Well-known for leading audiences to a new appreciation of Verdi as a subtle and elaborate musical thinker, Pierluigi Petrobelli here turns his attention to the intriguing question of how musical theater works. In this collection of lively, penetrating essays, Petrobelli analyzes specific operas, mainly by Verdi, in terms of historical context, musical organization, and dramaturgical conventions.
Originally published in 1994.
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Music in the Theater
Essays on Verdi and other Composers
By Pierluigi Petrobelli, Roger Parker
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1994 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
FROM ROSSINI'S MOSÉ TO VERDI'S NABUCCO
* * *
To introduce Nabucco, to illustrate even a few of its musico-dramatic characteristics, entails comparison with preceding and contemporary operatic production: we need to define what in this opera is typical of Verdi's style, to distinguish what is not Verdian. We should not forget that even during the composer's lifetime Nabucco was regarded as his first "authentic" product. What is more, Verdi himself seems to have been of the same opinion: in the so-called Autobiographical Sketch narrated to Giulio Ricordi, he states that "with this opera [Nabucco] one could truly say that my artistic career began."
However paradoxical it may seem, research on the earliest stages of Verdi's musico-dramatic style has hardly begun. Apart from a few distinguished but isolated exceptions, the essential stylistic and musical components of Italian opera in the first forty years of the nineteenth century still await critical definition; and until such studies have been undertaken—studies that will have as their basis matters of musical style—it is hard to write with absolute certainty of this rather than that musico-dramatic characteristic in early Verdi.
The present essay, then, cannot offer anything like definitive conclusions; I simply wish to present some ideas that have emerged through a careful and—I hope—thoughtful reading of the opera with which Verdi began his triumphant ascent.
Even within these limitations, it may nevertheless be possible to establish some connections between Nabucco and earlier operas. It is always difficult to find incontrovertible proof of this kind of relationship—particularly in the case of Verdi; with Nabucco the situation is more-or-less hopeless, as we have almost no documents concerning the opera's origins or genesis: even the genesis of Verdi's first opera, Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, is better documented. There is no mention of the birth of Nabucco in the Copialettere or in the four volumes of Carteggi verdiani edited by Alessandro Luzio; nor has the collection of reproductions of Verdi's letters housed at the Istituto di studi verdiani in Parma so far produced anything of relevance.
We must, then, make do with what Verdi himself has told us, even though his accounts date from more than twenty-five years after the event. As it happens, the composer mentioned the early history of Nabucco more than once: we possess no less than three narratives, given on three separate occasions. The earliest was told to Michele Lessona during a conversation at Tabiano, a spa near Busseto, and was published by Lessona in his Volere è potere of 1869. The second, extremely concise account is in a letter to Opprandino Arrivabene dated 7 March 1874 in which Verdi makes explicit mention of the Lessona version. The third is in the so-called Autobiographical Sketch dictated to Giulio Ricordi on 19 October 1879 and published (with Verdi's consent, since we know that he read the proofs) in the Italian translation of Arthur Pougin's Verdi, histoire anecdotique de sa vie et des ses oeuvres. How was it that Verdi, always so deeply reluctant to speak about himself, chose on three occasions to hold forth on a topic that involved both himself and his professional career, knowing full well that on at least two of these occasions what he said would be published? Undoubtedly the period during which Nabucco was created is the epic moment in the Verdian biography, the moment in which—with his triumph at La Scala—the composer's powerful personality asserted itself once and for all time on the public at large.
The three narratives basically agree, except in a few minor but rather important details that we will examine later. But how far can we rely on them? Those scholars who have long wrestled with the problems of Verdian biography will know how adept the composer was at creating a public persona, at establishing a stereotyped portrait for a public always eager for details of his personal life; it was behind this self-made image that he tried to hide (indeed, succeeded in hiding) his true self, the one that we know today through such direct documentation as his correspondence with close relatives and trusted friends. It is, of course, precisely the absence of documentary evidence that forces us to accept—though with the greatest caution—what Verdi tells us; and this even though, for example, he ended the account to his trusted friend Opprandino Arrivabene with the words "Here then is my absolutely true story" (Eccoti la storia mia vera, vera, vera).
After the disastrous reception of Un giorno di regno on 5 September 1840 Verdi, deeply wounded by its failure and by the recent death of his wife—a death that completed the destruction of his small family—decided to break the contract he had signed with the impresario at La Scala, Bartolomeo Merelli—a contract drawn up after Oberto that obliged the composer to write three further operas, the first of which had been Un giorno di regno. Thanks to the farsighted insistence of Merelli, the contract was not canceled: whenever Verdi wanted to have a new opera performed, he had merely to give the impresario the two months' notice needed to prepare the singers, scenery, and costumes. But Verdi wanted nothing more to do with music; he set about reading, as he said to Lessona, "terrible books, most of them those cheap novels [romanzacci] that were then so common in Milan." Thus he spent the end of the autumn and beginning of winter 1841:
I settled in Milan near the Corsia de' Servi: I had lost faith and thought no more of music, when one winter evening, coming out of the Galleria De Cristoforis, I run into Merelli, who was going to the theater. It was snowing in broad flakes, and taking me by the arm he invites me to accompany him to his office at La Scala. Along the way we chat, and he tells me he is in an awkward position about the new opera he must put on: he had given the assignment to Nicolai, but the latter was not satisfied with the libretto.
