We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Nineteenth Century


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

It is absurd to look back on Wagner and Verdi as “progressive” and “conservative” poles (though that is how historians in the tradition of the New German School have tended to view them), just as it is absurd to attribute the special qualities of Verdi's late work, beginning in the 1870s, to Wagner's influence, even though that was the decade during which Wagner began to receive staged performances in Italy. Verdi's greater knowledge of Wagner's work translated not into imitation but into a fascinating dialectic; nor was acquaintance with Wagner the biggest or most telling change that took place in the composer's life during the decade in question.

The main event in Verdi's life during the 1870s was, quite simply, his retirement. The two decades following La traviata had been extremely lucrative ones for the composer. He followed the footsteps of Rossini and Donizetti to Paris for two grand operas—Les vêpres siciliennes (“The Sicilian vespers,” 1855) and the especially grandiose Don Carlos, after a historical play by Schiller (1867). In between these came a commission from the tsar's own imperial Italian opera house in St. Petersburg, partly because of its remote location the highest-paying opera theater in Europe for star singers and star composers alike. For La forza del destino (“The power of fate,” 1862), his last collaboration with Piave, Verdi received 60,000 French francs from the Russian treasury, more than twenty times the stipulated maximum payment a Russian composer could receive for an opera in the local language, in addition to an expense account of 5,000 rubles (approximately 10,000 francs) and a per-performance honorarium of 806 rubles and 45 kopeks. Widely regarded as a scandal, this extravagant outlay to the visiting foreigner did a great deal to foment nationalist sentiment among Russian musicians.

Rossini's death in 1868 left Verdi the richest composer-entrepreneur in Europe, another quintessential self-made man of art. Twice already he had been tempted to do as Rossini had done and use his earnings to escape from the hectic, exhausting world of opera, the more so as he was genuinely interested in farming the land on an estate called Sant'Agata near his north Italian birthplace of Busseto, which he had purchased in 1851. After Aida, the grandest of the grand, Verdi called it quits. Composing for him—in keeping with his hard apprenticeship and the unsentimental attitudes of the professional theater—was a job, not a “calling” from above, and he regarded the opportunity to renounce it in favor of gentleman farming as a promotion. This was the greatest, most telling measure of his cultural distance from Wagner, a distance that applied to their respective national traditions as much as it did to them as individuals.

A Job Becomes a Calling

fig. 11-7 Verdi in St. Petersburg for the première of La forza del destino (1862).

Accordingly, Verdi's correspondence, the mother lode for biographers of any nineteenth-century figure, suddenly emptied itself of artistic or musical content (and political content too, Verdi having resigned his honorary seat in parliament) and began filling up with discussions of crops, livestock, soil, manure. He did not cease all musical activity. One of his most famous works, in fact, dates from the 1870s, but it was not an opera: it was a Requiem Mass composed in commemoration of the venerable Manzoni, like Verdi a symbol of the Risorgimento and an honorary senator, first performed on 22 May 1874, the first anniversary of Manzoni's death at the age of eighty-eight (the very age that Verdi would eventually reach). Even though it retains a vivid theatrical flair (especially in the Dies Irae), Verdi put it in a wholly different category from his operas—that of “serious music.” To Camille du Locle, one of the librettists for Don Carlos, he declared that having written it he was “no longer a clown serving the audience, beating a huge drum and shouting ‘Come on! Come on! Step right up!”’29

The irony here is delectable, because the most famous detail in the entire Requiem is the furious beating of the huge bass drum in the Dies Irae in counterpoint against the whole rest of the orchestra. But Verdi's double standard was understandable, and revealing. He wrote his operas as a hired hand, which in retrospect meant a servant and a clown; the Requiem he wrote on his own initiative, as a “free artist.” Serious art was beginning, even in Italy, to mean art created not on commission but “for art's sake.” Revising an opera “disinterestedly”—just to make it better, not because anyone asked—could also count as art for art's sake, and so Verdi lavished a great deal of time during his “retirement” on two of his weightier historical operas: Simon Boccanegra (1857, revised 1879–81) and Don Carlos, which virtually became a new opera in 1882–83 (usually performed in Italian as Don Carlo).

Finally, in 1884, thirteen years after Aida, Verdi allowed himself to be persuaded by his publisher Ricordi, and by his ardent would-be literary collaborator Arrigo Boito (1842–1918), to attempt an opera under these new, utterly unoperatic conditions of creative emancipation. The result was one of his greatest achievements. That outcome, and the esthetic attitudes that had conditioned it, added a new chapter to the ongoing postromantic debate about the nature and purposes of art.

