simple enough: they represent the hero or heroine—who is rarely seen as tied to his class but only as an individual—caught between the immoral corruption of the aristocracy and the doctrinaire rigidity or the secret greed of the leaders of the proletariat. This naive and pleasant scheme is sometimes varied by turning the vicious aristocrats into a foreign army of occupation; the revolutionary leaders, in this case, become more idealized while generally remaining no less doctrinaire; the hero (or heroine, as in Bellini’s Norma) is still trapped between the two forces.4 The scheme is always displaced in time and space, and generally by metaphor as well. In Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, the Catholics play the role of the corrupt aristocrats, the Protestants the stiff-necked proletariat; the lovers, one from each camp, are trapped like Romeo and Juliet between both sides. Variations are possible: in Ballo in Maschera the hero is the corrupt aristocrat (king of Sweden, or governor of Boston, as the censors forced Verdi to amend it), who almost succeeds in having an adulterous liaison, while the rebels, Samuel and Tom, are as wicked as ever (like the Anabaptists in Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète).

For personal reasons, Verdi preferred a variation in which the corrupt aristocracy is replaced or complemented by an evil priesthood, as in Don Carlos or Aida. The downtrodden proletariat are offstage in Don Carlos, back in their native Flanders, but they are represented by their champion, the Marquess of Posa, whose liberal ideals stir up the hatred of the Grand Inquisitor, and so cause his own death and the doom of Don Carlos. Aida combines all these elements: the evil priests; the army of oppressors; the slaves with their unscrupulous leader whose intransigence seals the fate of his daughter; and the hero and heroine who each stand outside their class, to betray it and themselves.

I have insisted on this simple-minded political background of the plots in nineteenth-century opera since it provides us with a nonmusical source for some of the most powerful moments in Verdi’s music, pages of extraordinary rhythmic energy and vitality. This essential element in Verdi’s art should be given its true name, one that any Italian contemporary would have understood: rabble-rousing. There has never been a composer so well able to fire the blood of his audience with patriotism—and not just in Italy, but wherever he is played. There are scenes and arias in Verdi that sound like a call to arms, and were clearly understood as such when they were first performed: “Di quella pira” from Il Trovatore is the most famous of these today—it is, indeed, a call to arms and gives an explicit political tone to an opera in which the political significance is carefully repressed (although the opposition of the freedom-loving gypsies and the autocratic count must have been evident enough at the time; the magnificent musical representation of the imprisoned gypsy’s homesickness must also have spoken as a metaphor to the emotions of a public whose native land was occupied by an Austrian army). Rigoletto’s outburst at the end of Act II, “Vendetta, tremenda vendetta,”5 has the same rabble-rousing force, although it is only a private vengeance that is specified: the music calls up feelings beyond those of the opera itself, and Verdi achieves this by means very much more subtle than they appear at first hearing.

Verdi’s power comes at the end of a long tradition, most of which was not Italian but French. It was the French Revolution that invented jingoism as a musical style, and Schumann remarked that the Marseillaise stood as a model behind some of the most effective moments in Meyerbeer. Nineteenth-century opera owes a heavy debt to the French revolutionary cantatas with their massed choruses and their martial rhythms. By 1810 Spontini had created an explicitly Napoleonic grandeur on the operatic stage with these means. It was, however, Auber who really perfected the jingoistic technique and wrote music that made every member of the public feel as if he should rush out and seize a musket. La Muette de Portici, when it was performed in Brussels in 1830, set off the Belgian revolution. Verdi learned from both Auber and Meyerbeer: that Meyerbeerian trademark, the crash on the last beat of the second or fourth bar in a piece in 4/4 time, can be heard as late as Aida. Nobody, however, ever exploited this popular style with the genius of Verdi or integrated it so well into a dramatic structure.