"Imagine!!" Merelli says, "a libretto by Solera, stupendous!! ... Magnificent!! ... Extraordinary! ... Effective, grandiose dramatic situations! beautiful verses! ... But that stubborn composer won't hear of it and declares it is an impossible libretto! ... I am at a loss to find him another promptly."
"I'll solve your problem," I added. "Did you not have Il proscritto written for me? I have not written a note of it: I put it at your disposal."
"Oh! bravo ... that is really good luck."
Saying this, we had reached the theatre: Merelli calls Bassi, the "poet," stage-director, call-boy, librarian, etc., etc., and tells him to look at once in the archive to see if he can find a copy of Il proscritto: the copy is there. But at the same time Merelli picks up another manuscript and, showing it to me, exclaims:
"Look, here is Solera's libretto! Such a beautiful subject, and to refuse it! ... Take it ... read it."
"What the devil am I to do with it? ... No, no, I have no desire to read librettos."
"Oh, it won't do you any harm! ... Read it and then bring it back to me." And he hands me the manuscript: it was a big script in broad letters, as was the custom then. I roll it up and, saying good evening to Merelli, I go off to my house.
Along the way I felt a kind of vague uneasiness, a supreme sadness, an anguish that swelled the heart! ... I went home and with an almost violent gesture, I threw the manuscript on the table, stopping erect in front of it. Falling on the table, the sheaf opened on its own; without knowing how, my eyes stare at the page that lay before me, and this verse appears to me:
"Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate ..."
I glance over the following verses and I receive a deep impression from them, especially since they were almost a paraphrase of the Bible, which I always found pleasure in reading.
I read a passage, I read two: then, steadfast in my intention of not composing, I make an effort of will and force myself to close the script, and I go off to bed! ... No good ... Nabucco was trotting about in my head! ... Sleep would not come: I get up and read the libretto, not once, but two, three times, so often that in the morning you could say that I knew Solera's entire libretto by heart.
All the same I did not feel like going back on my decision, and during the day I return to the theatre and give the manuscript back to Merelli.
"Beautiful, eh? ...," he says to me.
"Eh! ... Then set it to music! ..."
"Not on your life. ... I won't hear of it."
"Set it to music, set it to music! ..."
And, saying this, he takes the libretto and jams it into the pocket of my overcoat, grabs me by the shoulders, and not only shoves me out of his office, but shuts the door in my face and turns the key.
What to do?
I returned home with Nabucco in my pocket: one day a verse, one day another, one time a note, another a phrase ... little by little the opera was composed.
The narrative Verdi told Lessona corresponds to this account even down to small details; but in the final part it differs in one significant respect. After Merelli has sent him off again with the libretto in his pocket,
The young maestro returned home with his drama, but he threw it into a corner without a further glance, and for another five months carried on reading those bad novels.
Then one fine day, at the end of May, he found himself with that blessed drama again in his hands: he reread the final scene, the death of Abigaille (the one that was later cut), sat down almost mechanically at the piano, the piano that had stood silent for so long, and composed the scene.
The ice was broken [...] In three months from that time, Nabuceo was composed, finished, precisely as it is today.
There are various glosses one could make on this narrative, without moving too far away from the facts of the matter. First of all, what attracted Verdi in his reading of the libretto was the subject, and above all the biblical "tone," the imitation of that book he had "always found pleasure in reading" and the perusal of which he presumably alternated with those "cheap novels" he mentioned to Lessona. Another anecdote, again told by Verdi to Ricordi, underlines that this was the fundamental character the composer wanted to confer on the opera. During the writing of Nabucco Verdi, who had already made use of the librettist Temistocle Solera for alterations to Oberto, locked himself with the unwilling "poet" in a room in order to make him substitute a love duet between Ismaele and Fenena at the end of the third act with a "Profezia" for Zaccaria, the character whom, in a letter of n June 1843 to the bass Ignazio Marini, Verdi would define tout court as "II Profeta." To fashion the text of this blessed "Profezia" there was no need to look very far: "Here's the Bible, you have the words all ready-made," said Verdi to a dismayed Solera; and the change was made precisely to maintain (as Verdi said to Ricordi) "the biblical grandeur that characterized the drama."
This is the only alteration to Solera's text that we know was undertaken on Verdi's instructions. However, there is little doubt (though only a comparison with the model used by Solera for his libretto could prove the matter) that the composer caused his librettist to make other changes, ones that we are not yet able to identify.
From Verdi's accounts of the origins of Nabucco it thus seems clear that the suffering of the Hebrew people, expressed in solemn, biblical terms, was the element that awoke and then held the composer's interest; but it is equally true (as the Lessona narrative tells us) that the composing of the opera began not with a grandiose choral passage but with the final scene, the death of Abigaille—the scene that was then cut from almost all subsequent nineteenth-century performances of the opera.
