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Music in the Nineteenth Century


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

The librettist of Ernani was Francesco Maria Piave (1810–76), with whom Verdi collaborated over the next eighteen years on more than a dozen projects, making Piave the composer's most faithful and prolific accomplice. Their partnership was by no means an equal one. The composer dominated the librettist mercilessly, reversing the traditional theatrical hierarchy and in so doing epitomizing the vastly heightened status of music—or, to put it more precisely, of musical originality (“genius”)—in the later nineteenth-century scheme of things artistic, even in Italy.

The mature Verdi always had precise notions of what the dramatic situation required in terms of music. He demanded from his librettists both precisely tailored versification and an extreme economy of words that an ornate stylist like Solera (or any early nineteenth-century librettist) would have been loath to provide. Piave, verbally adept yet without any independent literary reputation or ambition, could afford to be accommodating. As a result, Verdi's mature operas were controlled—indeed, “micromanaged”—by the composer almost as completely as Wagner's, in which the words and music both actually issued from a single mind. But there the resemblance ceased. Where Wagner wanted to take opera back to its cultic or epic roots by impersonating Aeschylus or some other real or fancied Greek tragedian, Verdi wanted to become a Shakespeare.

What “being a Shakespeare” meant to a nineteenth-century dramatist was, in a word, dramatic “realism”: the fusing of all existing dramatic genres into a single supple, pliant idiom known as “tragicomedy”—the true reflector of human character and experience. Fusion (and the implied overthrow of formal constraints) had been Victor Hugo's watchword, as expressed in the preface to Hernani, the very play on which Verdi modeled his fifth opera. Hugo, too, had invoked Shakespeare and the tragicomic, and so did Verdi's great contemporary, the novelist and fellow risorgimentista Alessandro Manzoni, when he remarked that “it was not any mere violation of rules that led Shakespeare to this mixture of the grave and the burlesque, the touching and the low; he had simply observed this mixture in reality and wished to convey the strong impression it made on him.”16 The literary scholar George Steiner deftly summed up the difference between the epic and the tragicomic—the Wagnerian and the Verdian—by noting that

even in the blackest hours of a Shakespearean tragedy or a Verdi opera the morning light of human laughter, the feline energies of human rebound are close at hand…. The masters of the absolute—Aeschylus, Sophocles, [the French tragedian] Racine, Wagner—concentrate the sum of the world to a single immensity of encounter. Shakespeare and Verdi, on the contrary, know that the instant in which Agamemnon is murdered [in Aeschylus's tragedy] is also that in which a birthday party is being celebrated next door.17

The tragicomic vision, then, is one that projects drama in terms of foils and contrasts, not even excluding the contrast of poetry and prose. The most famous Shakespearean contrast of this sort is the famously farcical prose scene of the drunken porter at the gate (act II, sc. 3) that follows immediately on the horrific murder scene in Macbeth; and the most sustained example of Shakespearean tragicomedy is the character of the Fool or jester who shadows King Lear, the most pitiable of all Shakespearean tragic victims, in the play that bears the latter's name. Nothing was ever less a coincidence than the fact that Verdi's tenth opera (and third with Piave) was a Macbeth (1847); or that the phantom haunting Verdi's career from 1843 to the end of his days was his unrealized ambition to create an operatic King Lear.

True, Verdi's Macbeth has no porter. (The presence of supernatural characters—Shakespeare's witches—in a tragedy proved controversial enough). And (as the opera historian Piero Weiss has pointed out) the reason for his failure to produce Il re Lear was, in all likelihood, precisely the difficulty of imagining a musical technique for shadowing the tragic title character with the comic Fool, which would mean making the Fool a major character in a serious opera.18 Yet despite his apparent failure or disinclination to emulate Shakespeare's most radical mixtures of genre, the fact remains that the double-edged Shakespearean ideal of fusion and contrast was Verdi's main objective in tweaking the conventions of Italian opera (with Piave's help) into new configurations that depended to an unprecedented extent on devices of irony.