I have not used terms like “junk,” “trash,” and “cheap melodrama” to imply that nineteenth-century serious Italian and French opera is worse than the eighteenth-century variety. On the contrary, the change seems to me in almost every way an improvement, even politically. Eighteenth-century opera seria is above all an explicit apology for absolutism: the chief librettist was Metastasio, a poet who seems less than second-rate today but who was idolized by his contemporaries; his works were set over and over again by dozens of composers including Handel and Mozart. Most of these operas are designed to celebrate absolute royal power, and they were always an artificial form: opera seria in England, Germany, and Austria was, for the most part, composed in Italian by German composers or by imported Italians.

The psychology, if that is the word for it, is equally primitive: there are rarely any characters at all in opera seria, only a series of dramatic situations which allow the singers to express a series of emotional states. Any attempt to find psychological consistency in the operas of Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Handel, and Jommelli is misplaced ingenuity. The only consistency was the singer’s vocal technique: when the cast changed new arias were almost always substituted, generally adapted from other operas. The change from Metastasio’s stiff, artificial dramas to the clever and sensational melodramas of Eugène Scribe, the leading nineteenth-century librettist, is nothing to deplore.

Verdi’s characters, on the other hand, have genuine consistency and integrity; they are by no means a string of discontinuous sentiments. Their consistency, however, is that of pasteboard melodrama: the repentant prostitute, the Ethiopian slave who loves the Egyptian general, the Duke’s brother stolen as a baby by a revengeful gypsy, the aging king who has married the princess destined for his son. The integrity of character is made by the music: once he had become established, Verdi did not rewrite his music for different singers (as Bellini had still agreed to do at the end of his life), or countenance alterations or even substitutions of somebody else’s aria in one of his operas, as every eighteenth-century composer had done. When he revised an old opera, it was for dramatic economy and effectiveness. Verdi represents the final stage in the long history of composers who had tried to force the singers to accept the integrity of the music and of the opera as a whole.

The snobbish distinction between high art and popular trash is not one that we would accept willingly today. Most of the respectable tragedies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are even less defensible than the cheap melodramas of the period. Yet the distinction was essential to nineteenth-century thought: it was an important one even for Verdi himself, whose literary taste was the finest of any opera composer before Alban Berg, and whose dramatic aspirations were lucid and uncompromising. The tension between these aspirations and the vulgar tradition in which Verdi worked shaped his career, and it is only with this in mind that we can compare the scandalous attack made on his music for its cheap theatricality by Hans von Bülow (apropos of the Requiem) and the immediate and generous defense this provoked from Johannes Brahms.

A musical style able to deal with the greatest drama has been the intermittent ideal of opera since its initial conception in the late sixteenth century as a resurrection of the classical Greek stage. This ideal has almost never been realized: most operas based on a play of any real merit have been travesties of the original, much like Hollywood versions of Anna Karenina or War and Peace; and for much the same reasons: the exigencies of the star performers; the demands of the producers; the belief that everyone except the composer and the director knows best about how to give the public what it wants. (In Luisa Miller, for example, Verdi could not give a secondary female role the importance that it had in Schiller’s original play because of the wishes of the prima donna.) As a result, an opera is not only inferior to the play from which it is derived, but almost always disastrously so. No one thinks that Gounod’s Faust or Bellini’s The Capulets and the Montagues are adequate musical representations of the plays from which they came, whatever their musical merits. Moussorgsky’s Boris Godounov is a rare exception.

The failure of opera with contemporary drama is even more striking. Not until Mozart took on Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro was there any adequate setting of an interesting contemporary play, and with this work both Mozart and his librettist understood that they had done something radically new. The greatest playwrights of the early nineteenth century, Kleist and Büchner, were not even attempted by composers until almost a century later. In the twentieth century, Maeterlinck, von Hofmannsthal, and Wedekind inspired Debussy, Richard Strauss, and Berg. The nineteenth century, when Verdi arrived on the scene, had reached an impasse. For most critics today, the finest theatrical work after 1830 is cheap, vulgar farce: the magnificent farces of Nestroy in Vienna and of Labiche in Paris. This was, indeed, the tradition in which much of Bernard Shaw’s style was formed. The tradition of boulevard farce, however, was not one open to a composer with high ambitions.