Around these two poles—a people dramatically fearful for their salvation and an unusual female figure who suppresses her femininity because of a thirst for power and revenge—Verdi constructed his score.
It is worth stressing again that, notwithstanding all his statements to the contrary, Verdi from the beginning saw very clearly the elements on which to build his musical edifice, the hinges around which the entire dramatic structure would pivot. It is the clarity with which he saw the fundamental themes and the precision with which they are realized musically that make it difficult to accept his statement to Giulio Ricordi that the opera was composed "one day a verse, one day another, one time a note, another a phrase," as if to say it was written haphazardly, during an indefinite period between January and the autumn of 1841. The Lessona account—that the opera was composed between the end of May and the end of August 1841, and that composition began with Abigaille's death scene—seems much more likely.
But what of this libretto, so emphatically praised by Merelli, but seeming to Nicolai "impossible" to set to music?
There are four "parts" (not acts), each with a title: "Gerusalemme" (Jerusalem), "L'empio" (The impious one), "La profezia" (The prophecy), and "L'idolo infranto" (The broken idol). Each carries as a subtitle a verse from the Book of Jeremiah (at least if we believe the captions beneath each of them: actually only the first and the fourth of these citations can be found in the Bible; the other two are vague paraphrases, rather than precise quotations, from Jeremiah). As is well known, the whole of jeremiah hinges on the Israelites' captivity in Babylon; but this is not the only biblical passage that speaks of Nebuchadnezzar and the imprisonment in Babylon of the Hebrew people: chapters 24 and 25 of 2 Kings, chapter 36 of 2 Chronicles, the Book of Psalms, and above all the first four chapters of Daniel all contain accounts of the captivity. But none of these passsages contains anything more specific than the invasion of Judah by the king of Babylon, the captivity of the Iraelites, their being led in slavery, Nebucadnezzar's madness, prophesied by Daniel and caused by the king's pride; in both the opera and the Bible this madness is followed by a return to reason caused by the Assyrian king's offering a prayer to the God of Israel. If the events of the libretto give a very different impression from those of the Bible, the language, the images that the librettist made use of, are often directly biblical.
We can immediately see that the Zaccaria of the libretto is intended as a dramatic representation of the biblical Jeremiah, because there is a close parallel between the language of this character and the prophet's utterances in the Bible; and this is curious, since in the economy of Verdi's libretto Zaccaria has a very precise function and characterization, one that has nothing to do with that of Jeremiah, the biblical prophet.
Possible analogies with the Bible end here. All the other characters in the opera derive from Solera's imagination or are taken from earlier theatrical sources and are grafted—according to that process of "contamination" typical of the theatrical texts of any period—onto the biblical base. It is clear that the principal source of Solera's libretto is a four-act play by Auguste Anicet-Bourgeois and Francis-Cornu, Nabuchodonosor, first performed in Paris at the Théâtre de l'Ambigu-Comique on 17 October 1836. However, even though a comparison between the play and the libretto would be extremely revealing, the French pièce was not the only source that Solera (whether guided by Verdi or not) used in constructing his libretto; in any case, a sure link between the play and the libretto is a ballet on the same subject, and drawn from the same theatrical model, given at La Scala in autumn 1838.
Next to the oppressed people we always find, as both comforter and animator, the "prophet" Zaccaria; as the enemy approaches in the first act, Zaccaria instructs the people to have faith in the Lord; in the third act, when the Hebrews lament their homeland "si bella e perduta" on the banks of the Euphrates, Zaccaria consoles them by prophesying that Babylon will be destroyed by the power of the "Lion of Judah." I have already emphasized that this piece was written at the composer's explicit request to replace a love duet that he deemed inappropriate at that point. The composer strove then to achieve a specific characterization for Zaccaria, that of a comforting guide who rekindles in the hearts of the Hebrew exiles their spent faith.
Excerpted from Music in the Theater by Pierluigi Petrobelli, Roger Parker. Copyright © 1994 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
A Note on Italian Prosody
1 From Rossini's Mose to Verdi's Nabucco 8
2 Verdi and Don Giovanni: On the Opening Scene of Rigoletto 34
3 Remarks on Verdi's Composing Process 48
4 Thoughts for Alzira 75
5 Toward an Explanation of the Dramatic Structure of Il trovatore 100
6 Music in the Theater (apropos of Aida, Act III) 113
7 More on the Three "Systems": The First Act of La forza del destino 127
8 Verdi's Musical Thought: An Example from Macbeth 141
9 The Musico-Dramatic Conception of Gluck's Alceste (1767) 153
10 Notes on Bellini's Poetics: Apropos of I puritani 162
11 Bellini and Paisiello: Further Documents on the Birth of I puritani 176
What People are Saying About This
Petrobelli has regularly explored innovative areas of research long before other scholars become aware of their potential. An English-language edition of his essays is most welcome.