Verdi: A Life in the Theatre 
by Charles Osborne.
Weidenfeld, 360 pp., £18, June 1987, 0 297 79117 6
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Few creative artists have moved forward on as broad a front as Verdi has in the past half-century. Just before the Second World War he remained, for the public at large, the composer of three or four indestructibly popular operas; for highbrows, the late-maturing author of Otello and Falstaff. There had been, since the late Twenties, a Verdi ‘renaissance’, limited in scope and audience. A clever music student still winced automatically at the sound of a tune from La Traviata. Even Dyneley Hussey’s 1940 volume in the ‘Master Musicians’ series, a work inspired by the (mainly German-led) ‘renaissance’, showed how many of the operas were out of currency. Some of them Hussey cannot have heard: if he had, he would scarcely have pronounced I Due Foscari ‘dead past revival’. Others like Don Carlos were still in eclipse as stage works, though admired by musicians.

The main outlines of Verdi’s long life were well-known. Several collections of letters had appeared. His-early difficulties as a poor music student who had failed to get into college, the controversies surrounding his appointment as a small-town music teacher and bandmaster, his rapid success as an opera composer, the deaths of his first wife and children, his relationship with the former singer Giuseppina Strepponi, eventually his wife – these were fairly well documented. Even his supposed late affair with another singer, Teresa Stolz, was known. But neither his life nor his work was matter for serious debate. Six or seven operas flourished in the theatre – nothing could have kept them down; so in the concert hall did the Requiem.

All that is utterly changed. Verdi’s 26 operas (28 if you count revisions under new titles) have all been performed; few, perhaps two or three at most, seem unlikely to hold the stage. Julian Budden’s three-volume study is only the chief among a number of serious critical works. There are institutes of Verdi studies; the leading institute, at Parma, is about to start publishing the collected letters. A critical edition of the operas is under way at Chicago. Monographs and articles come out at near-Shakespearean rate. Dreadful films do good business. There is even a television serial. This hero of our time raises few problems. You can enjoy La donna e mobile knowing it to be certified as high art; you needn’t, as with Wagner, worry about the composer’s politics; nobility and grandeur don’t, as with Elgar, wake doubts about a possible touch of self-pity. Verdi is at once exciting and safe.

One reason why he seems safe may be that, after all, we don’t know him as well as we think. His life coincided with the high point of archive creation – after the establishment of reliable postal services and European peace; before the coming of telephones, small flats, and aeroplane luggage restrictions. New packets of letters appear from time to time. Some, like his correspondence with Arrigo Boito, librettist of Otello and Falstaff, have thrown much light on his working methods: James Hepokoski’s excellent guides to the two creations of Verdi’s old age owe much to this source.* Others, like his voluminous correspondence with his publisher (not yet in print as a whole, but available to scholars) tell us a good deal about the progress of his work and his passing moods. All this makes it possible for Charles Osborne to organise his new biography round generous quotations from the letters (some of which he has previously translated and published in a separate volume). It makes a readable narrative, packed with information. The chief drawback is the lack of musical or social background: Verdi’s life and work seem to be going on in a void. The letters’ vigorous concision is an index to some aspects of Verdi, but only to some. Three aspects of Verdi in particular aren’t readily disclosed by a study of the letters: his private life; his self-education in literature and in music; his politics, especially his involvement (such as it was) in the Risorgimento.

One reason for the first two blank spots is that although many papers have come out, others haven’t. Like some other 19th-century worthies, Verdi seems to have thrown away little or nothing. His villa at Sant’Agata still houses a large collection of papers; his heirs have from time to time allowed one scholar or another to look at selected letters for publication. But we still know almost nothing about questions on which the Sant’Agata archive could presumably throw light. How did Verdi build up and manage his considerable fortune? Was he a harsh landlord – a charge laid at times of Socialist agitation among the peasants of the North Italian plain?

Another reason is that Verdi covered his tracks. His emotional life remains hedged off by his formidable reserve. Why did he live out of wedlock with Giuseppina Strepponi for so long at a time when to do so meant awkwardness and disapproval? His famous letter to his old friend Barezzi (father of his dead wife) gives nothing away.

