“For Verdi, music was an integral part of reality … a force behind history …”
In something of a change of pace for regular readers of the Florent Schmitt Blog, this post is on the topic of the Italian operatic composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). Highly successful during his lifetime, his fame has hardly dimmed in the century following his death.
I think it’s fair to consider Verdi the single most influential voice in opera, despite the considerable influence other composers like Gluck and Wagner had on the medium as well.
In 2013, the bicentennial anniversary of Verdi’s birth, an important new work was published in Italy about Giuseppe Verdi. The book’s full title is Ascoltando Verdi: Scrigni di Musica, filosofia politica e vita (Listening to Verdi: Shrines of Music, Political Philosophy and Life), and its author is Alberto Nones.
The book approaches the topic differently than the usual biographical and musicological volumes that are published about composers. Instead, the book reveals the composer and the man through the 26 operas that Verdi created over his lengthy career.
The story behind each opera — incorporating the musical, artistic, philosophical, social and political aspects — is presented. In doing so, we come to know the persona of Verdi in a surprisingly different and revealing way. And since the trajectory of Verdi’s life paralleled the struggle for Italian unification and independence, the musical and the socio-political were inextricably combined. It makes for a highly interesting adventure.
The author of Ascoltando Verdi is Alberto Nones. Before you jump immediately to the conclusion that he and I are related, I wish to report that … we don’t really know for sure. His family name is Trentino Italian, whereas my own heritage is French/Iberian Jewish.
What is important is that Alberto Nones is both a musician and a scholar. After studying piano performance in conservatory, he went on to earn a Laurea degree in Philosophy from the University of Bologna … then a Master’s degree in Political Theory from the London School of Economics … then a Ph.D. in International Studies from the University of Trento … then becoming a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. and being named a Fulbright Scholar as well as a 2009-10 Olin-Lehrman Postdoctoral Fellow at Princeton University.
… All of which means that he approaches the life and work of Verdi in a unique and special way.
Because Ascoltando Verdi has not been published in an English translation (yet), I wanted to ask Alberto Nones to share his perspectives on Verdi and what he discovered when researching and writing this book … for the benefit of the many non-Italian speakers who read the Florent Schmitt Blog and whose love for classical music extends well beyond Paris of the early-to-mid 20th century.
[Even better for me, Alberto Nones was kind enough to share his thoughts and perspectives in English!]
PLN: How did you become interested in Giuseppe Verdi and his music?
AN: I had known the music of Verdi since I was a small boy. But my interest really grew in the process of writing my Ph.D. dissertation in political theory on the concept of “patriotism.”
I developed the idea that one could look at the concept in a new way — that is, approaching patriotism not simply with reference to political theory, doctrines and treatises, but also with reference to music (that abstract but powerful art-form) and more specifically operas, which were even more influential at the time.
It was the United States that gave me the opportunity to research this, by means of a post-doc at the James Madison Program of Princeton University.
Even though the world thinks of Verdi as a musician only — an opera composer — he was more than that. You could say that Verdi was one of the founding fathers of Italy. He was highly prominent in the period from the 1840s to the 1860s during the time of the Risorgimento when music — and opera in particular — served the cause of motivating Italians in their struggle against foreign oppression and the fight for independence.
PLN: There have been numerous biographies about Verdi published over the years. Your book is different from a standard biography. What was the inspiration behind the book, and what special aspects of Verdi as a musician and as a person did you wish to emphasize?
AN: Musicology is widely conceived as a sector discipline. But to me, music is immersed in the world — breathing in it, and inextricably linked to many other human activities. For this reason, I wanted to write a book on Verdi that was neither a volume aimed at musicologists nor just another biography. Instead, I wanted to create one that looks at all of his operas in the context of the social, philosophical and political views represented in them.
PLN: In doing your research for the book, were there aspects of Verdi’s character or musical output that surprised you, or that are not generally known or appreciated?
AN: Most people familiar with classical music and opera know just a half-dozen or so of Verdi’s operas — ones like Traviata, Aida, Otello, Trovatore, Rigoletto, Falstaff and Nabucco.
