In Love with Verdi

The Man Verdi

by Frank Walker
London: Dent, 526 pp.(1962; out of print)

Verdi: A Biography

by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz
Oxford University Press, 941 pp.(1993; out of print)

I had always wanted to see Sant’Agata, Giuseppe Verdi’s house some miles from his home town of Busseto in the Po Valley. He loved it so much, loved it like the peasant he claimed he always was, the sowing and reaping, the grapes for his own wine, the building and extending, the buying of another field, and then another.

He was able to buy the farmhouse and some surrounding land in 1848, when he was thirty-five and already the maestro, with twelve performed operas behind him. Eighteen forty-eight was of course the year of revolutions, of some of Italy’s bitterest struggles for independence, which Verdi so powerfully supported and incorporated into the themes of some of these operas. “Honor to all Italy,” he was writing to a friend, “which at this moment is truly great”:

Do you imagine I want to occupy myself now with notes, with sounds? There is, and should be, only one kind of music pleasing to the ears of the Italians of 1848—the music of the guns!

He was drunk with joy, he wrote—though the hour had not yet quite come. At around the same time the retired soprano Giuseppina Strepponi was writing from Paris to a colleague that “all the notes in the world might go to the devil if there were room for hope that Italy could become great, united, strong and free!”

The year 2001 was the centenary of the death of the composer who became the symbol of Italy’s Risorgimento. Opera houses around the world were performing his work, Parma was full of tourists, and some of us were bussed out to see the birthplace and Busseto and Sant’Agata. Verdi had not ceased, and probably never will cease, to be his country’s hero. Dignified, severe, hugely generous: he is loved. There were daily bulletins when he was dying; traffic was quietened and shutters drawn. His memorial service had every kind of grandeur, with “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco sung by a chorus of eight hundred under Toscanini’s baton. “Verdi was our great unifier,” it was declared,

when the wave of his passionate music, something that the enemy could not seize, embodied the idea of the nation, which swept freely from the Alps to the sea, setting our hearts on fire.

As a sentimentalist and Italophile, an adorer of tragedy and passion rather than musically literate, I am unashamed of being among the Verdi worshipers. But Sant’Agata itself was a disappointment—overgrown by huge trees and consequently very dark, with only a few rooms left open to the public. Few mementoes there of La Strepponi, Verdi’s mistress and then wife, who was often immured in the house while Verdi was away and at work. How she hated it! The solitude, the rain, the flat muddy countryside. And no children.

I had been drawn to the story of Giuseppina Strepponi’s life partly because of that question of the children (so great a factor in real life and so ignored in biographies)…

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