A Musical Companion: A Guide to the Understanding and Enjoyment of Music

By John Erskine | Go to book overview

FROM VERDI TO THE PRESENT DAY

CHAPTER I
VERDI

TIME TENDS to make all music "classical," and the early operas of Verdi, which contemporary criticism found tawdry and brutal, have in recent years been revived in a Wagnerian spirit of devotion as a reaction against those of Wagner himself. The passage of years, assisted by the ingenuity of modern conductors, has reduced their "brutality" to "dramatic intensity," and the barrel-organ tunes that excited our ancestors to disgust or laughter have acquired the sentimental associations of a picturesque period. All the same, Nabucco ( 1842) and Macbeth ( 1847) can hardly become anything more than museum pieces; but Rigoletto ( 1851), Il Trovatore ( 1853), and La Traviata ( 1853) have held the stage continuously since their first appearance, although La Traviata was a complete failure at first. Popular audiences have always adored them; serious musicians detested them for many years, and are now coming round to an appreciation of their merits.

Verdi in his youth was a frankly commercial composer, but his inborn musicianship was too strong for him. This is clear from the way in which he continuously educated himself up to the end of his life, and even in these earlier works what marks him off from Bellini and Donizetti is the thoroughness of his workmanship, his firm yet daring sense of harmony and his sensitive and ingenious orchestration. Rigoletto is remarkable for a new kind of music that hovers between recitative and aria; the character of the title-part is a marvellous psychological study, and this new medium was evolved from the necessity of this characterization. Il Trovatore, the plot of which has become the classical example of unintelligibility, lives by virtue of its intense dramatic concentration; most people in the audience

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