Wagner and Verdi: Bicentenary Year 2013

These two musical giants share a revolutionary zeal as well as the birth year of 1813. German Richard Wagner and Italian Giuseppe Verdi each took operatic theatre in completely fresh directions. Their rival legacies are to be acknowledged anew in a bonanza of activities including recordings and performances, books, broadcasts and tours in many cities in Europe and beyond. While they never met, and seemed to resent each other greatly, the two composers will be widely celebrated throughout 2013.
For Kasper Holten, Director of the Opera at Covent Garden, they brought opera forward from the classical world of Mozart into the future and the 20th century. But while Verdi revolutionized the form in a more gradual evolutionary way, taking things on from the bel canto tradition and expressing emotions in a wholly new way, Wagner was more radical.
Richard (Wilhelm) Wagner (1813-83)
Born in Leipzig, Germany, on 22 May 1813, his father was a minor city official who died six months after the birth leaving him to be brought up by his mother. Young Richard entertained ambitions to be a playwright and first became interested in music as a means of enhancing the dramas that he wanted to write and stage. He soon turned towards studying music for which he enrolled at the University of Leipzig in 1831. One of his earlier musical influences was the German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).
Dresden is where Wagner spent his childhood and youth, attended the Kreuzschule church school, became Director of the Royal Saxon Court Orchestra and led the Choral Society. The city celebrates a man who changed the city’s musical focus while drawing inspiration from the city itself.
In 1833 at the age of twenty, Wagner had finished composing his first complete opera Die Feen that remained unproduced until half a century later. He had brief appointments as musical director at the opera house of Magdeburg and Konigsberg during which he wrote Das Liebesverbot based on William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. This second attempt was staged at Magdeburg in 1836, but met with little acclaim.
He developed an operative genre which he called music drama, synthesizing music drama, verse, legend and spectacle. Notable works are the opera The Flying Dutchman (1843), Der Ring des Nibelungen (Cycle of four operas 1847-74), Tristan und Isolde (music drama 1859) and The Siegfried Idyll (1870). His popular sheet music includes Wedding March, Themes from Parsifal and Ride of Valkyries that are still widely performed. His many works are categorised as Early, Middle, Mature stages.
His early operas Reinzi (1842) and The Flying Dutchman (1843) led to his appointment as conductor at the Dresden opera house where Tannhauser was successfully performed (1845). During the composition of Der Ring des Nibelungen, an operatic treatment of German mythology, he fell in love with Mathilde Wesendonck who inspired the opera Tristan und Isolde. In 1870 Wagner married Liszt’s daughter, Cosima von Bulow, twenty-four years his junior. In 1868 he produced Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg and began building a theatre in Bayreuth for the first performance of The Ring (1876). His last opera, Parsifal, was produced in Bayreuth in 1882.
He was responsible for several theatre innovations developed at the Bayreuth Festspeilhaus, an opera house specially constructed for the performance of his operas. These innovations included darkening of the auditorium during performances and placing the orchestra pit out of view of the audience. The Bayreuth Festspeilhaus is the venue of the annual Richard Wagner festival which draws thousands of opera fans to Bayreuth.
Wagner was an extremely controversial figure both because of his musical and dramatic innovations, and as a public exponent of anti-semitic ideas. A prolific writer, he authored hundreds of books, poems and articles as well as a massive amount of correspondence. His writings covered a wide range of topics including politics and philosophy, and detailed analysis, often quite contradictory, of his own operas. He wrote essays of note including a polemic directed against Jewish composers, and a biography titled My Life (1880).
At the Albert Hall in London, in 1877 the Wagner Festival was held with eight concerts conducted by Wagner himself. ‘Wagner 200’ is the theme of London’s 2013 expansive festival for the bicentenary of his birth. In Ireland the example of Wagner’s exploration of German mythology, and the excitement generated by the rediscovery of Irish mythology as part of a wider movement of cultural nationalism, led to a flowering of mythological plays in the early twentieth century as part of the Irish Literary Revival.
In 1877 Wagner began work on Parsifal, his final opera. The composition took four years during which he also wrote a series of increasingly reactionary essays on religion and art. He completed Parsifal in 1882*, and a second Bayreuth Festival was held for the new opera. By this time he was extremely ill having suffered a series of angina attacks. During the sixteenth and final performance of the opera on 29 August, he secretly entered the pit during Act III, took the baton from Hermann Levi, and led the performance to its conclusion.
After the festival the Wagner family travelled to Venice for the winter where he died from a heart attack on 13 February 1883 in the Palazzo Vendramin on the Grand Canal. His last words were recorded as …‘I am fond of them, of the inferior beings of the abyss, of those who are full of longing’. His body was returned to Bayreuth and buried in the garden of Villa Wahnfried.
Giuseppe (Fortunino Francesco) Verdi (1813-1901)
Giuseppe Verdi was born on 10 October 1813 in Le Roncole, a village near Busseto, in turbulent times with Parma staggering under the thumb of Napoleon’s armies. His baptismal register on 11 October lists him as “born yesterday” which could be either 9 or 10 October. It was in Busseto he received his first lessons in composition.
