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Contemplating Wagner and Verdi: a discussion by Peter Bassett

Written By The Wagnerian on Saturday 12 January 2013 | 11:38:00 pm

The following essay was kindly provided by Peter Bassett and is taken from his fascinating, and beautifully illustrated book: 1813 - Wagner and Verdi.  For more information on this book - and a sneak preview of the contents - please visit Peter's website, where he also makes a large number of essay's about Wagner and his work freely availble: PeterBassett.Com.Au

About the author:

Peter Bassett is a writer, speaker and broadcaster on opera, particularly the works of Richard Wagner. He was closely involved with the 1998 production of Der Ring des Nibelungen in Adelaide and the 2001 Australian premiere of Parsifal, Artistic Administrator, Dramaturg, lecturer and coordinator of ancillary events for the 2004 State Opera of South Australia’s production of the Ring, and a consultant for West Australian Opera’s 2006 Tristan und Isolde and the State Opera of South Australia’s 2009 Der fliegende Holländer. He contributes to programme books and publications of opera companies and symphony orchestras in Australia and New Zealand.

Contemplating Wagner and Verdi 

To describe Verdi’s approach to opera as conservative and practical, and Wagner’s as revolutionary and conceptual is an oversimplification, but there is some truth in it. Verdi’s remark to a visiting musicologist in 1895 that he predicted success for younger composers if they did not insist on substituting new for old conventions1 reflects a basic difference between him and his German contemporary. Twenty years earlier he had told a journalist that while Wagner had done opera an incalculable service by freeing himself from the tradition of the aria-opera, and surpassed every composer in his rich variety of instrumental colour, he had gone too far in both form and style by carrying his theories to extremes.2 In 1883 he said that Wagner in his recent operas seemed to be overstepping the bounds of what can be expressed in music, and that for him [Verdi] ‘philosophical music’ was incomprehensible.3 Twelve years later he added: ‘Art and systems of art are opposites. The great Wagner left much evil in his wake’,4 a phrase regularly misinterpreted but which refers to a view that younger composers were being led astray by Wagner-inspired ‘systems’ of composition.5 ‘I have never written music following fixed ideas’ said Verdi, ‘and I have never followed or wished to found a school.’6 He had learned of Wagner’s theories second hand and, in 1870 while working on Aida, he asked Camille du Locle to send him a French translation of Wagner’s literary works.

Towards the end of his long and successful life, Verdi could afford to admit to Felix Philippi7: ‘The work which always arouses my greatest admiration is Tristan. This gigantic structure fills me time and time again with astonishment and awe, and I still cannot quite comprehend that it was conceived and written by a human being. I consider the second act, in its wealth of musical invention, its tenderness and sensuality of musical expression and inspired orchestration, to be one of the finest creations that has ever issued from a human mind.’

Wagner’s literary output was prodigious, running to nine volumes in his own collected edition, to which can be added an autobiography of his life to 1864,8 and between ten thousand and twelve thousand letters. Then there are his wife Cosima’s diaries, a million words recording his utterances between 1869 and 1883. He was one of the most significant musical polemicists in the modern age. If he has been the subject of more books than any other composer, it is because there is so much to write about. He completed only thirteen operas compared with Verdi’s twenty-six, but they are usually on a formidable scale. He wrote his own librettos based on scenarios that evolved over years, even decades, and he wove into his stage works a host of extra-theatrical ideas, often of a philosophical kind.

Nothing could have been further from Wagner’s mind than a Tabulatur or formulaic system of composition, but critics happily seized on the idea just the same. Nor was he concerned with tailoring his works to existing theatrical constraints or audience expectations. In January 1859 while working on Tristan und Isolde, he wrote to Liszt: ‘You must take me at my word when I tell you that the only thing which really gives my life purpose is my irresistible urge to complete the series of works I have conceived. I have come to recognize with absolute clarity that to occupy myself with and finish these works is the only thing that satisfies me and makes me want, in some inexplicable way, to go on living. The prospect of actually seeing these works performed, on the other hand, is something I can quite do without.’9 It is impossible to imagine Verdi saying such a thing. The business of turning his later works into stage productions was for Wagner a separate exercise entirely, necessitating advances in auditorium layout, stage machinery and orchestra pit design epitomised by the Bayreuth theatre. It can hardly be doubted that in terms of expectation (if not always realization), Wagner was well ahead of his time. His vision was cinematic long before that art form had been invented.

