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Music in the Nineteenth Century

CHAPTER 11 Artist, Politician, Farmer (Class of 1813, II)


CHAPTER 11 Artist, Politician, Farmer (Class of 1813, II)
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


The invisible orchestra! The idea is not mine, but Wagner's; and it is excellent. It is impossible today to tolerate horrible tailcoats and white ties against Egyptian, Assyrian, and Druid costumes; to set the orchestra, part of an imaginary world, so to speak, in the middle of the floor, right in the crowd as it claps or hisses. Add to all this the objectionableness of having harps, double basses, and the windmill arms of the conductor himself jutting into the air.1

Endless chatter about … how I don't know how to write for singers; how the few bearable things are all in the second and fourth acts (nothing in the third); and how on top of all that I am an imitator of Wagner!!! A fine outcome after thirty-five years to wind up as an imitator!!!2

Our young Italian composers are not good patriots. If the Germans, proceeding from Bach, have come to Wagner, they do so as good Germans, and all is well. But when we, the descendants of Palestrina, imitate Wagner, we are committing a musical crime and are doing a useless, nay, harmful thing.3

You do well to honor your Maestro. He is one of the greatest geniuses. He has made people happy and presented them with treasures of immeasurable and immortal worth. You will understand that I, as an Italian, do not yet understand everything. That is due to our ignorance of German legend, the strangeness of Wagner's subject matter, its prevailing mysticism and the pagan world with its gods and Norns, its giants and dwarves. But I'm still young. I never cease exploring Wagner's sublime world of ideas. I owe him an enormous amount—hours of most wonderful exaltation. The work that always arouses my greatest admiration is Tristan! Before that gigantic work I stand in wonder and terror. I consider the second act, in its wealth of musical invention, its tenderness and sensuality of musical expression and its inspired orchestration, to be one of the finest creations that has ever issued from a human mind.4

These remarks about Wagner, by turns admiring and impatient, generous and resentful, were made at various points during the latter part of his career by Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), Wagner's exact if longer-lived contemporary and the preeminent late nineteenth-century representative of what was by then the oldest and most distinguished living tradition in European music, that of Italian opera.

The first of them is from a letter from Verdi to his publisher Giulio Ricordi, dated 10 July 1871, several months before the first Italian production of a Wagner opera (Lohengrin in Bologna) and five years before the Wagnerian “invisible orchestra” was actually realized at Bayreuth. It serves as a reminder about yet another Wagnerian watershed that has profoundly affected the world of music in which we now live: not the invisible orchestra, which has remained a rarity, but the practice of lowering the houselights, not only at operatic performances, but at symphony concerts and solo recitals as well.

Chapter 11 Artist, Politician, Farmer (Class of 1813, II)

fig. 11-1 Giuseppe Verdi, portrait by Giovanni Boldini.

Most of us now take the darkness for granted, for we have never known another way. In the case of opera performances it was a matter of enhancing the “stage illusion” (the illusion that what we are witnessing is really happening) by as far as possible shutting out distracting competition from everyday reality. In the case of “absolute music” the darkness abetted romantic “interiority” (the music trance, as we have been calling it since chapter 2). But while it favored esthetic reverie (not to mention the traditional use of the theater for amorous pursuits) it made reading librettos impossible (as well as card games), and was strongly opposed by many, especially aristocrats who sensed that lowering the houselights would diminish their traditional proprietary rights over the theater and its mores. It also fostered somnolence and made countervailing efforts, which could be quite burdensome, a part of everybody's musical experience.

In demanding such efforts, musical occasions became even more like church attendance. Many felt themselves oppressed. An exasperated Chaikovsky wrote to his brother in St. Petersburg after the first Bayreuth Ring (which like Saint-Saëns he covered for a newspaper so as to receive free tickets), that “before, music strove to delight people; now they are tormented and exhausted.”5 In addition to the usual complaints about the sheer length of the spectacles, the endless dialogues and narratives (which could no longer be followed with the eye), and Wagner's “conglomeration of the most complex and recherché harmonies,” Chaikovsky railed bitterly at “the pitch-darkness in the theater.” It was a symptom, in his eyes, of that dangerous shift in the balance of artistic power from the consumer to the producer that was being fostered by promoters of the New German School, to recall some pseudo-economic jargon from chapter 8.

Verdi's enthusiasm at the prospect of an invisible orchestra is interesting in view of the difference between his artistic world and Wagner's. Compared with Wagner, Verdi was very much a “realist.” His subject matter was almost always of this world. He often used contemporary plays and even novels as source material. He was the first composer (in La traviata, 1853) to set an opera in the recognizable (near-)present. But he, too, favored a heightened stage illusion, which could serve to enhance any stage reality whatever its degree of proximity to the surrounding reality. And in seeking to abet the illusion he tacitly admitted that even a stage setting in the “here and now” required esthetic distancing from what was truly here and truly now if the stage action was to have any dramatic effect. (But terms are always slippery: Wagner, too, was often called a realist because of his hostility to conventional form and the so-called “musical prose” of his vocal parts, which, accompanied by a network of leitmotives, often had an irregular, seemingly ametrical phrase structure even at their most lyrical.)

