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AD MDCCCXIII bequeathed to the humanity two great composers: Richard Wagner (1813–1883) and Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901).
Wagner, inspired by the Nordic mythology, explored its unfathomable depths, berhymed its verbal messages which inspired his music language, created his own grammar and orthography, compelled them to the public, enriched sound-spaces and emotional horizons, inveigled followers into his aesthetic principles, or paved paths for further developments and discoveries.
Verdi, incited by librettos his publisher and producers provided him, commented works by Victor Hugo (Hernani, Le Roi s’amuse), Alexandre Dumas fils (La Dame aux camélias). Shakespeare (Macbeth. Othello, Falstaff), Schiller (Louisa Miller, Don Carlos), Garcia Gutierrez (“Il Trovatore”), Spanish scribbler Rivas (“La Forza del destino”), adopting the basic patterns of his predecessors Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti: emphasis on the vocal part of the score, simplified accompaniments, perfunctory successions of scenes in the conventional structure.
Haughty, arrogant, foppish, Wagner never conceded any concession to the crowd. Charismatic, sociable, unassuming, Verdi flattered opera-lovers with delightful arias, sometimes lighter than a Neapolitan song (La Donna è mobile, for example), often intense and thrilling (aria of Rigoletto), always seductive and enchanting.
To his extraordinary gift for the once-heard-never-forgotten arias, Verdi joins his acute sense for dramatic graduations which often bring to his works an impressive and gripping emotional dynamics (quartet from the final act of Rigoletto, for example) whose magnetic strength still exerts its huge power over the audiences.
Verdi was born on October 10th, 1813 in the village called Roncole in the province of Parma, occupied by Napoléon’s army. Still in the cot, he had a narrow escape from the Austrian soldiers who massacred the population of the province after Napoléon’s defeat in 1814. His father, owner of the village inn, hid with family in the attic and left the door of the inn ajar. Glutted Austrians returned to their barracks.
Verdi ‘s first tutor was an organist from the nearby city of Busseto. When he was 19 year-old, he studied privately in Milan composition and conducting. His first opera entitled “Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio”, commissioned by La Scala, was well received in 1839. La Scala commissioned “Nabucco”, performed in 1842. It was Verdi’s first triumph. He was recognized as a national composer. After “I Lombardi alla prima crociata” (1843), Verdi offers to the public “Ernani” (1844), “Macbetb” (1847), “Louisa Miller” (1849). Composed in 1851, “Rigoletto” brought him an international fame. “I1 Trovatore” (1852) and “La Traviata” (1853) brought him commissions from abroad: “Les Vêpres siciliennes”, work inspired by massacre of French in Sicily in 1282 (Paris Opera in 1855), “La Forza del destino” (St. Petersburg Opera in 1862), new version of “Macbeth” (Paris Opera in 1865), “Don Carlos” (Paris Opera in 1867). Ismaïl Pacha of Egypt commissioned in1871 for the opening of Cairo Opera House “Aida”. A new triumph but not the last one: “Otello” in 1887, then “Falstaff’ in 1893. Verdi was 80 years old!
The comeliness of Verdi’s String Quartet in E-minor, conceived in 1873, unveils some stirring stanzas of his intimate poetry, damped by scenic effects in his operas. Written in 1874 for the first anniversary of Alessandro Manzoni’s death, Verdi’s magnificent Requiem reveals his dramatic poetry freed of theatrical purports, emotionally impelled by deep religious feelings, present also in the instrumental part of the score. The masterful treatment and the importance of the role confided to the orchestra disclose Verdi’s hidden technical abilities.
A very happy fusion of Verdi’s intimate and dramatic poetry with his religious feelings is performed in his swan-song “Quatro pezzi sacri” composed in 1898 in memoriam Giuseppina Strepponi, his second spouse, deceased in 1897. The Stabat Mater and especially the Te Deum confirm the grandeur and the eternal youth of the 85 year-old genius. Some technical audacity displayed by Verdi in his ultimate masterpiece did not remain unnoticed by composers of our time.
Verdi’s syncretic creative energism attracted numerous imitators, but engendered just a few disciples. The best known, whose works cross sometimes Italian borders, are Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-1886) and Arrigo Boito (1842–1918). Let us not forget two Latin-American verdists, the Brazilian Carlos Gomes (1836-1896) and Luis Delgadillo from Nicaragua (1887-1961 in Managua). Carlos Gomes witnessed triumphs of his opera “Il Guarany” (1870) inspired by the Brazilian romanticist’s José de Alencar (1829–1877) novel entitled “O Guarani” in La Scala and other Italian, European and South American opera centres. His opera "Fosca” (fosca means “mien” in English), composed in 1873 is considered his masterpiece by critics. It is followed by operas “Salvator Rosa” (1874) and “Lo Schiavo” (1889) — Luis Delgadillo wrote five operas as well as ballets, symphonies, overtures, masses and chamber music works. First, attracted by Verdi’s spirit in his operas, this pupil of Milan Conservatory later introduced folkloric elements in his symphonic works and underwent some influences of Debussy and Schoenberg. Luis Delgadillo is certainly the greatest Central-American composer. — While chronologically closer to the demagogical post-verdist movement called verism, like Luis Delgadillo, the French composer Gustave Charpentier (1860–1956) is aesthetically more verdist in his world-renowned opera “Louise” (1900) then continuator of the principles of Jules Massenet (1842-1912) who did influence his means of expression — The great French–German pianist Eugène d’Albert (1864–1932), who composed twelve operas, is rather verdist in his most popular work “Tiefland”, despite his efforts to coarsen Wagner’s scenic formulas.
Partisan of the Italian political and social movement Risorgimento, whose liberal, humanitarian and nationalist actions, propagated mostly by the intellectuals, but supported by bourgeoisie, led to the unification of the country and the establishment of the monarchy with the King Vittorio Emmanuele in 1860, Verdi was elected member of the first Italian parliament in 1861. His social and humanitarian activities lasted till his death. He passed away on 27th January 1901 in Milan in the home for the elderly musicians funded by him and left legacy of his tremendous personal wealth to his needed colleagues.
Contribution by Jean-François Grancher