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THE OPERAS OF GIUSEPPE VERDI
By ABRAMO BASEVI, Edward Schneider, Stefano Castelvecchi
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Nabucodonosor was first performed at Milan's Teatro alla Scala in March 1842.
Its reception was rapturous; the experts judged it worthy of a great master. Its majestic nature, its solemn cast, and a certain frankness and naturalness immediately made listeners think of Rossini—and kind Fame soon inspired hope that that composer's genius would be revived in the young man from Busseto.
With Nabucodonosor Verdi met one of the most stringent requirements that capricious fate imposes on young composers: the immediate demand for an opera worthy of comparison with those of the most skilled composers of fashion, on pain of falling suddenly into oblivion and abruptly and irrevocably losing all the fruits of the tremendous effort required merely to place a work before the public. And who knows how many artists are in this way condemned to pitiable silence, artists who otherwise, given further opportunities to try their strengths, might grow into the most illustrious and solid bastions of art? But which of today's impresarios does not take fright and condemn to perpetual banishment any composer who, after one or at the most two tries, falls short of fully achieving the required success? Thus, not what is good but only what is outstanding makes the grade. The exorbitant cost of operatic performances excuses the avarice of the impresarios, but not their lack of sagacity.
The shipwreck of Un giorno di regno had caused the pleasant voyage of Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio to be forgotten, and had stripped Verdi of the chance to venture once again onto the stormy seas of the theater. Still, he hopefully accepted Solera's libretto of Nabucodonosor, which had been rejected by Nicolai. He set it to music in his spare time, and only to give vent to his ardent imagination. If Verdi had not had the luck to find someone who would vouch for him financially with a certain impresario, this score might still languish in the portfolio of an obscure organist from Busseto.
Here briefly is how Solera framed the plot of his libretto. Nabucodonosor, King of Babylon and conqueror of the Hebrews, having broken into the Holy Temple, is about to order a massacre. But seeing that his own daughter, Fenena, has fallen into the hands of the high priest, Zaccaria, and is threatened with death, he suspends his cruel command. But Ismaele—son of Sedecia, the King of Jerusalem—loves Fenena and rescues her from this peril, returning her safely to her father. Nabucodonosor looses every restraint from his brutal vengeance. Meanwhile, Abigaille, a slave (thought to be the firstborn daughter of Nabucodonosor), fired by envy of Fenena, hatred of the Jews, and boundless ambition, spreads rumors in Babylon of the death of the king and prepares to ascend the throne. But Nabucodonosor arrives unexpectedly and, possessed by insane pride, proclaims that he must now be worshipped not merely as a king but as a god. A thunderbolt immediately falls, dashing his crown to the ground and stupefying him. Her nerve restored, Abigaille picks up the crown and sets it on her own head. Nabucodonosor, practically insane, can now rule his kingdom only through Abigaille, who forces him to sign a death sentence for all the Jews. But when he realizes that Fenena is among them, he wishes to rescind it. He pleads in vain with Abigaille, then threatens to reveal her true station. She remains firm in her resolve, and responds to Nabucodonosor's threats by tearing to shreds the paper declaring her a slave. At this pass the poor father turns to the Almighty. He begs forgiveness of the God he has offended and thus all at once recovers his reason, his daughter, and his kingdom.
This libretto is by no means lacking in vehement, noble, grand feelings and in touching scenes, all well adapted to the new dramatic character of today's music. And Verdi found in it material congenial to his talent for depicting strong passions and events that inspire universal admiration and devotion.
To set this subject appropriately requires majestic music. However fertile his invention, no artist can find everything he needs within his own imagination; he needs to borrow a great deal from his artistic forebears. Thus, Verdi wisely looked mainly to the great Rossini, master of all in the majestic style, and took as his model the marvelous music of the new version of Mosè and of Guillaume Tell. In those operas, for the reason mentioned above, Rossini too makes use of his predecessors' techniques, although he always develops and handles them in accord with his own talents. Certainly he owes no small debt to Haydn: it is sufficient in that connection to consider the lovely ensemble from The Creation "By thee with bliss."