Verdi’s ambitions were among the highest that opera has ever known. He became the only composer to set Shakespeare with anything approaching adequacy, he treated the dramas of Schiller with a true sense of their significance, and he took the best that his own period had to offer him, the plays of Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas fils. Unfortunately, the best of his own period was only noble trash, edel Kitsch. But it was by setting these cheap melodramas dressed up as serious art that Verdi acquired the technique to deal with Shakespeare at the end of his life.

Le Roi s’amuse by Victor Hugo provided Verdi with the same political allegory for Rigoletto that we have found in so many other operas. The innocent, middle-class heroine is destroyed, trapped between the vicious aristocracy and the villainous lower class. The variation this time provides a melodramatic situation of great power: the middle class connives, both wittingly and unwittingly, in its own destruction. Gilda sacrifices her life for the Duke (originally King Francis I, but the Italian censor ruled out a monarch) who has violated her; Rigoletto hires the criminal Sparafucile to kill the Duke and so kills his own daughter. The French censor understood the political implications and banned the play after one performance.

Le Roi s’amuse is one of a pair of plays with Lucrezia Borgia: the corrupt father and the corrupt mother. Nothing in Le Roi s’amuse is as hard to swallow today as the scene in Lucrezia Borgia where Lucrezia tells the young man, Gennaro, who hopes to revenge the poisoning of his friends, that he must not kill her for he, too, is a Borgia, the son of Cesare. The following exchange then occurs:

Gennaro: Then you are my aunt!

Lucrezia (aside): His aunt!

in which the actress must convey that she is his mother, and that he is born of an incestuous union. I quote this to show to what extent some of the serious drama of the time can only be enjoyed as a kind of high camp. This is true of Le Roi s’amuse, but it is not true of Rigoletto. Verdi’s art transcends its material.

Rigoletto is Verdi’s first completely satisfying work, and in many ways he never surpassed it. It is fitting that the complete critical edition should start with this. The text presents few problems, and the new edition by Martin Chusid has no astonishing revelations,6 but it gives us Verdi’s own phrasing and ornamentation clearly and sensibly determined. Only three minor criticisms can, I think, be made: 1) the margins are disproportionately small, and make an ugly, cramped page; 2) the full sketch of Rigoletto is not reproduced, although it is described in the preface, where the discussion offers little enlightenment; and 3) the prefatory material appears twice, in English and in Italian, but the extensive and fascinating quotations from Verdi’s letters appear only in Italian in the English version—this presumes that all the readers can understand Italian, which would seem to make the whole English section redundant.

With Rigoletto, Verdi found a new solution to the perennial problem of opera: the relation of abstract musical form to dramatic action. To some extent, he built on the work of his predecessors. In the first three decades of the century, Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti had inflected and broken up the set musical forms of Italian serious opera in the interests of the drama.7 The simplest example of these forms is the aria with a slow first part followed by a cabaletta, or fast, brilliant conclusion. Donizetti, for example, makes this more dramatic in the last act of Lucia di Lammermoor: Edgardo sings his unhappy love in the first part of the aria, and is interrupted by the burial procession for Lucia, and so learns of her death; he then sings his despair in the cabaletta, and kills himself. Verdi followed this procedure in the second act of Rigoletto: the Duke expresses his love for Gilda in the slow part of his aria, and is interrupted by the chorus who describe how they have kidnapped her and brought her to the Duke’s apartments; the Duke then sings his enthusiasm in the cabaletta with a melody of such overpowering tawdriness that it is often omitted (it is, in fact, almost the only musical blot on the work).