The second epigraph is from another letter to Ricordi written about a year later than the first, when Verdi's grandest opera, Aida, was being rehearsed for its Italian premiere. The world premiere had been in Egypt, the opera having been commissioned to inaugurate a new theater built to mark Cairo's bid for status as an international center following the opening of the Suez Canal. (In the event, the new opera being late, the theater opened with Rigoletto.) No other composer, not even Wagner, had an international reputation at that moment that would have recommended him for such a commission (although, needing to make contingency plans, the commissioners listed Wagner after Verdi, and Gounod after Wagner). And yet to the extent that the new opera seemed stylistically up-to-date or in any way different from what Verdi's audience expected, the difference was automatically attributed to Wagner's influence despite the fact that Verdi was a world-famous master and Wagner's music was still practically unknown in Italy. (The Bologna Lohengrin had not yet been followed up by any other Italian theater.) This shows to what extent Wagner, with his voluminous theorizing and his genius for self-promotion, had managed to get himself accepted everywhere as the standard of musical “contemporaneity.” Verdi's tone (exclamation points in threes!) betrays a private anxiety that practically everybody shared.

Chapter 11 Artist, Politician, Farmer (Class of 1813, II)

fig. 11-2 Emma Eames (1865–1952) as Aida, ca. 1900.

It made him fearful for the future of Italian opera, as he confessed to another correspondent a year later still, in 1873, after Aida had had a grandiose success that stilled murmurings about “Wagnerism.”6 He was strong enough and well enough established to withstand the pressure, he wrote, but imagine today, for example, a young man of the temper of Bellini: not very certain of himself, shaky because of his scanty training, guided by his instinct alone. And now imagine him attacked by the Wagnerites. He would finally lose confidence in himself, and he would be lost.

These were the fears that nudged Verdi over into pronouncements like the third epigraph above, from a letter written in 1889 (six years after Wagner's death) to a British impresario. Verdi's sentiments here offer Wagner's aggressive nationalism a riposte in kind, testifying to a generally heightened nationalistic tension all over Europe—even in Italy, which had gone through a national unification comparable to Germany's, and did so fully a decade earlier. But after the Franco-Prussian War, Germany was regarded everywhere as a ferocious nation, and Wagner as its bellwether. Not only did representatives of threatened traditions regard him thus; so did the Germans themselves, avidly. “Wagner's music was not only the best and most significant of its age,” Arnold Schoenberg could still gloat half a century later, “but it was also the music of 1870 Germany, who conquered the world of her friends and enemies through all her achievements, not without arousing their envy and resistance.”7 Verdi in 1889 certainly gave evidence in support of Schoenberg's claim.

But by 1899, when, an eighty-six-year-old Titan, he was fawningly interviewed by a reporter for a German newspaper, Verdi relaxed his guard and issued the very diplomatic and (with regard to Tristan) even admiring assessment of Wagner that is cited as the fourth epigraph above. And yet there is sufficient evidence of leg-pulling (“I do not yet understand everything … but I'm still young”) to justify a suspicion of irony, especially where Verdi writes (compare Chaikovsky!) about “making people happy,” or about Wagner's “sublime world of ideas.” Still, there comes a time when a survivor can afford generosity.

The question remains, why did Verdi feel the need so insistently to position himself and reposition himself vis-à-vis “Vanyer” (as he always pronounced the name)? He was a more famous composer than Wagner for most of his career. His works had formed the bedrock of the standard operatic repertory since the 1850s, and they continue to form it today. And his lineage, however you measure it, was far more ancient and distinguished. The tradition of German opera, where Wagner reigned supreme, was separated from the lifetime of Bach (the figurehead from which Verdi traced the German line in the third epigraph) by some decades at least. Its origins in the singspiel were lowly. The tradition of German symphonic music, where Wagner asserted a far more controversial claim to preeminence, was even younger. But the tradition that Verdi dominated went back almost a century before Bach's time, practically to the time of Palestrina himself, Verdi's equally artificial, equally mythologized Italian figurehead. In its Florentine humanistic origins Verdi's was the most aristocratic of traditions, whether one measured aristocracy in terms of patronage or in terms of culture.