The grave, solemn character that inspires devotion and calm is well suited to music and renders it fit for association with words and topics concerning our relations with our Creator. This sort of music may be said to possess a sacred colorito.
There are some who believe it impossible to achieve this sacred colorito without using the ancient tonality of plainchant, which survived—albeit with modification—through the time when Monteverdi boldly participated in the establishment of modern tonality. Before Monteverdi, music proceeded with greater calm and was thus much better suited to represent the tranquility appropriate to spiritual contemplation of holy matters. In those days changes of harmony [modulazioni] were few, and the harmonic interval of the tritone—generator of every natural modulation [transizione]—was held in such horror as to be called diabolus in musica; it was never used without precautions that robbed it of nearly all its effectiveness. Now, the mind is troubled by changes of harmony and modulations that are too remote and frequent; for this reason our music is truly incompatible with the gentle quietude of spirit that Palestrina could coax so skillfully from his magical notes. Thus, one can easily understand the enthusiasm of Paer (as related by Baini) when, in the Sistine Chapel, he first heard the music of the great Palestrina. "This," exclaimed Paer, "is the divine music for which I have searched so long—which I could not myself conceive yet trusted could be discovered by a new Apollo." Still, it cannot be denied that, as a result of the music of our time—not wrongly called by Fétis the period of "pluritonic" tonality—and of continual bombardment by many, extremely strange changes of harmony and modulations, ancient tonality no longer has the same effect on our emotions: in time, once the charm of novelty had worn off, it would come to seem too cold and dull. Therefore, I wish not to blame but rather to commend the best modern composers who, when writing sacred music, have availed themselves of all the new achievements in musical art—and even of its dramatic character, so successfully used first by Cherubini.
Although music associated with things sacred must possess a certain hue, it must change somewhat when destined for the stage rather than for the church. This distinction has been accepted by the finest composers, and it is surely a reasonable one: theatergoers are not gathered for prayer; the music should not be devout, although to sustain the illusion it is proper that it be marked by a certain solemnity.
Let us now examine in order the pieces that make up Nabucodonosor, offering as we go along the comments we think most fit.
In the sinfonia, Verdi adopted for the most part the old Rossinian form, using several themes from the opera but in no logical order. The piece therefore turns out a meaningless mosaic.
The introduzione immediately seizes your attention through a broad and majestic manner that is entirely Rossinian; its melodies, however, contain nothing of great novelty.
The aria of Zaccaria (bass) follows. It is particularly notable for its majesty, and we cannot imagine a better way to represent the character of a great high priest, full of eminence. For this majestic character to be fully effective, it must express at once devotion, admiration, and gravity. Some confuse the slow succession of long-held notes with the majestic; they do not understand that this technique makes it easy to lapse into the pompous, the heavy, the affected, the colorless, and so forth. A truly majestic melody should not lose but rather gain in effect when performed by many voices. Now, as certain graces, embellishments, and so forth are clearly out of place in choruses, the majestic must derive its beauty from simplicity. Note that there are some choruses of magical effect whose melodies lose all their force and vigor when performed by a single voice. For that reason, these melodies cannot merit the name majestic: their effect lies principally in their powerful sonority [sonorità]. A big sound produces an effect that we must not leave unexamined. It consists of giving the notes the strength and tenacity that hold them together even without true support or mutual attraction: without its sonority, the same melody would, so to speak, liquify and lose all its consistency. The andante "D'Egitto là sui lidi" is truly majestic, and there is a very fine effect of contrasting sonorities [contrapposto] where the chorus repeats Zaccaria's first phrase in unison. This is not a new effect; it is found, for example, in the aria "Bell'ardir" from Donizetti's Marino Faliero.
