“Maestro Verdi, your Art must not die”
May 6, 2013
This year two hundred years ago, the most performed operatic composer around the world was born. He was one of the most universal artists ever to have graced our planet, and yet he was one of the most Italian ones, too. He is one of the most criticized famed musicians, but also one of the most beloved ones of all time: Giuseppe Verdi.
If you are an opera lover, he is certainly one of your favourites. If you know nothing at all about opera, beginning your experience with one of his great works will most definitely get you hooked forever to this wonderful, living and breathing art form which Giuseppe Verdi represents better than almost anyone else.
In no other composer’s works, the fusion of emotions, dramatic rhythm, musical excellency and technical challenge is as complete as it is in Verdi’s. Yet, for me the most important reason why he remains modern and popular is because he wanted to reach his audience. He did not want to impress us listeners, he did not try to gain the acceptance and praise of musicologists or critics, but his goal was always to serve the drama, to give music to the emotions of his characters and above all, to move us.
He was not afraid to use popular tunes, straightforward or even easy rhythms and spectacular effects, but he combined them with genius orchestration, gorgeous melodies, and rich and innovative harmonic constructions.
Other composers, especially later during the verismo period, gave emotions a rather one-dimensional musical direction and achieve the agitation of the spectator. Verdi’s characters, however, are always multi-faceted and often ambiguous. He was constantly looking to create a depth that is extremely rare. To one librettist he wrote “(…) in the subjects proposed by you (…) I do not find all the variety that my crazy brain desires.” What that librettist failed to grasp was complexity. Verdi did not want to portray black-and-white characters. And so, we can despise Rigoletto in the first act and cry for him at the end of the opera. We do not empathize with King Philip II in Don Carlo – up until he sings his big monologue “Ella giammai m’amo” and we finally see the open soul of this terrible, conflicted father. We are enchanted by Alfredo’s love for Violetta in the first act of La traviata and just as repulsed to see his selfish actions in the third act.
In his compositions, Verdi goes from one genuine, intense, emotional moment to the next and his genius is such that our brains and hearts automatically connect the dots and tell the story with him. Although we see the exterior stories develop over the course of an opera, what he tells us through his music is really the inner journey of his characters.
Before Verdi, composers wrote many moments for the sole purpose of allowing the performers to show their talent – spectacular coloraturas, impressive high notes etc. In Verdi’s music, every such resource of bel canto has a definitive dramatic purpose. Everything the orchestra plays, and the singers sing, is an expression of either the permutations of the souls of the characters, or of the forces of nature that surround them.
He refused to follow any school or dogma and by doing so, he created his own style. “…and when I write something irregular, if it is because the strict rule does not give me what I want, it is because I do not even believe to be good all the rules that we have until now.” This does not mean Verdi did not learn anything from his predecessors. “Go back to the old ones – that will be progress!”, he wrote to Riccordi.
To try and understand why the music of Verdi creates such an immediate impact on the audience solely by conducting a deep analysis of his extremely beautiful melodies, his limpid orchestration, or his mastery of counterpoint will fall short. Verdi wrote to Arrivabene: “there will be one day when we will stop talking about melody and harmony and schools and [music of] past and [of the] future (…) Then maybe will begin the reign of Art.”
He often spoke about inspiration which was the driving force behind his compositions and their interpretations (“l’inspirazione”), which I believe we should rather translate as instinct. From singers, for example, he asked that they study the music intensely, that they exercise their throats in order to achieve a strong and flexible instrument; he demanded perfect diction and also that they forget their teachers and trust instead their inspiration in order to achieve individuality that would make them become the character in the drama. Once this instinctiveness had been achieved, he then demanded the unconditional following of his instructions: “I want only one creator, and I demand that what is written is followed.”
In his letters, Verdi speaks a lot about Art: “I want Art in any of its manifestations, not the amusement, the artifice, the system that you prefer.” The question remains: what is the place of Art in today’s uncertain and critical times? It seems to me that Art for Verdi meant a complete discipline whose purpose was to reach others through exquisite and true means. A place where we all meet and feel in communion, the closest expression of all that invisible chaotic material that bursts inside of every single one of us and indeed inside the depths of every human soul. I believe that ultimately, he knew he had achieved what he set out to achieve, and he was teaching others a way of achieving that goal, too, if they dared to go beyond themselves. In another letter he wrote: “… about everything else, be quiet, caro Arrivabene, Art will not die.” That, caro Maestro Verdi, is true about your Art: it is more alive and more needed than ever.
Rolando Villazón, April 2013