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Music in the Nineteenth Century


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

The third and final act of Rigoletto gives us Verdi's irony at fullest strength. It is perhaps the most “Shakespearean” scene in all of Verdi despite its source in Hugo, and Verdi knew it. “Le Roi s'amuse,” he wrote to Piave,

is the greatest subject and perhaps the greatest drama of modern times. Triboulet is a creation worthy of Shakespeare!! What is Ernani next to him?!! This is a subject that cannot fail. You know that six years ago, when Ernani was proposed to me, I exclaimed: Yes, by God, it can't miss. Now, going over several subjects, when Le Roi crossed my mind it was like a flash, an inspiration, and I said the same thing: Yes, by God, it can't miss.23

“There is such a ringing conviction to Verdi's words,” Piero Weiss notes drily, “that one is apt to forget that what he was calling ‘perhaps the greatest drama of modern times’ was possibly the most notorious theatrical failure of the century.” Le roi s'amuse had had one and only one performance in 1832, was condemned from all sides, political and artistic alike, and had been banned ever since. (The original play would see the footlights again only on its fiftieth anniversary, in 1882, by which time it was altogether overshadowed by Verdi's opera; it was received in virtual silence.) The reason for its continued failure was precisely the Shakespearean mixture of genres that so attracted Verdi. The critic in the Journal des Débats, where Berlioz wrote the music reviews, made no bones about this:

Whenever the author rose to the heights of passion, whenever he thrust noble thoughts, true feelings of the human heart, into his dialogue, then all sympathies were awakened, and all literary factions even rallied to do him honor; but when he sank back into the buffoonish, the trivial, the popular, then inattention and disgust set in once more. Le Roi s'amuse embodied all the brilliant theories that bold innovators have been propounding for some time; only human life in this dramatic form seemed not truer, only uglier. The mixture of the buffoonish and the sublime threw the audience into a painful confusion.24

Far from pandering to current taste, then, Verdi was actually flying in its face by seizing on this ill-fated drama of Hugo's. But he knew, first of all, that music could do the job that the spoken theater had failed to accomplish; and, second, that (as he put it in the letter to Antonio Somma, a poet friend and future librettist),

all the horrible plot vicissitudes arise from the frivolous, rakish personality of the Duke. Hence Rigoletto's fears, Gilda's passion, etc. etc., which make for many excellent dramatic moments, among others the scene of the quartet which as regards effect will remain one of the best our theater can boast.25

The quartet to which Verdi refers here is the centerpiece of the final act; and he achieved the “excellent dramatic moment” he predicted by tweaking the conventions of the genres he was fusing to cast the “frivolous, rakish personality of the Duke” in maximum relief. A virile tenore di forza role fashioned from the same cloth as the ardent Manrico, the Duke is the very opposite of the character type implied by his voice type. He uses his ringing tones not to affirm but to mock romantic love, most spectacularly in his heartily cynical act I ballata (dance song) “Questa o quella” (“This one or that”), in which he professes to love and value (that is, scorn and slight) all women equally. Sentiments formerly associated with buffo baritones like Don Giovanni—or even basses, like Leporello—are here enunciated through the mouth and vocal chords of a romantic tenor, a voice type created for the purpose of expressing ardent love in all its heartrending sincerity, as the late nineteenth century had come to value it. This drippingly, shockingly ironic item is the opera's very first set piece. By placing it at the outset, Verdi as much as announces that ironies and reversals, set off by the Duke's baleful frivolity (at first enthusiastically encouraged by his jester, Rigoletto) and communicated through the sign language (or “semiotics”) of genre, will be the very stuff of this singular opera.

Opera as Modern Drama

fig. 11-6 Cover of the first edition of Rigoletto (Milan: Ricordi, 1851), showing the quartet in act III.

And this brings us to the last act, in which ironies and reversals are compounded and end in tragedy. The setting is a ramshackle inn to which the Duke has been lured, there to be murdered by Sparafucile, the mercenary assassin or hit man with whom Rigoletto has made a contract, and whose sister Maddalena manages the inn. The whole act is played on a split set that depicts both the interior of the inn (both upstairs and downstairs) and the road outside. The all-pervading device that will lend irony to every number is the mutual isolation of the two halves of the stage and the characters inhabiting them. On the inside are the Duke, Sparafucile, and Maddalena. On the outside are Rigoletto and Gilda.