The positions Verdi now espoused were those associated since Kant with German art (or at least with German art-theorizing), positions traditionally regarded by Italians (including the earlier Verdi) with some suspicion, lately renewed and enhanced by association with Wagner. Boito, who was a composer in his own right, had been one of the leading scapigliati—“scruffy” Wagnerians who thought the likes of Verdi outmoded—in the 1860s, and had a noble fiasco, an opera called Mefistofele to his own very metaphysical libretto after Goethe's Faust, under his belt to prove it. (Twice revised, Mefistofele had begun to make its way in the theater by the time Boito summoned the courage to approach Verdi.) Impressed with a libretto that Boito proffered him in 1879, Verdi tested him as a collaborator by having him supply a crucial scene for the revised Simon Boccanegra. Finally convinced of Boito's ability and his devoted respect, Verdi left off full-time farming and took up his old job, but this time as a calling.

As anyone might have guessed, the subject that lured Verdi out of retirement came from Shakespeare—a Shakespeare treated with unprecedented fidelity and (with one huge exception, the climactic concertato or ensemble finale in act III) an adventurous disregard of traditional libretto structure. That disregard was especially evident because the subject, Othello (or Otello, to use the Italian form to designate the opera rather than the play), had already been used some seventy years earlier by Rossini in a hugely successful, traditional opera seria that still maintained a toehold in repertory. The implied contrast or contest suggested bravado—a bravado that the aging Verdi, eager (probably for that very reason) to appear up-to-date, shared with his much younger, formerly scruffy accomplice.

A Job Becomes a Calling

fig. 11-8 Illustrazione italiana, cover of special issue, “Verdi and Otello” (1887).

Thus, at the very outset, the opera fairly screams its freedom from galley routines by opening not with an overture, nor even with a prelude, but at the very height of the tempest with which Shakespeare's second act begins (Ex. 11-9a). To take the audience literally “by storm,” with a chord of such squalling dissonance, was a veritable act of modernist aggression, justified (as artistic aggression is always justified) by its “truth.” And where many operas (especially comic ones) had begun with choruses, the one in Otello is reminiscent of the grisly trio in the third act of Rigoletto, also played against a storm: its “lyrical” content is pared down to thirty-three bars in the middle (Ex. 11-9b), preceded and followed by elaborate parlante passages in which choral and solo voices interact unpredictably over a surging orchestral tide.

A Job Becomes a CallingA Job Becomes a Calling

ex. 11-9a Giuseppe Verdi, Otello, Act I, scene 1, mm. 1–16

A Job Becomes a CallingA Job Becomes a Calling

ex. 11-9b Giuseppe Verdi, Otello, Act I, scene 1, Lyrical climax of chorus, mm. 1–8

Continuity and compression: these are the ruling criteria. They could be called “realist.” At the time, many called them “Wagnerian.” Yet it is possible, and desirable, to view the matter from a more elevated historical perspective that places both Wagner and Verdi in a single context (rather than Verdi in Wagner's). From that perspective, both composers were striving to achieve what opera critics since the beginning of the century had called the “continuous finale”: a flexible interaction of literary and musical devices modeled on the finales of the Mozart/Da Ponte comedies, now stretched over whole acts. The German claimed to be destroying the past and rebuilding from scratch; Italians tended to see the historical process as evolutionary or synthetic, the mutual adaptation of traditional categories. But for both the process had similar historical roots and a similar goal.

For the sake of continuity, both composers committed wholesale violations of traditional “form,” though only Wagner boasted of it. For both composers, ultimately, the conscious objective became fidelity to artistic ideals, abstractly conceived, rather than to their audience's expectations. That was the cradle of what we now call modernism, shrewdly characterized by Leonard B. Meyer, an American music theorist, as “the late, late Romantic period.”30 And once Verdi could be viewed as a modernist, it became possible for academic critics to view him as great.

These new virtues can certainly be explained without recourse to Wagner, but the esthetic parallel with Wagner need not be overlooked. The most essential parallel, to repeat, was the protomodernist conviction that artworks were not created only for the sake of enjoyment—that is, at any rate, for the audience's enjoyment. Artists wrote to please themselves. While working on Falstaff, the opera (also Shakespearean, also with Boito) that followed Otello, which he finished composing in his eightieth year, Verdi let it be known that “I am writing it in moments of absolute leisure, simply for my own amusement.”31 That made it respectable. And so did the assumption that underlay the composer's disinterested amusement: consciousness that his new manner of continuity and compression served the purposes of art.


(29) Verdi to Camille du Locle, 24 February 1874; Alessandro Luzio, ed, Carteggi verdiani, Vol. IV (Rome, 1947), 176n.

(30) Leonard B. Meyer, “A Pride of Prejudices; or, Delight in Diversity,” Music Theory Spectrum XIII (1991): 241.

(31) Verdi to the mayor of Parma, 29 April 1891; Verdi: The Man in His Letters, p. 401.

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. 20 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-011007.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 20 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-011007.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 20 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-011007.xml