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Music in the Nineteenth Century


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

That was the rhetoric. The reality, of course, was far more complicated and far more interesting. Take compression, to begin with. Fidelity itself demanded it: if Shakespeare was to be followed fully (even, as far as possible, at the level of actual dialogue), he would have to be radically condensed, since musical time moves so much more slowly than that of unmediated speech and action. Room had to be made for music, and that meant stripping away all nonessentials. In the case of Otello, Shakespeare's whole first act was famously treated as a nonessential, simply snipped. But to put it this way is obviously wrongheaded, for what is music if not the greatest “nonessential” of all; and what is supplying it unasked-for if not the most willful dramatic infidelity? Shakespeare's play, after all, had worked perfectly well all by itself for centuries.

Obviously, the music was thought to compensate in some way for whatever it crowded out. But in fact a great deal was added to the libretto for the sake of music that was not even in Shakespeare to begin with—and not just ballets or choruses, either, but the whole incandescent last scene in act I, with which our main musical discussion will begin. The opera was no mere condensation of the play, but a complex product of simultaneous compression and expansion. The result was manifestly not faithful to Shakespeare, or rather—to put it in a paradoxical way that has become popular with critics—it broke faith with the original (in literal or practical ways) so as all the better to keep faith with it (on a higher, “esthetic” plane).

The big departure from Shakespeare in act I is the love scene for Otello and his wife, Desdemona, whom he will eventually murder in a jealous rage. Boito cunningly extracted many of its words from Shakespeare's own text (lines spoken by each character about the other but not to each other, including a few from the otherwise omitted first act), but Shakespeare had provided no such scene. Neither, even, had Rossini. Verdi's (and Boito's) supplying one, which adds nothing to the plot but only (it seems) to the opera's musical range or at best to the lovers’ characterization, might seem at first to be a throwback to the very conventions the composer and librettist now affected to despise, especially since the role of Otello is by all odds the most heroic tenore di forza role in all of Verdi, and what is a tenore di forza for, if not to sing a love duet with the prima donna?

Indeed, it is even possible to parse the duet, albeit somewhat disproportionately, into the four components of a traditional grand scena: introduction (mm. 1–50), characterized by the luscious sonority of a cello quartet; cantabile (mm. 51–96), beginning with a rounded sixteen-bar period for Desdemona and ending with a rapturously climactic melody sung by both lovers in succession (“set,” Budden observes, “in an enchanted twilight between F major and minor”);32 tempo di mezzo (mm. 97–126) introduced by a poco più mosso, which introduces emotional agitation and physical palpitations; and finally a coda (or, to borrow a phrase from Budden, a “cabaletta-digest”) in which the accumulated ardor is discharged in passionate kissing (mm. 127–156).

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ex. 11-10 Giuseppe Verdi, Otello, Act I, scene 3, end

The concluding section (Ex. 11-10) is the least conventional, because (completely belying the nature and function of a cabaletta) the chief musical interest is transferred to the orchestra: first in the threefold arching melody that even without benefit of the disconnected words to which the libretto has descended (“a kiss … Othello! … a kiss … another kiss …”) obviously accompanies three separate osculations; afterward in the music that (following, yet transforming, longstanding customs of timbre, register, and contour) paints the starry sky; and finally in the reappearance of the cello quartet, a reminiscence of the scene's opening measures and a reassertion of its blissful opening mood. The sudden dominance of the orchestra—or, to put it more poetically, the sudden transfer of dramatic weight to the word-transcending medium of “pure music”—was widely read as the ultimate Wagnerization of Verdi's musico-dramatic technique.

And so it was, perhaps—but in a very special, very exact way. There is good reason to regard this scene not as a case of generalized Wagnerian “influence” but as Verdi's deliberate commentary on (or, if the word can be divested of its satirical connotation, his parody or remaking of) a specific work of Wagner's which we already know, and which we already know that Verdi admired: namely, Tristan und Isolde.