The new Verdian manner reached its climax with that amazing trio of operas, composed all in a row between 1850 and 1853. Like Ernani, Verdi's Rigoletto was modeled on a politically “liberal” verse drama by Victor Hugo. That play, Le roi s'amuse (“The King amuses himself,” 1832) had actually fallen afoul of the French censor because it portrays a French king (the early sixteenth-century monarch Francis I) as a philanderer. (In Piave's libretto, the royal rake is demoted to the level of a duke—and his duchy, Mantua, was by the nineteenth century no longer an independent city-state but a part of Lombardy then under Austrian rule, thus neutralizing any danger of affronting a sovereign.) Verdi immediately saw in Hugo's play an ideally “Shakespearean” subject for an opera, since the eventual libretto's title character, the hunchback Rigoletto (Triboulet in Hugo), was at once the tragic victim and a court jester by trade—Fool and Lear in one!

The whole plot of Rigoletto hinges on a single wrenching irony. As the Duke's court jester, Rigoletto mocks the father of a girl his master has seduced and abandoned, and receives a furious parental curse (act I). His own daughter, Gilda, is seduced by the Duke; Rigoletto contracts a professional hit man to avenge his paternal honor by murdering the Duke (act II). By a series of chilling mischances, Gilda is murdered in the Duke's place, devastating the poor jester and fulfilling the curse (act III). The two roles Rigoletto played in life—jester and father—thus fatally collide. The contrast, embodied starkly in act I, was made for music: Up until the moment of the curse, the first scene is purest comic opera; the second is purest tragedy (as reflected in its musical forms, which include an extended coloratura aria for Gilda). Act III, which we will examine in detail, is an unprecedented mixture throughout of the comic and the terrible.

Il trovatore was based on a fairly recent play (Il trovador, 1836) by the Spanish poet Antonio García Gutiérrez (1813–84), a follower of Hugo. The libretto was by Salvadore Cammarano (1801–52), one of Donizetti's chief collaborators (hence a poet of the “old school”). Although it was the last of the distinguished Cammarano's thirty-six librettos, it needed some doctoring (by Leone Emanuele Bardare) to suit Verdi's neo-Shakespearean needs. In an effort to get the venerable poet to modernize his style a little, Verdi came on to him for all the world like a Wagnerian (if an independent one, Verdi being as yet unacquainted with Wagner's theories):

As for the distribution of the pieces [into “numbers”], let me tell you that when I'm presented with poetry to be set to music, any form, any distribution is good, and I'm all the happier if they are new and bizarre. If in operas there were no more cavatinas, duets, trios, choruses, finales, etc. etc., and if the entire opera were, let's say, a single piece, I would find it more reasonable and just.19

But Cammarano stuck to his habits, and of the three “middle Verdi” masterpieces Il trovatore is the most formally conventional. Its very conventionality can serve our analytical purposes, however, since it will provide us, when the time comes, with a lens through which to view the idiosyncratic departures in the last act of Rigoletto.

The plot of Il trovatore, complicated to the point of proverbial incoherence, is all but impossible to summarize. Here all we need to do is describe the main characters. The title character, the troubadour, whose given name is Manrico (tenor), is a nobleman (the son and heir of the Count di Luna), who was stolen as an infant by a gypsy woman, Azucena (mezzo-soprano or contralto) and brought up as a gypsy chieftain. All of this takes place before the action begins, and is revealed in narrative flashback. When the opera begins, Manrico and his unknowing half-brother, the present Count di Luna (baritone), are in love with the same woman, Leonora (soprano), the Duchess of Aragon. We learn from a conversation with her confidante Inez (soprano) that she loves an unknown knight whose troubadour has been serenading her.

What the main action of the opera accomplishes through a host of contrivances and coincidences is the progressive revelation of the truth despite many setbacks, the unmasking of Manrico's mistaken identity, and his union with Leonora. The plot's whole thrust and trajectory, in other words, was to get the prima donna out of the clutches of the baritone and into the arms of the true primo uomo, the tenor. Soprano and tenor were the new obligatory couple: their ardently romantic duet had to be vouchsafed come hell or high water. And thereby hangs a tale.

In the days of the opera seria the leading couple had been a soprano and a castrato—and then for a while (even more artificially) a soprano and a “musico” (woman in trousers and false whiskers). Only with the generation of Bellini and Donizetti had the romantic hero become a natural-voiced man—but only relatively speaking, since the conventions of bel canto demanded an extremely high tessitura for the tenor, a level of coloratura in his part comparable to that of the prima donna, and (for these reasons) a vocal delivery that depended on the free admixture of falsetto singing (or “head voice”), by definition soft and supple rather than forceful.

