Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Verdi's Cosmic Jokes

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Verdi's Cosmic Jokes

Article excerpt

NO disgrace if Verdi's valedictory gesture had been that last kiss Otello gives Desdemona as the orchestra whispers towards the final cadence, deep purple from the lower strings marking an almost fond farewell to life, to a life in music, and maybe even to music itself. Surely that was finality enough: "ancor un bacio," just one more kiss.

Consider the old warrior himself, at seventy-three old enough in the late nineteenth century to retire gracefully to his other great occupations: property and philanthropy. A fifteen-year gap between Aida and Otello suggests that Verdi was already enjoying that retirement as he and his wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, kept on the move, restless parttime residents wherever they went-Naples, Genoa, Milan, Paris, and even his beloved farmlands in Bussetto. In that same period, he bought, sold, leased, or exchanged seventeen properties, including vast land-holdings in and around Bussetto, as if he needed to own all the land that had given him birth and learning. One major musical interlude alone, the composition of the Requiem (between 1873 and 1874) in memory of Alessandro Manzoni, the national poet as Verdi was already the national composer, came easily enough to him, and like so many composers before and since, he conducted more than he wrote, accepted honors, such as Senator of the Kingdom of Italy and Cavaliere of the Great Cross, and made revisions to the 1857 Simon Boccanegra, and 1867s Don Carlo. It was argued from the beginning that the Requiem was a barely disguised opera, perhaps a merciful release from the torments of the opera house itself, and with his rare departure into chamber music-the String Quartet performed privately in his Paris hotel suite on June 1, 1876-he was sending out signals to friends, family, and fans that the Requiem was as much for himself as it was for Manzoni. He had done enough musical rage and lyrical flight for ten lifetimes, and had clearly earned privacy and retreat, even if his failure to find a place or form for King Lear might conceivably haunt him until his dying day. An avowed agnostic, Verdi made Shakespeare his dramatic god, yet he had only the intermittent glories of Macbeth (1841, revised in 1865) to show for his passion: Lear would never happen. The last word was "the smell of mortality" Lear detected on his hand.

Besides, there was another haunting in his life, the scapigliaturi, the Italian self-proclaimed avant-garde group who made Verdi their musical enemy for sixteen years. Lovers of Baudelaire, absinthe, and various forms of blasphemy (not necessarily in that order), their musical leader was young Arrigo Boito, calling for a deeper alliance with literature, viewing Verdi's work as a triumph of convention. Wrong, of course, as Boito himself came to understand later when making peace with Verdi in advance of his impulse to seduce the weary composer into doing what he needed-and wanted-to do, even in spite of himself, and those crops, cows, pigs, and tenants which were rapidly replacing his higher calling. It's almost too easy to see their odd alliance as pre-ordained in the way sons make gradual peace with fathers: Boito's belligerent youth could take him only so far, while Verdi's incipient weariness, his stately march into old age, was moving him against his instincts into musical silence. If Boito hadn't been poised for the rescue, Verdi would have to be inventing him anyway. Their generational struggle-Verdi the master melodramatist, Boito the Wagnerian Ibsenite (before Ibsen, of course)-was finally less than titanic, each moving closer to the other with patient stealth, each man knowing something the other did not.

What Verdi knew was Italy. Germans could exalt Bach, but Verdi would have none of it: For him, an Italian-Palestrina-was the contrapuntal model. While working within the framework of traditional Italian opera, with its melodrama by numbers, tenors and sopranos hell-bent on vocal display, opera houses committed to choruses and spectacle, Verdi seized moments and even whole operas for inventions outside those traditions. …

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