In my house there lives a lady, free and independent, who like myself prefers a solitary life, and who has a fortune capable of satisfying all her needs. Neither I nor she is obliged to account to anyone for our actions. But who knows what our relations are? What affairs? What ties? What rights I have over her, or she over me? Who knows whether she is my wife or not? And if she is, who knows what the reasons may be for not publicly announcing the fact?

Frank Walker’s path-breaking The Man Verdi (written with help from Sant’Agata) did bring out the seriousness of the Teresa Stolz affair, a triangular emotional crisis among mature artists that probably didn’t amount to technical adultery but none the less left Giuseppina deeply shaken. Walker also showed how uncharacteristically mean was Verdi’s treatment of the gifted conductor Angelo Mariani, who had done a good deal to serve him and his music; the relationship between them – almost sado-masochistic – is one thing Osborne underplays. More recent scholars have picked over Giuseppina’s story; the question of how many illegitimate children she had before she met Verdi, and by which fathers, threatens to outdo ‘How many children had Lady Macbeth?’ But we are unlikely ever to get much real knowledge of these episodes. Verdi abhorred confession; even the emotional vigour and explicitness of the operas works within a classical, objective, universalising frame. In them the parent-child – especially the father-daughter – tie calls forth more deeply committed music than does romantic love, but no attempt at psychoanalysis after the fact can get past their self-completeness.

Verdi did once, late in life, dictate a long account of his early struggles. This is notable for the muddle he got into over the deaths of his first wife and two children, telescoping and even transposing dates. It was not literally true, as Osborne among others points out, that grief prevented him from working until a canny impresario thrust the book of Nabucco into his hand. But the emotional truth of Verdi’s recollections seems beyond doubt. He did feel as though his wife and children had died within three months – a living equivalent of the characteristic speeded-up crises in the operas. He was profoundly depressed, and although Nabucco got him out of the trough, three years later he was still writing: ‘my mind is black, always black ... Happiness does not exist for me.’ The futility of life was to be a recurring theme in his letters, so much so that one fancies him coming across a translation of Hardy and recognising a kindred spirit as he did with Shakespeare. Il Sindaco di Casterbridge might have been more viable than the Lear he failed to write, with a stirring father-daughter duet too.

Verdi likewise screened off his musical and literary culture. He was an ignorant peasant, he never read scores – so he liked to make out when asked for advice. Boito’s attack on him in 1860 (he had ‘befouled the altar of art’) left its mark even after he and the younger man had been reconciled. In fact, Verdi knew a great deal about both earlier and contemporary music, with some gaps readily explained by the musical taste of his youth (which upheld Palestrina but dismissed Monteverdi); he owned and no doubt studied a score of Parsifal; if we could study his musical sketches (another unknown treasure of Sant’Agata) we might learn a good deal more about his progress as a composer. His early operas were sometimes blatant in their scoring; nearly all of them contain extraordinary inventions that herald the flexibility of the late works, a flexibility achieved by constant study as well as experience. But although the sketches may document this study they will probably do little to explain what Hepokoski calls ‘the central paradox of Verdi’s later years, the gap between his written opinions and his own musical practice’: Verdi upheld the Italian tradition while himself becoming steadily more original and innovatory.

Verdi’s literary culture had a good deal to do with his having failed to get into the Milan Conservatorio. He studied music; he was not a music student. This left him socially somewhat isolated, but preserved him from the obsession of most music students with their subject, their instrument, and each other. So at least we may imaginatively reconstruct this little-documented period of Verdi’s youth. On rainy Milan evenings he had time to read widely, no doubt unsystematically; later on, he spent long periods in Paris and acquired good French. His familiarity with Shakespeare, Goethe, Schiller (read in translation) as well as with the romantic literature of his own day marks him off from Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, theatrical animals who seem to have read little besides librettos. It shows, not only in his choice of subjects (four operas based on Schiller, three on Shakespeare, two on Victor Hugo, two on Byron), but in a breadth of grasp, human and historical, which sometimes outdoes his source: this in both text and music, for Verdi was virtually his own librettist and used Francesco Maria Piave as a mere versifying dogsbody. Verdi and Hugo shared a love of ‘strong situations’, but Rigoletto attains a stripped-down tragic clarity that makes Le Roi s’amuse seem little more than bombast.

