I’m an eccentric listener to music. I get into the mood of listening to genres (this week feels like 20th century English music, especially Finzi and Holst), which is normal enough, but I also like to explore big areas of a composer’s output. I enjoyed Haydn’s music so I bought a 33-CD set of his symphonies. Sometimes I listen to them straight through over a period of weeks. Messiaen intrigued me so I purchased his complete organ works. So did the symphonies of the Danish composer Niels Gade. I loved Mozart’s 15th piano concerto so I bought an 11-CD set of all of them! This habit is the reason why I still haven’t dug into Mahler’s symphonies: that‘s a bigger “landscape” into which I‘ve yet wanted to journey.
I used to collect opera LPs, especially Wagner, but also some Mozart, Verdi, Britten, and others. I had a fantasy of owning an impressive LP library, but alas, the dream faded because my life became too peripatetic: LPs take up a lot of room and are heavy to manage when you’re moving every few years. My first opera purchase was Karl Böhm’s recording of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” with Sherrill Milnes in the title role (and, on the LP’s cover, holding his sword in a phallic way). I recall buying the set at the Chapel Square Mall in New Haven, Connecticut. My fondest set was “Le Nozze di Figaro,” also conducted by Böhm, with a wonderful cast including Prey, Mathis, Janowitz, Fischer-Dieskau, and Troyanos. I ordered that one from a mall store near Carbondale, Illinois, while I served my first parish job. Eventually I acquired nearly all the Decca sets of Britten’s operas, and I had at least one set of Wagner’s operas, including the entire “Ring” and the early “Rienzi.”
I also found several classic Verdi recordings: Toscanini’s “Falstaff” and “Aida,” “Otello” with Jon Vickers in the title role, and also “Rigoletto” (with Sutherland, Pavarotti, and Milnes), Guilini’s 1958 “Don Carlos” (the five act version but in Italian), and the “Messa da Requiem.” I purchased “La traviata,“ donated it to a library book fair during a spring cleaning, then wished I still had it. (Fortunately there’s always Ebay.) I think I owned a used set of “Macbeth” at some point but don’t remember what happened to it.
I couldn’t quite appreciate Verdi. His operas lacked the chromatic interest and visceral force of Wagner’s. It also (of course) lacked the English pastoral quality and folk-inspired modes of Vaughan Williams, of whose music I couldn’t get enough. Benjamin Britten once said, “I am an arrogant and impatient listener; but in the case of a few composers, a very few, when I hear a work I do not like I am convinced it is my own fault. Verdi is one of these composers.”  I’m not an arrogant listener but–especially since I know almost no musicology–I respond to music on a purely emotional level and know that, sometimes, I’m still growing in musical taste. I was heartened by an article by Walter Clemons who also wasn’t touched by Verdi’s music at first.
Sorting through my old LPs after our recent move, I brought my Verdi operas into my office and gave them a new listen. This time I was smart, however. I’d been looking for an emotional entry into Verdi’s music and had never quite find it listening to whole operas. So I found a good collection of Verdi arias to help me, “Essential Verdi, 40 of His Masterpieces” on the Decca label.
What a wonderful set! As I listened to the two CDs (in my car), I kept grabbing the liner notes when I came to stop lights to see which opera aria I’d just heard. I finally appreciated Verdi’s gift for writing melodies. You hear it among old favorites like “La donna è mobile” and the “Aida” grand march but you also hear it in the lesser known dramas like “I masnadieri.” Clemons writes that he was convinced of Verdi’s greatness during a live performance of Othello’s aria “Ora e per sempre additio;” Othello despairs, yet “Verdi gives him back, in memory, the martial music of his days of glory” (p. 88). I found a similar moment of personal appreciation while listening to the “Ave Maria” from that same opera, sung on this set by Renee Fleming.
Famously, Verdi returned after “Otello” with one more, remarkable opera, “Falstaff,” only his second comic opera among nearly thirty. Verdi’s views of life were pessimistic but humanistic. As Osborne puts it, “In the Requiem … gentle resignation and joyful anticipation of an after-life were no part of his thoughts…. The intensity and compassion of his tragic view of the human condition are Shakespearian in stature: the prodigality of his technique deserves … to be called Mozartian” (p. 403). In this last opera, Verdi seems to have definitively joined his tragic view with a Mozartian comic spirit.
Tutto nel mondo é burla.
L’uom é nato burlone,
La fede in cor gli ciurla,
Gli ciurla la ragione.
Tutti gabbati! Irride
L’un l’altro ogni mortal.
Ma ride ben chi ride
La risata final.
As translated by Vincent Sheean in the Toscanini recording: “The whole world is a jest; man was born a great jester, pushed this way and that by faith in his heart or by reason. All are cheated! Every mortal being laughs at every other one, but the best laugh of all is the one that comes last.”
I agree with some of that. We are all “pushed this way and that” and we’re all “cheated” of something. We’re silly to think we can escape life’s unfairness. Verdi suffered a terrible loss early in life, the death of his two children and first wife. Over time, he transformed his suffering and pessimism into wonderful theater and melody (although, as Osborne writes, the subject of King Lear was apparently too painful for Verdi to tackle, in spite of his long-time plans). Clemons writes that “Verdi’s long, fertile career can now be seen as remarkable in its steady progress and deepening insight as that of Dickens.” (p. 123) Yeats comes to mind as another artist who grew steadily and ended with depth and insight.
This week I’m listening to “Simon Boccanegra,” which my wife and I saw at Santa Fe a few years ago. Here’s one more quote from Clemons, which is a good summary for this essay. “There is something clear and sunlit-square about Verdi’s music that makes it at first difficult to appreciate, if romantic mystery is what one looks for. The value of his honesty and clarity grows with acquaintance” (p. 123).
1. Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Verdi (New York: Knopf, 1979), p. 11.
2. Walter Clemons, “Viva Verdi! The Story of a Love Affair,” Vanity Fair, 46 (June 1983), 87-89, 122-123.