The great change in the distribution and definition of opera roles between Donizetti's time and Verdi's—hence the great change in the technical training of singers—was the institution of the tenore di forza (or tenore robusto), the “strength tenor,” as romantic lead. Manrico was the quintessential, defining role for this urgently virile voice type, which had virtually no place in Italian opera before the 1840s. This, too, was a “realistic” innovation in its way, but the type of voice it demanded was as unnatural—and as arduously manufactured—as any other. Composers of the old school, notably Rossini (with whose nostalgia for bel canto we are familiar since chapter 1), found the noises made by tenori di forza intolerable. He compared the singing of Gilbert Duprez (1806–96), the first of the breed, who made a sensation in the role of Arnold in Rossini's Guillaume Tell, to “the squawk of a capon with its throat cut.”20 Receiving another famous tenore di forza late in life, Rossini asked him to kindly leave his high C♯ at the door.

For tenori di forza maintained their full (or “chest”) voice over their entire range—even up to their highest notes, which assumed the vibrant, ringing (or, for those who hated it, the raucous, earsplitting) tone we now associate with Italian tenors. A tenor's ability to reach these notes in “chest” is now the most sought-after of all operatic skills. Those who have excelled at it—Enrico Caruso (1873–1921), Richard Tucker (1913–75), not to mention the “Three Tenors” (Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, and José Carreras) who in the 1990s became the highest-paid classical music act of all time—were the emblematic opera stars of the twentieth century.

It goes without saying that they were all outstanding Manricos. Their line goes back to the relatively obscure Carlo Baucarde, who created the role, but in terms of enduring fame the line goes back to Enrico Tamberlik (1820–89), who sang Manrico for the first time in London in 1855, and virtually owned the role thereafter. (Tamberlik was the singer to whom Rossini made his cutting request; the C♯ Rossini so detested was one that Tamberlik was celebrated for interpolating into the bel canto role of Arnold in Rossini's Guillaume Tell.) The great defining moment for Manrico, hence for the tenore di forza, was “Di quella pira” (“Tremble, O tyrants, at my torch!”), a number with good Risorgimento credentials, that constituted the cabaletta to a big scene with Leonora and the chorus at the very end of act III (Ex. 11-3). As an act closer, it was designed to bring down the house.

Like many cabalettas in the past (including some we have witnessed ourselves in chapter 1), “Di quella pira” is cast in the meter and characteristic rhythm of a polonaise, the regal dance par excellence. (Here the “revolutionary” Manrico reveals his “nobility” after all.) Its form is the familiar AA′BA′ with a coda in which first Leonora, then the chorus, join in. Its high Gs, A♭s and As are all to be sung forte, from the chest, as Verdi still saw fit to remind the singer with the notation con tutta forza. The flourish on the final line of each stanza (“o teco a morir!”) is notated up to the high A, but singers since Caruso have treated the composer's notation as a minimum expectation. Indeed, any singer who does not have a version of that final roulade up to Caruso's high C runs the risk of being hissed off the stage. (The matter became a scandal in December 2000, when the conductor Riccardo Muti, launching La Scala's Verdi centennial year with a new production of Il trovatore, based on a new critical edition of the score, treated the composer's notation as a limit and forbade his tenor robusto to sing the traditional high C, which one indignant journalist called “a gift to Verdi from the Italian people.”)21


ex. 11-3 Giuseppe Verdi, Il trovatore, “Di quella pira”

La traviata (“The fallen woman”), the most radically realistic opera of the three, was based La dame aux camélias (“The lady of the camelias”) by Alexandre Dumas the younger (1824–95), a play (based on the author's own novel of 1848) that Piave adapted into a libretto during the first year of its run, 1852. Adapting a current theatrical hit with a contemporary setting into an opera was an unprecedented move. Even bolder was Verdi's determination to keep the time frame of the opera as contemporary as that of the drama. (Here he was overruled by the Venetian censors; the setting of the first production was pushed back to the eighteenth century.) Boldest of all was the choice of a drama centering on the life and loves of a courtesan—a euphemism for a high-class or “courtly” prostitute. But as Verdi wrote to a friend, it was “a subject of the times,” and that justified all license. Only a composer who had been conditioned by the Risorgimento to associate art with “timeliness,” or topical pertinence, could have reasoned so. Such a notion might seem the very antithesis of Romanticism.


fig. 11-5 Cover of the first edition of La traviata in vocal score (Milan: Ricordi, 1853).