But Verdi composed 26 operas, plus various remakes. Many of these are extraordinarily beautiful but hardly known — and should be rediscovered.
And this aspect is important, too: All of them are significant in the development of Verdi’s music and ideas, pointing to his trajectory in the expression of patriotism (which is not always celebratory). Each of the operas reflects a moment in the development of the artistic and social atmosphere and spirit of the time — Italian and European (and hence, culturally speaking, universal).
So the book doesn’t study just the “greatest hits.” It presents all of the operas, recounting the story behind their composition, narrating each plot with its philosophical and socio-political reverberations, and describing how these factors inform the music — and even trying to convey a ‘sense’ of the music.
PLN: In what ways did Verdi influence other composers of the day — in the field of opera and in the broader classical music realm?
AN: First, it’s important to recognize that Verdi was THE Italian composer of the day, from the 1840s on.
Why is this so? Because Verdi realized, interpreted and projected — better than anyone else — what music’s role was. Music was an integral part of reality, a force behind history. This was what Verdi, and no one else in Italy in those days, was able to achieve.
Considering that the rest of Europe looked to Italy when it came to opera, it’s easy to understand how Verdi could then be a major influence on others during this time. Allowing for important distinctions between the two, even Wagner was somewhat influenced by Verdi.
PLN: Did Verdi have any special connection to the musical life of Paris, considering how important opera was there throughout the 19th Century?
AN: Verdi did spend considerable time in Paris, and actually lived there at the beginning of his relationship with the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, with whom he shared his life after the tragic death of his first wife and children.
But the relationship between Verdi and Paris goes well beyond this biographical occurrence.
In 1855, when Piedmont’s prime minister, the Count of Cavour, was attempting to convince Emperor Napoleon III of France to side with the Italians in their struggle for independence from the Austrian Empire, Verdi composed an opera, in French, which was premiered at the Paris Opéra.
That opera was Les vêpres siciliennes (I Vespri Siciliani). Its story was of the Sicilian rebellion against French oppression in Palermo in the 13th Century. Verdi wanted the French of his day to identify with the Italians who had been oppressed by the French centuries before.
He had a goal: He wanted France to play a reverse role in history.
Incredibly, he was able to achieve this ambitious goal, following the notable participation of Piedmont in the war which France, England and the Ottoman Empire had won against the Russians in the Crimean Peninsula in 1853-56.
One could say that attendance at the Paris Opéra was “socially mandatory” among the political and cultural elites of Paris, and so Verdi was able to use his opera to “influence the influencers.”
In the event, France was to sign an alliance with Piedmont and the Italian independence partisans soon after. The French spilled their own blood for the liberation and unification of the Italian peninsula at the battles of Magenta and Solferino in 1859.
PLN: Which French composers, if any, were influential on Verdi?
AN: It’s quite clear that Verdi was influenced by Meyerbeer, the greatest French opera composer in the years before Bizet, Massenet and Saint-Saëns.
The very notion of mammoth operatic musical tragedies based on historical events — often in five acts, no less — was a French thing (or more specifically, a Meyerbeer thing — although one shouldn’t forget Rossini’s Guillaume Tell or, even more importantly, his Mosè in Egitto, composed as early as 1818 and then revised for the Paris Opéra in 1827).
But soon Verdi was to turn the tables: He was offered the services of the two greatest French librettists of the time — Eugène Scribe and Charles Duveyrier. Hector Berlioz, in his laudatory review of the five-act Vêpres siciliennes in La France Musicale, wrote of a “majesté souveraine de la musique.”
Verdi had surpassed even Meyerbeer.
PLN: Do you know of any particular influences that Verdi may have had on French musical style?
The evidence certainly points to some. To mention one in particular, I consider Verdi’s Il Trovatore, which is based on the drama El Trovador by the Spanish writer Antonio Garcia Gutiérrez, the first Carmen.
Carmen had its premiere in Paris in 1875, but Trovatore had been first performed in Paris more than 20 years earlier, in 1854.
The similarities go beyond aspects in the setting. The main characters in both operas are mezzo-sopranos, which was an unusual practice at that time.