By Verdi's time, Italians had gloried in musical preeminence for centuries. And thanks to the exportability of their product, so extensively documented in this book, Italian musicians had long come to see themselves as world conquerors, arbiters of “universal” taste. Since the rise of German instrumental music, with its heavy baggage of (to Italians) questionable philosophy, Italian musicians were happy to divide the musical world into spheres of influence: the vocal, where their superiority was unassailable (and which they regarded as the higher sphere because it was the one that the human organism could produce “naturally,” without mediation), and the instrumental, which the Germans were welcome to if they wanted it. Any German (Mozart, say, or Handel) who wanted to excel in vocal music had to learn his trade from them, and practiced it on their terms, even when it came to language. Beethoven, with his one opera, and Weber, with his glorified singspiels, could be tolerated with condescension. They posed no threat.

But now, through Wagner, the parvenu German tradition had put the Italian on the defensive, and had begun to assert universalist claims not only at home but abroad. The nature of the Wagnerian music drama implied a dual claim to dominance, incorporating both vocal and instrumental supremacy. And it was winning converts even in Italy, where in the 1860s an increasingly vocal group of self-styled musical intellectuals called scapigliati (“shaggy folk,” or “the long-hair set”) began agitating for a “Wagnerian reform” of the local product.

Meanwhile, it is worth noting that Verdi's ambivalent but nervously intense interest in Wagner went completely unreciprocated. Wagner seems never to have uttered a single public word about Verdi, whether in writing or to an interviewer. The Italian goes almost unmentioned in Wagner's private correspondence. Even his wife Cosima's minute and worshipful diary that recorded his every word and deed for the duration of their marriage, a document that when published occupied some twenty-four hundred pages, deigns to notice the composer who now figures in history as Wagner's greatest rival only six times in passing. Wagner's remarks are usually quite noncommittal. It is only Cosima who registers active condescension or distaste. One evening in 1871, for example, in connection with the Bologna Lohengrin, the conversation turned toward things Italian. When a guest seated himself at the piano and tactlessly treated the Wagners to “a dreadful musical tour, Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini, Verdi, one after the other,” Cosima reported, “feeling physically ill, I pick up and seek refuge in a volume of Goethe.”8

The one-sidedness of the Wagner-Verdi relationship was not only a sign of the times, but also a portent; for Wagner was a “spook”—a crisis point, a phenomenon that nobody could ignore, and even more than that, a polarizing force, a phenomenon about which one had to take sides. Wagner's ironically counter-Hegelian legacy was the intensification of antitheses and the prevention of synthesis. The convergence often predicted in the nineteenth century—most explicitly, ironically enough, by the Italian revolutionary patriot Giuseppe Mazzini(1805–72)in an early essay on music—whereby Italian and German music would meet in the middle and bring forth a universal style that would combine their virtues, never took place. In Wagner's polarizing wake everything and everybody became “more so.” Difference, celebrated since Herder's time, now became a fetish and a narcissistic obsession. Only because of Wagner (and the rampant “1870 Germany” he represented) did Italian and French musicians, whatever their level of patriotism, feel the need to become stylistic nationalists. Previously the style of Italian music had been the one European style virtually free of self-consciousness—a luxury enjoyed only by the self-confidently topmost, and a testimony to that happy state of security. But as we have just seen, by the end of his career even Verdi had been spooked. Even he needed to situate himself stylistically vis-à-vis the wizard of Bayreuth, and so have practically all composers ever since. Wagner's own style, as we have also seen, was probably the most self-conscious, self-willed, and deliberately assumed style in the history of European music. Unself-conscious style has not been an option for composers in the post-Wagnerian age, and that may be the post-Wagnerian age's best definition.


(1) Franz Werfel and Paul Stefan, eds., Verdi: The Man in His Letters, trans. Edward Downes (New York: Vienna House, 1973), p. 305.

(2) Ibid., p. 310.

(3) Verdi to Franco Faccio, 14 July 1889; Ibid., p. 392.

(4) Felix Philippi, “Begegnung mit Verdi,” Berliner Tagblatt, 13 July 1913; in Marcello Conati, ed., Encounters with Verdi, trans. Richard Stokes (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984), pp. 328–29.

(5) Pyotr Chaikovsky to Modest Chaikovsky, quoted in Alexander Poznansky, Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man (New York: Schirmer, 1991), p. 181.

(6) Verdi to Clarina Maffei, 9 April 1873; Verdi: The Man in His Letters, p. 322.

(7) Arnold Schoenberg, “National Music,” in Style and Idea, ed. Leonard Stein, trans. Leo Black (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), p. 172.

(8) Martin Gregor-Dellin and Dietrich Mack, eds., Cosima Wagner's Diaries, Vol. I (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), pp. 335–36.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 Artist, Politician, Farmer (Class of 1813, II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-011.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 11 Artist, Politician, Farmer (Class of 1813, II). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 24 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-011.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 Artist, Politician, Farmer (Class of 1813, II)." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 24 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-011.xml