With this technique, abstract form is reshaped by the dramatic situation. The third act of Rigoletto, however, shows a much more startling innovation, which took Verdi far beyond any of his Italian or French predecessors: the smaller forms retain their integrity, the decisive shape is that of the act as a whole. The musical form of the act is determined principally by the three appearances of “La donna è mobile” and by the storm. The first time we hear “La donna è mobile” is a shock after the expressive academic counterpoint of the quiet opening, and the brief laconic recitative. The Duke sings the tune again after the famous quartet as he goes to bed: this time it has none of its initial force, and it dies away as the Duke begins to sleep. The third time we hear it only from a distance—the Duke’s voice offstage—and it tells Rigoletto that the body in the sack is not the Duke’s.

The central trio of the act is only the climax of the storm, which starts with echoes of the quartet (the four principal set forms in the act—aria, quartet, trio, and final duet all interlock as each appears in the recitative section introducing the next). This central trio seems to have no independent existence, although, in fact, its second stanza is a symmetrical repetition of the first and the form is a completely traditional two-part, minor-major alternation—the tempest is the basic form, which starts softly with a male chorus offstage imitating the chromatic sound of the wind, and reaches its full fury as Gilda decides to sacrifice her life for the Duke. Her murder is the end of the trio, and the end of the tempest’s violence, which begins to return to the sinister quiet of the opening of the act. The final duet acts as a resolution. In this act, the relation of recitative to concerted form is subtle, complex, and deeply original.

Not since Mozart had so large a dramatic action been conceived as a musical unity. Mozart’s operas, however, are conceived harmonically with a rigor that was no longer possible or interesting by 1830. Moreover, thematic relationships count for very little in Verdi: we do not find that subtle web of motive transformations fundamental to the music of his German contemporaries, Wagner and Brahms. A melody in Verdi needs to proclaim its identity in order to make its dramatic point. For example, the quartet and the final duet in the last act of Rigoletto are in the same key and their melodies resemble each other vaguely. Wagner would have displayed the motivic relationship; Mozart would have exploited the tonal symmetry. Verdi does neither. The organization of an opera by Verdi is achieved much more by a large-scale rhythmic movement, by texture, by tone-color, by tonal blocks, by the way the dramatic modulations are placed, and by an integration of music and text that surpasses even that of Monteverdi.

This was a conception of musical form as powerful and as advanced as the rival German system, although the elements appear to be much coarser for reasons I have suggested. From Luisa Miller on, Verdi achieved effects with motif and modulation that are delicate, sophisticated, and masterly; but attempts by musicologists to relate them to the large-scale structure are always unconvincing. It is therefore impossible to analyze Rigoletto as if it were a Mozart opera or a Haydn quartet with strict thematic and tonal relationships. Because of this, Professor Joseph Kerman, whose view of analysis is restricted largely to the pitch content of the work, has claimed that Verdi is unanalyzable (and we might think Kerman’s despair justified when we read, in a recent study of Il Trovatore, that the predominance of G major in that work arises from the importance of maternal love). However, an opera by Verdi is no more—and no less—difficult to analyze than a Mozart minuet: the terms are different, that is all. The way Verdi discovered how to organize an act and, less rigorously, an entire opera would make such an analysis richer and more rewarding than a similar examination of the works of Rossini and Donizetti, in spite of the scenes of genius that are so frequent in their operas. Neither of them was capable of musical thought as sustained as that of Verdi, starting with Rigoletto.

Verdi himself knew the importance of his innovations. He claimed, even after the success of La Traviata, that Rigoletto was his greatest work, and he knew that for the first time in many years there was a serious opera that was more than a string of display arias with brilliant concert numbers as finales. He must also have understood the extraordinary achievement of the last act which dissolves all the individual numbers into a larger unity of musical action. Later, with the equally spectacular success of the third act of Aida, he asked the publisher to print the act without any indication of single numbers (like aria, duet, trio). The publisher paid no attention to Verdi’s request, but we may hope that the new critical edition will at last realize Verdi’s intention and print Aida as he wished.

This Issue

October 27, 1983