A Century of Verdi
A hundred years ago, Giuseppe Verdi died without attending the
opening of his last opus. The work in question was not an opera
- it was the Casa di Riposo, also known as Casa Verdi, built by
the composer to house elderly musicians less fortunate than himself.
For the more fortunate among us, Verdi's legacy is steadily received
through the ears by the heart. The combination of great music and
deep humanity did not occur too many times in the history of the
art form. A stark reminder is the man who was born in the same year
as Verdi, 1813. Richard Wagner composed some of the greatest music
ever conceived and those who, out of misguided political considerations,
forego the intoxicating beauty of Tristan or Meistersinger are punishing
only themselves. But not even the staunchest admirer would accuse
Wagner of deep humanity.
Was it genes, or the intense trials of his life that made Verdi
the human being equal to the greatest of his works?
His musical beginnings were overshadowed by the refusal of the
Conservatory of Milan to admit him as a student. Later, his young
family - wife and two children - was wiped out by an epidemic. And,
while none of his early operas brought success, the one comic opera
he attempted turned into a humiliating fiasco. He vowed never to
write anything humorous, if he could just compose again.
And then - Nabucco. His sudden popularity did not come about merely
by writing a good work for the theater. It became anchored very
specifically in "Go forth thought on golden wings," a
chorus instantly adopted by all Italians as their unofficial anthem,
a chorus that the crowd sang spontaneously wherever Verdi's coffin
passed in 1901.
Yet not until Rigoletto did the public receive notice of the composer's
true potential. And even Rigoletto gives little hint of all that
was yet in store for a disbelieving musical world. Giuseppe Verdi
turned out to be the proverbial developing composer. Some, like
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Frederic Chopin - though their late music
is more complex - reveal their full genius at a very early age.
Others (Ludwig van Beethoven is usually mentioned as the prime example)
travel a long road and undergo profound transformations on the way.
Indeed, few if any could listen to Beethoven's first piano sonatas
and perceive the slightest premonition of the glimpse at the entire
universe his last piano sonatas will allow.
But, in terms of the length of the road traveled, Verdi surpasses
even Beethoven. No one could have imagined the kind of music he
wrote at the end, the way in which the effervescent humor of Falstaff
lights up the sunset of the 19th century.
There is much we can learn from Verdi, today and always. His humble
beginnings did not impede him. His rejection by the Conservatory
of Milan did not impede him. The lack of recognition did not impede
him. Personal tragedy did not impede him.
Most importantly, the "slings and arrows" of criticism
did not impede him. As the adulation Richard Wagner demanded and
inspired grew to manic proportions, many in the professional world
of music portrayed Verdi capable only of "trite melodies with
crude accompaniments." That was the typical German view of
Italian opera, and the astonishing musical sophistication of Un
ballo in maschera, Don Carlo, or Aida was conveniently ignored.
We can look to Verdi as we conduct some of our political debates.
Much is being said today about the need for certain types of people
to be represented only by the same type of people. Example: "only
women can represent women, because only women know how women feel."
From Louisa Miller, through Gilda, Violetta, Leonora, Amelia, Elisabetta
and Aida, all the way to Desdemona, Verdi placed the suffering woman
at the center of his dramas. Would anyone seriously propose that
Patricia Ireland understands women better than Giuseppe Verdi?
And we can learn from him about giving back. He did not think it
was his right to be successful; he thought himself fortunate. Yes,
to reach one's greatest heights at the age of 80 is fortunate indeed.
Characteristically, Verdi's thoughts were with the less fortunate
as he began planning and building the home that bears his name today.
Physically, he remained aloof from the venue because he did not
want to receive gestures of personal gratitude. He merely wanted
to do the deed.
We live at a time when conventional wisdom has done away with the
concept of greatness. Assorted persons have come to believe - and
advocate - that nothing is great. By some perverted thinking, that
is supposed to render everything equally great. These persons -
who teach at universities, write books, and appear on talk shows
- are depriving generation after generation of the incentive to
become acquainted with the truly great, so they may learn, be inspired,
and prosper themselves.
But a glance at the lengths and breadths to which the world has
gone this year to commemorate the anniversary of this simple, unassuming
man from a little village in the Po Valley should reassure all of
us. Sooner or later noise will subside, and greatness shall always