Imagine for a moment that Tristan and Isolde's world-transcending passion had been not tragically thwarted but had triumphed over its social obstacles, and that it had been able to evolve over time into mature wedded bliss. And now take a closer look at the “kiss” music in Ex. 11-10. Increasing harmonic tension tells us that each of the three kisses (that is, the three parallel two-bar phrases) is more ardent than the last. The first begins with a melodic appoggiatura (C♯) to the tonic triad. The second begins with the same melody note cast as appoggiatura to the dominant triad, producing a more complex, more dissonant harmony. And what harmony? None other than a Tristan-chord—a half-diminished seventh treated, just as Wagner treated it, as a chord containing an appoggiatura. Since the appoggiatura in this case resolves to a dominant seventh rather than a French sixth, the two chords—Wagner's and Verdi's—are functionally dissimilar. The tension of the one is never discharged (and that's the whole point of it), while the other is led smoothly back to cadential (and emotional) satisfaction.

The third kiss-phrase begins on a yet more restless harmony, a chord containing both the C♯ and the B, the note to which it nominally resolves. And this is another, yet more potent Tristan-chord, or rather another half-diminished sonority that is homonymous to the Tristan-chord, but whose constituent appoggiatura (F) resolves immediately to the third of the tonic triad, evoking not the torment of unconsummated passion but, once again (to quote a famous poem by William Blake), “the lineaments of gratified desire.”33 What could better delineate the difference between Wagner's lovers and Verdi's—but also, at the same time, their kinship? Once we have spotted the ersatz Tristan-chords at the climax of Verdi's love scene, many more will leap to our eyes and ears. Such harmonies were by no means common coin in Italian music, nor will we find them in any great profusion in Verdi's earlier music, however torrid. They lent this particular duet its special tinta, and their Wagnerian associations—surely deliberate!—added an element of typically Verdian (or should we say typically Shakespearean?) irony to the characterization. Tristan and Isolde as old marrieds! Stated baldly, as an oxymoron, the idea is merely amusing. Suggested by harmonic implication, its endorsement of uxorious “family values” over transcendent illicit desire is—how to put it?—morally seductive.

The first Tristanesque reference comes in m. 92, right after the lyrical peak of what earlier we called the duet's “cantabile” section. It maximizes harmonic tension (=ardor), but again, only so as to prepare its gentle resolution. The more agitated passage beginning there, which has already been compared to the tempo di mezzo, is riddled with Tristanesque harmonies. The most conspicuous ones (mm. 117, 119) again occur in a stingingly ironic position, supporting the “Amen” that follows the lovers’ prayer that their bonds will last and grow with time.

The last Tristanesque reference (m. 137) introduces the final section of the duet, when the lovers contemplate the benignly shimmering sky. Again, the appoggiatura (A♯) resolves unproblematically to a member of the tonic triad, ironically reversing the chord's functional (=psychological) trajectory. No one ever demonstrated a greater understanding of Tristan und Isolde or its musical and dramatic implications than Verdi did in reversing them all. Ex. 11-11 summarizes all of these sightings of the Tristan-chord in the Otello love music, and compares their very different contexts and resolutions with the Wagnerian originals.

For a fuller appreciation of the love duet, its dramatic function, and the reason for its insertion into the libretto, we need to look to the other end of the opera, the fourth act, in which all the happy predictions that the lovers have made in act I come to grief on the shoals of Otello's misguided jealousy. This brief act, set in Desdemona's bedchamber, is fashioned out of Shakespeare (act IV, sc. 3; act V, sc. 2) almost without departure or digression although, inevitably, the action is much condensed. That very condensation, however, gives it an ideal shape for a memorable drama borne by music: a suspenseful stasis taken up with broad if heavily fraught lyricism, followed by a swift, terrifying denouement in which highly contrasted musical impressions come flying thick and fast.

It begins with Desdemona's lonely preparations for bed following her great humiliation at the act III curtain. As in Shakespeare, she vents her sad forebodings by singing a folksong to herself whose refrain, “O willow, willow willow,” has caused it to be known as the Willow Song. Verdi captures its mood with yet another half-diminished harmony, set out as an arpeggio within the melody itself. The act opens with an anticipation of this phrase in the melancholy timbre of the English horn, answered by another phrase, even tinier (played by three flutes in unison), that will likewise prove to be a thematic anticipation (Ex. 11-12).

