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Music in the Nineteenth Century


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

What made Verdi possible, first of all, was of course his talent. Why insist on such a truism? Because it is especially important to set Verdi's career in the context of his time and place. That will tell us what made Verdi not only possible but necessary.

The time and place were in a very volatile counterpoint just then. Pursuing an operatic career in that place still meant coping with the hectic factory conditions described in chapter 1, conditions that made adherence to manifold conventions—the old Code Rossini—a necessity. Verdi spent the first seventeen years of his career—from 1836, when he began his first opera, Oberto, to 1853, when La traviata was performed—as a compositore scritturato, a contract (or staff) composer, in constant negotiation with theaters and casts, writing frantically on commission, with only limited control of subjects and libretti, and then revising furiously during rehearsals. Verdi looked back on this period as his “years in the galley,” comparing himself to the slaves who sweated over the oars in Roman ships of old.

During this time, between the ages of twenty-three and forty, Verdi produced nineteen of his twenty-eight operas in collaboration with seven librettists and nine theaters. At the height of his early fame, 1844–47, he managed to turn out eight operas in less than four years. None of this batch had permanent success, but one (Macbeth, 1847, after Shakespeare) was later reworked at leisure and has earned a place in the standard repertory. Signs of international recognition begin in 1847, with commissions from London (I masnadieri, after Schiller's play The Robbers) and Paris (Jérusalem, reworked from I Lombardi alla prima crociata, a historical drama set at the time of the Crusades). At the end of the galley period he produced a trio of masterpieces—Rigoletto (1851), Il trovatore (The Troubadour), and La traviata (The Fallen Woman, 1853)—that have remained the cornerstone of the Italian repertory in opera houses throughout the world. The triumph of this “popular trilogy,” as it used to be called, bought Verdi's freedom from galley slavery.

One of the reasons for the traditional stylistic “unself-consciousness” of Italian opera was the galley system itself, the merciless conditions under which operas were produced. When writing under so many prescriptions and requirements one is not conscious of having a style, only a method. An opera, however, did have to have a style—a tinta (color/tone), as it was called—to make it effective and memorable. According to Abramo Basevi (1818–85), a famous music critic who in 1859 published the earliest full-length study of Verdi's operas and may have coined the term, it was his infallible capacity for endowing his operas with an effective tinta that made Verdi supreme.

It was something of an intangible, this tinta (or colorito, to use the word Verdi preferred). It might consist in one opera of recurrent tone colors or instrumental combinations, in another of recurrent harmonic effects. It could be the result of melodic turns, or of characteristic rhythms, or any combination of idiosyncrasies that provided a characteristic musical “substratum” below the level of theme or even leitmotif, and also below the level of whatever “local color” a libretto might require.

Julian Budden, the author of the most detailed published survey of Verdi's operas and a matchless connoisseur of their contents, speaks of “the upward thrust of so many melodies” in one opera, “the abundance of andantino in broken [i.e., with rests on beats two and five]” in another, “the bow-shaped melodic designs” in a third and “the minor-third figurations”9 in a fourth as constituting their respective tinte. But Roger Parker, another Verdi expert, just as cogently cites the prevalence of syncopation as the decisive ingredient that tinctures Ernani (1844),10 the first of Budden's four and Verdi's first international success. (It was based on a notorious blood-and-thunder melodrama by Victor Hugo.)

However difficult it may be to define, it is on the level of tinta that the influence of the times may be most strongly felt in Verdi's early work, setting it apart from that of his predecessors and contemporaries and giving it what, in historical hindsight anyway, may be called an individual manner. The time during which Verdi became the most famous and frequently performed Italian opera composer in Europe was a famously turbulent period in Italian history known as the Risorgimento (resurgence)—the name given by Count Vittorio Alfieri (1749–1803), an early nationalist poet, to Italy's struggle toward independence and national unity.