Rigoletto has brought Gilda to this brutal place not to witness the impending murder of which she has no inkling, but so that she can witness the lewd behavior of the man whose feigned love for her has awakened a sincere response that Rigoletto wants to quash. Through a chink in the wall the two outsiders observe the Duke's arrival, and hear him sing a carousing ditty over wine as he awaits Maddalena's services as prostitute. That song (canzone), the sublimely bumptious and hypocritical “La donna è mobile” (“Woman is fickle,” Ex. 11-5), is another of the Duke's little pop tunes, like the act I ballata. Aware that despite its nauseating immorality (or because of it) the song would be the opera's great hit, Verdi had gone to unusual lengths to keep it under wraps until the first performance, so that the organ-grinders and sheet-music pirates would not leak it prematurely to the street. He held it back from orchestral rehearsals almost to the last minute, coaching the tenor (Raffaele Mirate) in private.

Opera as Modern DramaOpera as Modern Drama

ex. 11-5 Giuseppe Verdi, Rigoletto, Act III , “La donna è mobile”

Its eventual success was almost too great, since many who do not really know the opera ascribe to it, or even to Verdi, the song's trivial gaiety without realizing that its brashness was a calculated ironic foil. (A case in point is a graffito the author once saw in the New York subway: “Who Says Women Are Fickle?” read the billboard advertising some cheap lingerie or perfume, next to which someone had scrawled, “Verdi, that's who.”) At first hearing, the irony is a mere matter of clash between jolly song and gloomy setting. But over the course of the act its range of reference, and consequently the range of its ironic resonance, will grow as it begins to function as a reminiscence motif, one of the most hair-raising in all of opera.

The next number is the quartet, Bella figlia dell'amore (“Comely daughter of love”), the most famous ensemble Verdi ever composed. The similarity of its opening tune to that of “Chi me frena?,” the great sextet in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (Ex. 1-11), is often remarked, and Donizetti's work might well have served Verdi as a conscious or unconscious model. But the surface likeness only heightens the far more significant underlying contrasts. Besides the typically more popular cast of Verdi's melody, full of internal repetitions and “melodic rhymes” (in contrast to Donizetti's seemlessly long-limbed, “aristocratic” arc to climax), there is, again, the underlying dramaturgical irony. For this is not a traditional quartet in which four characters each reflect in lyric stop-time on a change in the dramatic course. It is, rather, a double duet that takes place in real time, with two “insider” characters, the lascivious Duke and the beguiling Maddalena (dolled up for sex in a gypsy costume), and two “outsiders,” the indignant Rigoletto and the heartbroken Gilda. The introduction, forty-eight bars of furious parlante of a sort that traditionally substituted for the even more traditional recitative, does not give way, as in earlier operas, to a single moment of shared reflection telescoped out into a collective aria, but prepares yet another cynical strophic song for the oblivious Duke, accompanied by three simultaneous commentaries from vastly differing perspectives. Action is not halted. It continues, but ironically, on multiple contradictory levels.

Thus the Duke's first stanza is answered first by Maddalena's flirtatious simpering, then by Gilda's restrained outcry and Rigoletto's admonition to keep her voice down. The bottled-up emotion of the two muffled outsiders, unable to find an outlet in sheer volume, seeks an alternative vent in harmony, coloring the music briefly with the chord of the flat mediant before returning to the original key so that the Duke can continue his song.

His second stanza (Ex. 11-6) is accompanied by the three other characters not in response but in actual counterpoint. Maddalena resumes her brittle flirting; Gilda resumes her long lyrical sighs descending in despair from ever higher, more piercing high notes; Rigoletto gives his daughter moral (and harmonic) support. At the coda, the two women's voices come into the foreground, again in ironic contrast: Gilda, her voice breaking with grief, begins to pant on pairs of sixteenth notes slurred into the beats, while Maddalena laughs merrily in staccato sixteenths that fill the gap between Gilda's, hocket-fashion.

Opera as Modern DramaOpera as Modern Drama

ex. 11-6 Giuseppe Verdi, Rigoletto, Act III, Quartet, “Bella figlia dell'amore”

At the repetition of the coda, the contrast between the insiders and outsiders becomes unbearably poignant: the former get ready to embrace, their voices mingling in the time-honored lovers’ way, that is, with lyrical legato lines in well-lubricated parallel motion, while the latter, their spirits pulverized by the sight of the other pair, sing correspondingly broken melodies, alternating sixteenth notes and rests. At the end of the quartet the four characters are a study in contrasts: the Duke, as ever, oblivious to all but his fleshly desires; Maddalena, as ever, mordantly detached (but aroused); Gilda crushed; Rigoletto bent on revenge.

Next comes a little clump of dialogue, played against a variety of picturesque musical backgrounds, to move the plot to the point from which the next dramatic ensemble is set to depart. Rigoletto, not wishing Gilda to witness the murder, sends her off to disguise herself in male traveling attire and await him in Verona. Against a background suggestive of a tolling clock, Rigoletto gives Sparafucile the down payment on the contract (Ex. 11-7).