Opera had had its birth in the ducal courts of northern Italy in the late 16th century, and evolved there over the next century, moving from palaces into public theatres. Italian opera provided models for non-Italian composers; theatres in different countries were habitually designated ‘Italian Opera Houses’, and works were sung in the Italian language regardless of the nationality of the composer or librettist. That Verdi was heir to this tradition goes without saying, but so too was Wagner, in more ways than one. The desire of the Florentine musicians and poets - the so-called Camerata of Giovanni de’ Bardi - to recreate the drama of Greek theatre in which, they believed, music and poetry had been ideally combined, anticipated to a remarkable degree the aims of the young Richard Wagner. Although he came to the view that Italian opera in his day was neither treated nor taken seriously, there was a time when both he and Verdi seemed to be heading along the same path. Wagner’s admiration in the late 1830s for the works of Bellini and Rossini – composers also admired by Verdi – marked an undeniably Italianate phase of his development. One need only consider his early operas Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi, not to mention several unfinished projects, to find examples of this enthusiasm. Even Tristan und Isolde of 1859, Wagner’s most revolutionary score, has roots in Bellinian soil, as the composer freely admitted to Cosima in 1878: ‘My model was Romeo and Juliet [I Capuleti e i Montecchi, which he had conducted many times] nothing but duets!’ He also employed Bellini’s technique of melodic sequence, involving the repetition of a phrase at a higher or lower pitch, as can be heard towards the climax of the second act of Tristan.

Verdi bridled at suggestions in later life that his works were becoming ‘Wagnerian’ and, in a literal sense, he was right. However, he was happy to borrow ideas when these suited his purposes. The French critic Étienne Rouillé-Destranges went too far when he wrote in 1895 that ‘If Wagner had not existed, Verdi would certainly not have written Aida, Otello and Falstaff’.10 However, it is hard to believe that, for instance, the inverted arch form of the prelude to Aida, beginning and ending on high, pianissimo strings, does not owe something to the prelude to Lohengrin which Verdi had been studying at that time. He made a point of attending the Italian premiere of Lohengrin in Bologna on 19 November 1871 and made copious notes. One can recognize in Falstaff Verdi’s answer to Die Meistersinger whose score he had obtained in 1885. Meistersinger was given its Italian premiere at La Scala in 1889 when Falstaff was in the early stages of composition. Both works incorporate older musical forms with wonderful effect, and share similarities in the endings of their first acts.11

Political and military developments in their common birth year of 1813 had similar implications for both composers. By the beginning of the 19th century, the thousand-year-old Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, nominally ruled by Francis II of the house of Habsburg-Lorraine, was in serious decline and barely justified its name. A puff from Napoleon in 1806 blew the imperial house down, leaving the constituent kingdoms and principalities as targets for French military and cultural ambitions. Even Napoleon’s eventual defeat and abdication could not block out memories of a decade of major upheaval and uncertainty, memories that would fuel Wagner’s concern to rescue German cultural values.

Italy too had become fragmented and culturally weakened, being ruled variously by the Holy Roman Emperor, the Spanish Bourbons, the Papacy and sundry other governments. Again, Napoleon was to play a crucial role in unifying the peninsula under Bonapartist rule, thereby prompting the first stirrings of Italian national sentiment. The Congress of Vienna of 1814-15 was more concerned with restoring the status quo ante than meeting Italian aspirations, and so one imperial power replaced another.12 The views of Giuseppe Verdi were shaped by these experiences and he, as much as Richard Wagner, set about defending the integrity and traditions of his people.

Peter Bassett

Taken from: 1813 - Wagner and Verdi


1 Arnaldo Bonaventura, Un ricordo personale, in Marcello Conati ed. Encounters with Verdi, p. 283.
2 Anon. Verdi in Wien article in Neue Freie Presse, Vienna, in Conati, p. 109.
3 A. von Winterfeld Unterhaltungen in Verdis Tuskulum, in Conati, p. 147.
4 Arnaldo Bonaventura, op.cit. p. 284.
5 What he would have thought of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique and the compositions of the Second Viennese School can only be imagined.
6 Paul Fresnay, Verdi à Paris, in Conati, p. 168.
7 Felix Philippi was a journalist with the Berliner Tageblatt who visited Verdi in late 1898/ early 1899. Quoted in Conati op.cit. p. 329
8 The year in which he was rescued by the young King Ludwig II of Bavaria and entered into a relationship with Cosima von Bülow who would become his second wife. The autobiography, dictated to Cosima from 1865, was inspired by the King’s request to know more of the composer’s early life. It was printed in a small number of copies for ‘true and trusted friends’, and was only published more widely after Wagner’s death.
9 Quoted in Ronald Taylor, Richard Wagner, His Life, Art and Thought, p. 136.
10 Étienne Destranges, in Conati, p. 211.
11 See Julian Budden, Verdi, p. 304.
12 The German states were, by and large, spared this ignominy since they had been self-governing prior to Napoleon’s intervention. Saxony, Wagner’s homeland, was an exception, losing much of its territory to Prussia as punishment for siding with the French.