Verdi’s historical sense was general and profound rather than detailed. That is its strength: the picturesque and illustrative, as required by grand opera on the Parisian model, drew from him some of his most dubious pages, like the ‘Rataplan’ in La Forza del Destino and rather a lot of Les Vêpres Siciliennes. His crowning work for Paris, Don Carlos, is about the wreck of generous feeling on the asperities of power rather than about the issues of the Netherlands revolt. All this needs to be kept in mind when one tries to make out Verdi’s relation to the history of his own time – in particular, to the rise of Italian nationalism.

Here most English-speaking writers on Verdi are unhelpful. They seem stuck in an outdated, simplified account of the Risorgimento as a general striving for unity. Historians often write in vain: not even English-language historians’ revisionist accounts (say those of Denis Mack Smith and Stuart Woolf) have got through to biographers. Osborne is the latest to write such things as that the Milanese audience at Nabucco identified themselves, ‘Italians suffering under the Austrian yoke, with the Jews of the Bible, and from that moment on Verdi became the unofficial composer of the Risorgimento’; he also repeats unlikely tales of nationalist cries of ‘war, war!’ at the first night of I Lombardi. Yet – presumably because he has read the sceptical comments of Italian critics such as Gabriele Baldini – he contradicts himself by adding that Verdi is most unlikely to have had ‘any conscious intention to stir his audience politically’.

The tales are unlikely, and the comments are contradictory, for the same reason: they take no proper account of the situation in 1842 and 1843, the dates of Nabucco and I Lombardi, or of the workings of police and censorship in the old Italian states. To take the latter first: everyone concerned with the theatre was used to a touchy and pedantic censorship, and the first night of I Lombardi had been preceded by a good deal of censor trouble – over religious, not over political matters. It is scarcely conceivable that the censorship (or Verdi) could have missed allusions likely to stir up nationalist demonstrations, or that the Police would have failed to arrest the demonstrators if there had been trouble. These two operas were given all over Italy to great acclaim and, so far as one can see, without anyone turning a hair. There were indeed nationalist demonstrations at these and other operas that mentioned revolt or longing for a lost fatherland (such as Bellini’s Norma): but they took place in 1847-48, just ahead of the 1848 revolutions, not in 1842-43.

So far was Verdi in those earlier years from chafing under the ‘Austrian yoke’ that he dedicated the scores of Nabucco and I Lombardi to two Austrian archduchesses in turn, one of them his own sovereign. That’s not to say that the great choruses of longing for the fatherland had no nationalist resonance: but theirs was a generic cultural nationalism, not at that time suspect or even perhaps unwelcome to the old governments. Even when a movement for independence built up in the mid-1840s many people still looked for a federal solution that would leave existing governments in place.

Verdi wrote little about politics; his economics were primitive (poverty was a matter of the rich not spending enough). Yet he had convictions – not always the same ones – and they can be deduced from the little he did say. A constant was anti-clericalism – a chief issue in the row over his early appointment as music master, and still at work in Aida. As a young man, he gave his children names associated with Roman Republican virtue: this suggests that he was then a democrat (which did not necessarily make him a nationalist – democrats could believe in international brotherhood and an end to tyrants). His adherence to Mazzini’s belief in Italy as a united republic became clear in 1848, through Mazzini’s personal influence, and proved temporary; Verdi did write his one openly nationalist opera, La Battaglia di Legnano, for performance under Mazzini’s revolutionary government in Rome, though he himself spent much of 1848 in Paris. But the great unison choruses in Nabucco and I Lombardi had already spoken powerfully for a sense of human collectivity transcending individual claims – what Mazzini (following Saint-Simon) called the spirit of association. Verdi then – perhaps unconsciously – did write as a prophet of nationalism, though that sense of collective destiny could embrace more than the nation.

How he developed after the failure of the 1848 revolutions is not clear. In 1859-60, at the crisis of Italian unification, he came under the personal influence of Cavour. This led him to accept the Savoy monarchy, to stand for a far from democratically-elected Parliament, and perhaps to moderate his former opinions; his growing wealth may have pointed him the same way. In later life he accepted, as most educated people did, the myth of the Risorgimento as a movement of all Italians, but held back from the aggressive nationalism that spilled over into colonial wars. The composer of Aida, often mistaken today for a colonialist work, upheld to the end the potential heroism of all human beings.

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