Opera as Modern Drama

ex. 11-7 Giuseppe Verdi, Rigoletto, Act III, Rigoletto conspires with Sparafucile

This part of the scene, incidentally, is of special interest to the historian of “performance practice” because of Verdi's explicit admonition that “this recitative must be sung without the usual appoggiaturas,” according to which the first note of the word “dieci” would be sung as a G, and the first note of the word “resto” in the next measure as an E. This is precious evidence, first, that unwritten ornaments were still routinely employed and expected in Italian recitative as late as the 1850s, whereas many performers beginning in the 1880s took to “weeding them out” even in Mozart, reflecting a new literalism that affected the way in which notation was interpreted as soon as unwritten (“oral”) traditions lost their sway in pedagogy. What was mistakenly viewed as the removal of inauthentic accretions was in fact a modernization. (The same probably goes for Maestro Muti's “restoration” of Manrico's “original” cabaletta in Il trovatore.)

Verdi's performance direction is also evidence of when that modernization took place, and suggests that operatic “realism” was its original impetus. To give his scene a heightened sense of reality, Verdi purged it of conventions known to be operatic. Hearing bumpy thirds as notated where one expected the suave seconds that were usually interpolated effectively defamiliarized the music and gave it a refurbished dramatic immediacy.

The scene continues: against the background of a gathering storm, Sparafucile and the Duke make conflicting demands on Maddalena (the former to help with the murder, the latter to bed down with him), putting her in an unexpected quandary. (The appoggiaturas, by the way, have returned, but now—and henceforth—they have to be explicitly notated.) Sparafucile invites the Duke to spend the night and leads him to the bedchamber, where the Duke, expecting Maddalena in an hour's time, dozes off with La donna è mobile on his lips, planting in the ears of the audience a reminder of how it goes. The clock chimes again, signaling the start of what should be the last half hour of the Duke's life.

Unexpectedly, however, Gilda (disguised as a boy) returns to the scene against her father's instructions. Her entry signals the transition into another ensemble, one that will be even more peculiarly motivated than the preceding quartet. Still besotted by love, she is drawn back to the Duke, and from her wonted position on the outside overhears Sparafucile and Maddalena plotting inside the inn. As background to another introductory parlante, the storm continues to gather (Ex. 11-8)—a “Shakespearean” storm that, in the opinion of Verdi scholars, contains music that Verdi may originally have conceived in connection with his never-to-be-realized King Lear project.

Opera as Modern DramaOpera as Modern Drama

ex. 11-8 Giuseppe Verdi, Rigoletto, Act III, beginning of storm

Its most daring touch of realism is the use of a male chorus, humming closed-mouthed behind the scenes, to represent the voice of the howling wind. It may seem paradoxical to call such an artificial device realistic, but by now we have had many opportunities to absorb the lesson that artistic (especially dramatic) realism is not a matter of literal fidelity to nature, but of fidelity to the affective circumstances—to “human nature,” so to speak. “Humanizing” the sound of the storm sends the same subliminal message as does the addition of a new orchestral effect—a staccato woodwind figure representing the start of heavy rain or hail—when Gilda takes action by knocking at the door, as if a rise in dramatic tension actually affected the course of nature. But of course storms (or musical reminiscences of them) had functioned as external reflectors of inner agitation since the earliest days of opera. Stage murders rarely take place in good weather.

The storm music gives shape to the drama's dénouement and lends a gruesome tinta to the final act. The musical climax is a fleet yet resounding two-stanza terzetto for Sparafucile and Maddalena, bickering on the inside, and Gilda on the outside, beside herself at first with fear and then with frenzied resolve. Again, the ensemble follows not the Donizettian model of reflective stasis, but the older (Mozartean) one of evolving action (strepitoso, strepitossisimo…) that had its origin in comedy. In the first stanza Sparafucile and Maddalena compromise on a plan whereby if anyone should unexpectedly come knocking, that person shall be killed in the Duke's place; the disguised Gilda, overhearing this, immediately decides to sacrifice herself for her unworthy lover. Between the stanzas she screws up her courage and knocks, bringing on the heavy weather. During the second stanza the evil brother and sister get ready for murder and Gilda, steeling herself, prepares to die. At its conclusion she knocks again. The deed is quickly done, and the orchestral storm bursts forth in full fury, all piccolo scales and diminished seventh chords.

