Academic journal article Journal of Singing

The Origin of the Verdi Baritone

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

The Origin of the Verdi Baritone

Article excerpt

We shall need a baritone who is an artist in every sense of the word.

Giuseppe Verdi1

GIUSEPPE VERDI (October 10, 1813-January 27, 1901) is often venerated for creating a vocal expectation that was considered rare and new to the operatic baritone voice. In fact, many believe that through his compositions the voice type "Verdi baritone" was created. Julian Budden, for example, articulates this perspective when he states, "Hand in hand with the evolution of Verdi's dialectic goes his sharp characterization of voice-types, and also what is perhaps his most striking single innovation: the discovery of the high baritone."2 Others, however, believe that the Verdian baritone was already present in the world of opera, and Verdi only provided operatic vehicles for the baritone's long established abilities. This article, after establishing context, defines the characteristics of the Verdi baritone voice type and examines through Verdi's own words the controversial origin of this rare and glorified voice.


Verdi embraced a romantic movement initiated by Parisian thespians and writers of the early nineteenth century. Acclaimed writers and artists such as Victor Hugo, Charles Kemble, and Alfred de Vigny venerated a Shakespearian characterization that would replace the predominant French neoclassical style and the Metastasian formula with a style that reflects a culmination of the sublime, grotesque, unique, and unpredictable.3 Verdi's alignment with this Shakespearian movement is exemplified in his letter to Ricordi in 1880.

Shakespeare was a realist, though he did not know it. He was an inspired realist; WE are planning and calculating realists. So taken all in all, system for system, the cabalettas are still better. The beauty of it is that, in the fury of progress, art is turning backwards. Art which lacks spontaneity, naturalness, and simplicity is no longer art.4

Verdi's desire to encompass "spontaneity, naturalness, and simplicity" aligns him with the leading trend for operatic composers of this period: Dramma per la musica, which places drama in opera paramount or equal to the music. Verdi was the first to do this with a baritone voice in mind and created a union between drama and music that had never before been seen or heard.5


The baritone voice is statistically the most common voice type among male singers, trained or untrained. Thus, one may assert that Verdi's selection of the baritone voice as the dramatic protagonist was most likely rooted in his commitment to realism and humanistic drama. In other words, the selection of the baritone voice is a call to the average human male and our innate ability to consciously or subconsciously relate to the sound of the common man.

In the Italian operatic repertory, Nabucco, Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra, and Falstaff are works that overtly elevate the importance of the baritone character and make him the leading protagonist.6 Verdi's predecessors, including Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and others, wrote leading baritone roles; in few of them, however, with perhaps exceptions found in a few of Rossini's operas (the orchestration less heavy and the dramatic expression less forceful than Verdi),7 does one see the demand for such high tessitura.8 Verdi was the earliest composer to require of the baritone an amalgamation of weighted and "forceful declamation" while maintaining a tessitura up to F4 and G4.9

In the classical period, the bass baritone and baritone were characterized by weight or timbre, and only rarely by range and ability to sustain tessitura; thus, the bass baritone or baritone could share many roles without strain on the voice. Verdi, on the other hand, clearly defined the baritone as a distinct and unique voice category from the bass baritone by frequently requiring the singer to use the upper fifth of the baritone's normal range. …

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