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ex. 11-11 Giuseppe Verdi's Tristan-chords compared with Wagner's

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ex. 11-12a Giuseppe Verdi, Otello, Act IV, mm. 1–11

Since the half-diminished sonority here functions in its most ordinary diatonic usage, as ii7 in the minor, there would be no reason to associate with its more exotic cousin in Wagner were it not for the love music in act I, which insists on that association. Since the whole fourth act is going to be an agonizing reversal or negation of that love scene, the opening harmony, as outlined by the English horn, can be seen as part of an all-encompassing web of ironic associations.

To prolong the suspense before Otello's sinister appearance, Verdi has Emilia (Desdemona's confidant as well as the wife of Iago, the villain) exit, leaving the victim alone onstage. To fill the time, Verdi and Boito make their one insertion into the Shakespearean action, borrowing an idea, as it happens, from the libretto to Rossini's old Otello, where it served a similar purpose: the good Desdemona prays, her Ave Maria beginning as a monotone “chant” recited by rote, but gradually taking on lyrical profile as the prayer becomes more personal and passionate.

At its dying away Otello appears among the shadows, his murky entrance—surely prompted by Shakespeare's “Put out the light, and then put out the light”—famously represented by a solo for the muted double basses extending from the very bottom of their compass to something like the very top (Ex. 11-12b). He raises the bed curtains and looks longingly at his sleeping wife, while the double basses’ motive passes to Desdemona's plaintive English horn, in the parallel minor. Despite his murderous intent, he cannot forbear a kiss—or rather three kisses, accompanied by a reprise of the culminating music from act I. This reprise has the very same intent, and accomplishes the same dramatic work, as the first reprise of “La donna è mobile” in the third act of Rigoletto: it reminds the audience of an important musical association, and prepares them for the really crucial reprise that is yet to come.

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ex. 11-12b Giuseppe Verdi, Otello, Act IV scene 3 (Otello enters Desdemona's bedchamber)

She awakes. In fifty measures of gruesome parlante (recitative over a continuous orchestral motive), he accuses her; she denies it; he rebuts her denial with a lie; she protests; he smothers her. In one hundred measures more, the horrible truth is revealed to Otello and he embarks on his final aria, “Niun mi tema” (“Fear me not”), a mere seventy-four measures that can nevertheless be parsed into a full scena: introduction, cantabile (Adagio), tempo di mezzo, and cabaletta-digest. Except for the tempo di mezzo, where Otello suddenly stabs himself amid a general panic, each part of this painfully reflective aria is fraught with ironic reminiscences conveyed by lacerating musical recalls.

The first section reaches a bitter climax on the word “Gloria!” set in a manner that recalls Otello's first appearance in act I, as the victorious naval hero. “Esultate!,” he had sung then, “L'orgoglio musulmano sepolto è in mar, nostra e del ciel è gloria!”: “Rejoice! The pride of the Turks is entombed in the sea; Heavens be ours and the glory!” What had been the Turks’ fate, to fall in consequence of their pride, is now Otello's.

The Adagio (Ex. 11-13a), in which Otello's utter loneliness is underscored by suddenly withholding the orchestral accompaniment, is largely based on the little flute refrain at the beginning of the act, associated there with Desdemona's melancholy (compare Ex. 11-12a). To that motive, a third descending through an accented passing tone, Otello describes Desdemona's aspect in death—pallida, e stanca, e muta, e bella (“pale and worn and still and lovely”)—and, in another suddenly unaccompanied outburst at the end of the section, calls vainly on her name and grasps that she is dead. In a letter to his publisher, Verdi described the end of this burst (“Ah!, morta! morta! morta!”) as “sounds almost without key.”34 What makes it seem so is its conclusion, a descending phrase that implies tonic harmony (in C♯ minor) at its beginning but subdominant at the end. Its last four notes, of course, recapitulate the already fraught half-diminished harmony of Desdemona's Willow Song; far from being “without key,” they are in precisely the key of the opening English horn solo.