Two brief scenes remain. The first brings Rigoletto back onstage at the stroke of midnight to receive the promised body in the promised sack. Up to a point it is played entirely in recitative: Rigoletto natters in anticipation, Sparafucile hands over the sack, Rigoletto gloats. And then recitative suddenly gives way to song—“La donna è mobile,” jaunty and insouciant as ever, as the unsuspecting Duke makes his merry way homeward at stage rear after his rendezvous with Maddalena. Irony compounded and recompounded! First the global irony: as Piero Weiss observes, for the Duke, unsuspecting instigator of it all, act III is “just a happy ending to an ordinary day.”26 But then there is far more bitter local irony—the irony, so to speak, of the masks. The merry song, giving evidence that the body in the sack cannot be the Duke's, now jars not only with the setting but with the plot itself. It no longer merely signifies the Duke's happy-go-lucky existence, but carries a horrifying double message to Rigoletto and the audience, who now must witness the terrible outcome of the curse.

“Comedy no longer alternates with tragedy but is superimposed on it,” Weiss comments, underscoring Verdi's unprecedented Shakespearean achievement, “a drama in which a king (or duke) is a fool, a fool (or jester) a tragic hero, in which life, far from manifesting any intrinsic logic, produces unexpected results from dimly-percieved premises.” Not everyone was ready to accept this bonfire of the traditional categories. But all agreed that they were witnessing a major innovation. Negative reviews of innovative works are often more illuminating than positive ones; the critic's resistance itself casts light on the specific nature of the novelty, and the threat that it implies. So here is one of the most resistant critiques Rigoletto received on the morrow of its Venice premiere, in the pages of the Gazzetta ufficiale di Venezia, the city's official newspaper:

An opera of this sort cannot be judged in one evening. Yesterday we were overwhelmed by novelty; novelty, or rather strangeness in the subject; novelty in the music, in the style, in the very form of the pieces, and we did not grasp the work as a whole. It has something of the opera semiseria; it begins with a dancing song, its protagonist is a hunchback; it issues forth with a feast and concludes, none too edifyingly, in a nameless house where love is for sale and men's lives are contracted for: it is, in sum, Victor Hugo's Le Roi s'amuse plain and unadorned, with all its sins. The maestro, or the poet, succumbed to a posthumous affection for the Satanic school, by now antiquated and extinct; they sought ideal beauty in the misshapen, in the horrible; they aimed at effect not by the customary [Aristotelian] paths of pity and terror, but in the soul's distress and repugnance. In all conscience, we cannot praise such tastes.27

Yet another shock was the realistic end of the opera, with only two characters onstage, and only one of them alive. Again, what is likely to strike viewers of today as stylized or contrived—the stabbed and dying Gilda left with just enough energy to sing a final duet—could only have been read at the time as a bold departure from operatic norms (which would have demanded a full stage at the end) for the sake of the “truthful” portrayal of the specific human circumstances, the final reversal that leaves Rigoletto alone in the world and unloved.

But then the third act of Rigoletto honors convention almost entirely in the breach. As Julian Budden remarks at the end of the first volume of his massive study of Verdi's operas, “just after 1850 at the age of thirty-eight Verdi closed the door on a period of Italian opera with Rigoletto,”28 and this after mastering all the difficult conventions of that period by the sweat of his brow. Instead, he placed his mastery on the side of realism and, as Budden goes on to observe, “the so-called ottocento in music was finished.” There is shrewd irony in that remark, since ottocento simply means “the nineteenth century,” which by the calendar was only half over. But before Rigoletto the term would have meant a period not only of time but also of style, a style created out of a recognizable common practice that (by definition) everybody followed, no matter how they tweaked it. After Rigoletto the nineteenth century was just a time period, during which Italian opera, no less than German, sailed out on uncharted seas. The solita forma, the “customary form” of cantabiles and cabalettas, was moribund. Over the 1860s and 1870s it would die out. Italian opera followed the general trend toward a form that strove to follow content as if spontaneously. In becoming “realistic,” Italian opera inevitably lost its special identity, since the latter was a product or function of the conventions that were losing their grip. What it gained was immediacy of pathos—an immediacy Verdi learned from no musical contemporary (least of all Wagner), but rather from literary models like Hugo, and in back of him, the inevitable Shakespeare.


(23) Quoted in Weiss, “Verdi and the Fusion of Genres,” p. 152.

(24) Etienne Béquet, Jounal des Débats, 24 November 1832; quoted in Weiss, “Verdi and the Fusion of Genres,” p. 153.

(25) Verdi to Antonio Somma, 22 April 1953; quoted in Budden, The Operas of Verdi, Vol. I, pp. 483–84.

(26) Weiss, “Verdi and the Fusion of Genres,” p. 155.

(27) Quoted in Weiss, “Verdi and the Fusion of Genres,” pp. 155–56.

(28) Budden, The Operas of Verdi, Vol. I, p. 510.

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. 30 Mar. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-011006.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 30 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-011006.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 30 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-011006.xml