And yet the character of Violetta, the fallen woman of the title, was perforce greatly idealized—that is, romanticized—by Dumas, and even more by Verdi. The Preludio to the opera seems a curious chip off the Prelude to Wagner's Lohengrin, and serves a similar purpose. Rather than setting the scene for the beginning of act I, which depicts a lively party in progress, it paints a spiritual or internal portrait of the heroine that contrasts utterly with her public facade. Where she is outwardly insouciant and flirtatious, the prelude shows her melancholy and sincerely amorous, and hints, by way of dissonant deceptive cadences and tremolandi, at her fatal malady.

The plot concerns the love of Violetta for Alfredo Germont, a young man “of good family,” and its thwarting first by her unacceptability to Alfredo's father and finally by her early death. The whole story is narrated against the background of Parisian ballroom festivities, and the opera's tinta, unusually easy to discern and describe, is carried by its many actual, remembered, and etherealized waltz tunes. Both the cantabile (“Ah fors’è lui,” “Ah, was it he?”) and cabaletta (“Sempre libera,” “Always free”) in Violetta's scena at the end of act I are cast as waltzes in contrasting tempos. The cantabile reaches its climax in an expansively rounded melody in which Violetta recognizes true love, and which will function throughout the rest of the opera as a poignant reminiscence motif (Ex. 11-4a), while the cabaletta, in which she puts the thought aside with determined abandon, has become as much a showpiece for the Verdi soprano as “Di quella pira” is for the Verdi tenor (Ex. 11-4b).


ex. 11-4a Giuseppe Verdi, La traviata, “Ah, fors’è lui”


ex. 11-4b Giuseppe Verdi, La traviata, “Sempre libera”

At the other end of the opera, having been told by the doctor that death is imminent, Violetta takes leave of the world—her world—to the strains of another slow waltz-time cantabile (Ex. 11-4c); and when Alfredo arrives just in time to see her die, they sing a duet that functions as the corresponding fast-waltz cabaletta (Ex. 11-4d). Having at the last minute received the remorseful blessing of Alfredo's father, Violetta expires to a reprise of Ex. 11-4a, the opera's most full-blooded waltz number.


ex. 11-4c Giuseppe Verdi, La traviata, “Addio del passato”


ex. 11-4d Giuseppe Verdi, La traviata, “Parigi, o cara”

Throughout, but most conspicuously in the last scene, the tragic strains that accompany the sufferings of the protagonists are shadowed either downstage or offstage by the happy strains of revelry, underscoring the contradiction at the heart of Violetta's existence, but also providing that ironic mix of tragic and comic that, for Verdi as for Shakespeare, added up to “life.” As Steiner puts it, “The joy of the Parisian revelers beats against the windows of the dying Violetta in La traviata not in contrapuntal mockery but simply because the varied pulse of life is more constant than any particular sorrow; Shakespeare and Verdi anchor their host of characters in history, in the local color of historical epoch and circumstance, distrusting that monotone of eternity so compelling to Wagner.”22 The thought rings true, but the word “simply” jars. It is no simple fact but profound insight and calculation that produces so potent a dramatic effect.


(16) Alessandro Manzoni, “Lettre à M. C***,” quoted in Piero Weiss, “Verdi and the Fusion of Genres,” JAMS XXXV (1982): 141.

(17) George Steiner, “Maestro,” The New Yorker, 19 April 1982, p. 171.

(18) Weiss, “Verdi and the Fusion of Genres,” p. 150ff.

(19) Verdi to Cammarano, 4 April 1851; quoted in Budden, The Operas of Verdi, Vol. II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 61.

(20) John Warrack and Sandro Corti, “Duprez,” in New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. I, p. 1281.

(21) Quoted in Philip Gossett, “Scandal and Scholarship,” The New Republic, 2 July 2001, p. 30.

(22) Steiner, “Maestro,” p. 171.

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. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-011005.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-011005.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-011005.xml