As Alfieri's noble rank implied, the Risorgimento was a revolutionary movement led “from above,” by the aristocracy and the educated bourgeoisie, the art-consuming classes. The objective was to rid Italy of foreign rulers—Austria in the north, Napoleonic France in other areas including the environs of Rome—and to unite the independent Italian states under a single authority. The factions furthest to the left backed republican rule, those furthest to the right papal rule; the ultimately successful liberal middle favored a constitutional monarchy under Victor Emmanuel, king of Sardinia, scion of the house of Savoy, whose capital was the industrial city of Turin in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy.

Independence and unification were won in stages, beginning with abortive uprisings organized in the1820s in the wake of the Congress of Vienna; continuing through a series of more violent revolts (some briefly successful) in the revolutionary years 1848–49; a successful Sardinian campaign against Austria in 1859, after which Lombardy was joined to Victor Emmanuel's kingdom; a series of plebiscites in 1860; Garibaldi's conquest of Sicily later that year; and the proclamation of the kingdom in 1861 with its capital first at Turin, later at Florence. Venice and Rome were the last areas to be incorporated, the former as a diplomatic by-product of the Austro-Prussian war of 1866 (Victor Emmanuel having prudently allied himself with Prussia), and the latter as a similar by-product of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. The Italian state as it exists today with Rome as its capital—the first political entity incorporating the entire Italian peninsula since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century—was established in 1871.

The 1840s, the decade of Verdi's apprenticeship, was the period when the arts, led by the example of poets and novelists like Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873) and Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837), began to be significantly affected by Risorgimento ideals, and to affect the movement in turn. It was, in Mazzini's words, a time of “social poetry.” The romanticism it embodied, unlike the northern romanticism with which we are already very familiar, was hostile to morbid individualism. For Mazzini, a suffering Byronic hero was a thing of “wretchedness and impotence.”11 The proper role of romantic literature, he averred, using the very word (risorgere) that gave the great movement its name, was not to glorify or wallow in private pain but “to soothe the suffering soul by teaching it to rise up toward God through Humanity.”

Part of the project was, simply, to teach the suffering Italian soul that it was suffering. As David Kimbell emphasizes in his study of Verdi, Austrian rule was not particularly burdensome to the northern Italians, and Milan, both the seat of the Austrian administration and the site of La Scala, Italy's most prestigious opera house, was a flourishing and contented city for most of Verdi's galley period.12 It became the function of art to rouse not only the rabble but also the educated classes to action, to give the latter a political conscience despite their relative material well-being and the passivity to which contentment so easily gave rise. Morse Peckham, a prominent critic of romantic literature, has put the matter bluntly but memorably: “If the Austrian domination was to be overthrown, the level of aggression in enough Italians to make that possible had to be significantly raised.”13

All national art became double-coded: an implicit model, even a manual of action that exemplified what could not be openly advocated by direct public exhortation. Peckham goes so far as to suggest that

for the purposes of raising the level of aggression it made no moral difference if historical romances, paintings, and operas show Italians as brutal, bloody, and revengeful. They were Italians being highly aggressive. An Italian fictional or operatic villain was ambivalent and had a dual function—to raise awareness of oppression and to show an Italian as highly aggressive and capable of seizing and wielding power.

Italian romanticism of the Risorgimento period thus provided the impetus for perhaps the first self-conscious political vanguard—an avant-garde in the literal, quasi-military sense—to be actively promoted, and even led, by artists. And this vividly suggests the source of the special Verdi tinta that vouchsafed his early eminence. It was the tinta of cruelty, of strife, of force—in Peckham's word, of aggression—the tinta summed up by the epithet il Verdi brutto (“nasty Verdi”) with which his more fastidious detractors tormented him in his galley years.


(9) Julian Budden, The Operas of Verdi, Vol. I (New York: Praeger, 1973), p. 40.

(10) RogerParker, “Ernani,” in New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. II (London: Macmillan, 1992), p. 71.

(11) Giuseppe Mazzini, “Byron and Goethe,” trans. A. Rutherford, quoted in David Kimbell, Verdi in the Age of Italian Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 12.

(12) Kimbell, Verdi in the Age of Italian Romanticism, p. 16ff.

(13) Morse Peckham, Romanticism and Ideology (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1995), p. 37.

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. 21 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-011003.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 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-011003.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 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-011003.xml