He went to Milan at the age of twenty to continue his studies where he attended operatic performances as well as concerts of specifically German music. Milan’s beaumonde association convinced him to pursue a career as a theatre composer. During the mid-1830s he attended the Salotto Maffei Salons in Milan, hosted by Clara Maffei. Returning to Busseto he became the town music master and with the support of Antonio Barezzi, a local merchant and music lover, who had long supported Verdi’s musical ambitions in Milan, Verdi gave his first public performance at Barezzi’s home in 1830.
Because he loved Verdi’s music, Barezzi invited Verdi to be his daughter Margherita’s music teacher and the two soon fell deeply in love. They were married on 4 May 1836 and Margherita gave birth to two children in 1837 and 1839. Both died in infancy while Verdi was working on his first opera and, shortly afterwards, Margherita died of encephalitis on 18 June 1840 aged 26. Verdi adored his wife and children and he was devastated by their deaths.
Unlike most of the visual arts, opera was commercially profitable, accessible to most classes of society, thus an effective means of reaching the nineteenth century public. Verdi used musical theatre to contrast noble ideals with the corrosive effects of power, love of country with the inevitable call for sacrifice and death, and the lure of passion with the need for social order.
After 1843 for a decade that Verdi described as his “galley years”, he wrote a large number of operas. For some, the most important opera that Verdi wrote is Macbeth in 1847. For the first time he attempted an opera without a love story breaking a basic convention of nineteenth century Italian opera. In 1847 I Lombardi (1843) revised and renamed Jérusalem was produced by the Paris Opera. Due to a number of Parisian Conventions that had to be honoured (including extensive ballets) it became Verdi’s first work in the Grand Opera style.
His first mature work was Rigoletto (1851). His many operas, such as La Traviata (1853), Aida (1871) and Otello (1887), emphasize the dramatic element, treating personal stories on a heroic scale and often against backgrounds that reflect his political interests. Verdi is also famous for his Requiem (1874). He wrote Falstaff in 1893 that is based on Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor.
Rigoletto which premiered in 1851 was a great success. It sets up Verdi’s original idea of musical drama as a cocktail of heterogeneous elements embodying social and cultural complexity, and beginning from a destructive mixture of comedy and tragedy. In Verdi’s “middle period” in 1853 Il Trovatore was produced in Rome and La Traviata in Venice. The latter was based on Alexandre Dumas play ‘The Lady of the Camelias’ and became the most popular of all Verdi’s operas, listed as most performed opera worldwide. Between 1855 and 1867 an outpouring of great Verdi operas followed.
Following the death of Margherita Barezzi, Verdi began an affair with Giuseppina Stepponi, a soprano in the twilight of her career. They married on 27 August 1859 at Collonges-sous-Salève, in the kingdom of Piemonte, near Geneva. After his mother’s death Verdi made his home at the family place of Villa Verdi at Sant’Agata in Villanova sull’Arda until his death.
In 1869 Verdi was asked to compose a section for the requiem mass in memory of Gioachino Rossini. With other Italian contempories of Rossini, it was compiled and completed but never performed in his life time. His complete Requiem was first performed at the Cathedral of Milan on 22 May 1874 honouring the famous novelist and poet Alessandro Manzoni who died in 1873.
During his later years Verdi worked on revising some of his earlier scores. His last opera Falstaff (1893) was an international success. In 1894 he composed a short ballet for a French production of Otello his last purely orchestral composition. In 1897 he completed his last work, a setting of the traditional Latin text Stabat Mater, the last of four sacred works that Verdi composed.
In October 1894 the French Government awarded Giuseppe Verdi the Grand-Croix de la Legion d’honneur, the first non-French to receive the Grand-Croix. His music is hailed as some of the greatest operatic work of all time.
While staying at the Grand Hotel in Milan, Verdi suffered a stroke on 21 January 1901 and died a week later on 27 January. His funeral service is documented as the largest public event in Italy with numerous choirs conducted by Arturo Toscanini. His burial was initially in Milan’s Cimitero Monumentale. A month later Verdi’s body was removed to the “crypt” of the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, a rest home for retired musicians that Verdi had recently established.
Ita Marguet, February 2013
Note : Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in preparation of this text. *On a visit to Ravello in 1880, Richard Wagner is said to have been taken by the beauty and entranced with the story book atmosphere of Villa Rufolo. He was moved to exclaim that he had found … “the magical garden of Klingsor” … as the tangible expression of his most fantastic visions. It inspired a character in his three-act opera Parsifal that is based on a thirteenth century epic poem.
The RTE Philharmonic Choir, one of Ireland’s largest vocal ensembles, has made a recording of Verdi’s Aida. Catherine Hayes (1825-61), Limerick born Irish singer, known as ‘the Swan of Erin’ made her debut at La Scala, Milan. She became established in France and Italy as a prima donna interpreting amongst others the works of Giuseppe Verdi.International Newspapers