Indeed, I hear some similarities in the musical style of Bizet’s Carmen and Verdi’s opera Don Carlos.
In fact, Bizet began composing his masterpiece in 1873 on the request of Camille du Locle, the impresario who had been Verdi’s librettist for Don Carlos. So the connections are really quite extensive.
PLN: In your view, what is the enduring legacy of Verdi in terms of his impact on opera and on classical music in general?
AN: I don’t necessarily look at simply musical style. It think it is more that Verdi represents passion and history conjoined. As long as human beings have feelings, emotions and passions, Verdi’s position and legacy will be secure. Verdi and his music represent the heritage of us all.
PLN: Your book is lengthy — more than 500 pages! It’s also thoroughly sourced and footnoted. How long did you work on researching and writing it?
During those very intense 12 months, I also had to complete another book that was published by Princeton University Press — an English translation of a titanic work by Maurizio Viroli titled As If God Existed: Religion and Liberty in the History of Italy. I am afraid that you might suspect me to be a “frantic” worker!
PLN: What sort of reception is Ascoltando Verdi having in Italian cultural circles and elsewhere?
AN: Like many works of its kind, the book is finding its way. I particularly enjoy presenting the book before audiences, because it also gives me the opportunity to play and comment on excerpts from the operas that are covered in the book — some of them unknown to most people.
Of course, the subject matter is a narrow one that appeals to a certain type of reader with certain interests. And unfortunately, like people elsewhere in the world, many Italians don’t read so many books nowadays!
Still, I am gratified by the reception it receives from those who read it. One reason for this, I think, is that my book is less “musicological” than other books on Verdi, such as the three-volume work by Julian Budden. Instead, my own book is free of jargon and technical musical analysis — and hence appropriate for a broader audience.
I am also in the process of finding a publisher to release the book in English. I’m pleased to report that those plans appear to be gathering momentum.
Of course, I’d like to add that no book on Verdi — or any other composer for that matter — should take the place of the music, or even attempt to do so. The music is what should always prevail. Scholarly research and the printed word should only serve the purpose of understanding the music a little better.
As the author of the Florent Schmitt Blog, I know you must understand this completely because your posts always come back to the music itself!
PLN: Tell us about your own personal background as a musician.
AN: I am a pianist, having graduated from conservatory with a degree in piano performance. I have been active for years — both as a soloist and as an accompanist for singers and in chamber music. I also worked as a répétiteur in the opera house for about eight years, but not currently.
I’ve always tried to combine my activities as a scholar with having a life in music. It’s wonderful to be able to balance time spent writing about political theory with the very different experience of studying and performing Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Sonata #2, to reference just one example!
PLN: What’s happening now? Do you have any major new projects in the works?
AN: Currently, I’m teaching political philosophy at the University of Trento, and recently I taught a course on creativity and communication at the University of Teramo.
I’m also active as a radio author with RAI, the Italian national TV and radio network. My RAI work has given me the opportunity to write and broadcast cycles of programs on Verdi, Chopin and … The Doors.
Yes, The Doors! I like to approach music from a wide angle and the widest possible perspective. I believe there are no divisions … no sects. Just sounds — and all of them are worth hearing.
The Doors were also the subject of a small book I wrote about the band, titled Ascoltando i Doors: L’America, l’infinito e le porte della percezione [Listening to The Doors: America the Infinite and the Doors of Perception] which was published this year. It would be interesting if this book could be brought out in English as well.
My current project is researching and writing a book on the Italian composer Riccardo Zandonai, a Trentino native who lived from 1883 to 1944. Being a rough contemporary of Florent Schmitt, I’m sure all of your Schmitt scholars, fans and devotees throughout the world will be very interested in this!
For those of you who can read Italian and who have a love for opera — or even just the socio-political currents of the 19th Century — Alberto Nones’ book should prove to be a worthwhile addition to your library. The book is available from numerous international online booksellers, including Amazon.
And for those of us, like me, whose Italian isn’t a second (or even a third) language, hopefully we’ll have the opportunity to read the book in its English translation before too long!