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ex. 11-13a Giuseppe Verdi, Otello, Act IV scene 4 (Otello's remorse)

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ex. 11-13b Giuseppe Verdi, Otello, Act IV, scene 4 (Death of Otello)

The final section (Ex. 11-13b), which brings the opera to an end, is a setting of Othello's last line in Shakespeare, itself a heartbreaking reminiscence: “I kist thee, ere I kill'd thee; No way but this, /Killing my selfe, to dye upon a kisse.” It recapitulates the musical content of the moment in which, before killing her, Otello had gazed upon his sleeping wife and been overwhelmed with the grief of love lost. The last music heard before the curtain, then, is the kiss music from act I, in its final, crucial, reminiscence.

And now we know why the love scene in act I had to be written. It was not only to fulfill an operatic requirement. Nor was it merely to plant a motive for later reminiscence—or rather, to put it that way is to put the cart before the horse. What motivated the love scene was the dying Otello's last line, and the need to provide a “past in music” on which his concluding recollection could draw, thus justifying through music's word-transcending immediacy of feeling the whole project of turning what was already a great play into an opera.

Exactly this, we may recall, had been Wagner's motivation for expanding the Ring into a tetralogy—to provide the narrative of the Norns in Götterdämmerung with a past in music on which to draw. If we write off the Otello love duet off as a studied or cynical “plant,” then we are bound likewise to regard the whole of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, and Siegfried. If Wagner's operatic tetralogy is regarded, contrariwise, as a noble attempt to create a world in music, then so, in its far more humane and economical way, is Otello.

The feature that most decisively distinguishes Verdi, even at his most monumental, from Wagner is his insistence on a human scale. In this the two composers can truly be taken as opposites and as standard-bearers for opposing national traditions. Verdi's goes back to the humanism or man-centered philosophy of the Italian Renaissance, while Wagner's embodies centuries of accumulated antihumanistic German metaphysical thought, in which answers to fundamental human questions were automatically sought on a superhuman plane, a plane for which orchestral rather than vocal music was the ideal medium of representation. Only one of Verdi's operas, Macbeth, invokes a crucial supernatural or miraculous agency. Only one of Wagner's, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, fails to do so. At the emotional climax of Otello’s final scene (“Desdemona … Desdemona … Ah, morta! morta! morta!”) the orchestra is silent. At the corresponding moment in Tristan und Isolde, the orchestra sweeps the singer away.

The dramatic tradition that leads to Verdi is at bottom the comic tradition, which is the one in which humankind is essentially responsible for its own fate. The specifically operatic tradition that leads to him is the one that proceeded through ever greater infusions of buffa styles, forms, and attitudes into the opera seria. The dramatic tradition that leads to Wagner is the tragic tradition, in which humans are the helpless playthings of the gods. The specifically operatic tradition that leads to him is the perpetually “reformist” or neoclassical tradition—the eighteenth-century tradition of Metastasio and Gluck—that sought to enforce the purity of dramatic categories and in particular undertook periodic purgings from tragic opera of comedic admixtures and accretions.

Thus it is no surprise to find that Wagner's last opera, Parsifal, was an out-and-out religious drama, replete with actual sacred rituals enacted onstage, and ending with miraculous healings and redemptions—or that Verdi's last opera, Falstaff (fashioned by Boito after Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, with admixtures from the Henry IV plays), was a worldly-wise comedy, Verdi's first “buffa” in fifty years. It was an astonishing departure for a composer approaching eighty, the most astounding feat of artistic self-rejuvenation since Monteverdi, also a retired septuagenarian, came forth some 250 years before with his last opera, L'Incoronazione di Poppea. But with benefit of hindsight one could hardly imagine a more fitting consummation to Verdi's career, or a more logical outcome of its trajectory.


(32) Budden, The Operas of Verdi, Vol. III (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 354.

(33) William Blake, “Several Questions Answered” (Songs of Experience, 1794).

(34) Verdi to Giulio Ricordi, 21 January 1888; quoted in Budden, The Operas of Verdi, Vol. III, p. 398.

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 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-011008.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 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-011008.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 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-011008.xml