While Verdi has found models for majesty in the music of Rossini, he has nonetheless shown great ingenuity in transplanting to his arias a quality Rossini used mostly in choruses, such as "Aux chants joyeux qui retentissent" from the first act of Guillaume Tell. Nor was Mercadante ignored, although Verdi was able to steer clear of the rocks into which Mercadante often crashed. Only once did Mercadante succeed in truly achieving the majestic: in the aria from La vestale "Versate amare lagrime," which, however, sometimes totters on the verge of the pompous and stiff. The cabaletta of Zaccaria's aria ["Come notte a sol fulgente"] is an early fruit of Verdi's impetuous talent, which in some ways resembles Rossini's, as seen in Assur's aria "Que' Numi furenti" from Semiramide—except that what is a constant attitude in Verdi was born in Rossini of a specific opportunity. To add energy to this cabaletta Verdi again made use of the contrast of the chorus, which repeats a portion of the melody in unison.
A terzettino for Fenena, Abigaille (sopranos), and Ismaele (tenor) contains a noteworthy section in the allegro that precedes the andante, where Abigaille sings "Prode guerrier, etc." There is great passion, energy, and pride in this declamatory singing; here Verdi sought to emulate the grandiloquence of the music of the last century—but without lapsing into the exaggeration that makes it ridiculous to us. The andante contains an agreeable theme, but it grows weaker when Fenena introduces a new melody.
In the chorus that begins the first finale, the scene of terror and agitation is aptly expressed—first by means of repeating the same phrase in various keys, then with certain little chromatic phrases. The accompaniment is dominated by a triplet figure well suited to depicting the disquietude of the characters.
The march accompanying Nabucodonosor's entrance is slick, but too tranquil and not really appropriate to military fierceness.
The andante of the first finale is notable. It is a sextet with chorus that is praiseworthy in its variety: in fifty-eight measures, six main musical ideas unfold, not counting the cadential passage. By contrast, the composers in fashion when Verdi came on the scene seem to have taken pleasure in long-windedness, developing ideas made of numerous phrases and melodic periods, counting mostly on the sonority effect [effetto della sonorità]. In the pezzo concertato "Vicino a chi s'adora" in Mercadante's Il giuramento there are approximately ninety measures containing only three main ideas; and in the celebrated largo in the first [second] finale of Saffo, Pacini wrote one hundred measures with but two dominant ideas. Verdi had the shrewdness to search further back and take Rossini as his guide. In the first-act quartet of the new version of Mosè, which begins "Dieu de la paix," the tempo changes three times in some thirty measures—measures also rich in variety. And in the largo of the first-act finale of the same work there are forty-four measures with a single central idea: but with what miraculous variety is it repeated! Also, Verdi has made much use of the effect of chiaroscuro—the contrast between loud and soft. In this piece, look at the section where Abigaille sings a number of solo phrases and you will find some of these dynamic contrasts [stacchi] that make a great dramatic effect. At the same time, note the melody—brusque, impetuous, and savage even in its agile ornaments. Here you find a clear manifestation of the inborn character of the Verdian genius. The stretta of this first finale is modeled, with regard to its form, on that of the celebrated third finale of the new version of Mosè, and it does justice to its model.
The second act opens with an aria for Abigaille. The andante is of the kind much used by Donizetti and Bellini, in that little instrumental motifs used to accompany one of the aria's melodic periods turn it into a sort of small-scale parlante passage. The melody is lovely and is adorned with fioriture that attest to Rossini's influence on Verdi's first musical ventures. The cabaletta ["Salgo già del trono aurato"] is in the most usual form, but has a slancio that is truly Verdian.
Zaccaria's prayer is stately, but its melodic periods are none too well connected.
Among the trademarks of Verdi's style is the use of staccato rhythms—jerky, convulsive rhythms that strongly shake the listener; this kind of rhythm is employed in the chorus of Levites.
In the canon quartet Verdi once again paid homage to Rossini. It is said that Piccinni was the first to bring canon into the theater. We would not be wrong to state unequivocally that with this piece Verdi should be the last: nothing is more inimical to scenic effect than canon. Let us leave canons and fugues to the contrapuntists; nor should we take the example of the ancients, particularly the Flemish, who knew no other way of making music speak. With such artifices they sought mainly to disguise and conceal the poverty of their imagination. And that this was truly poor—or rather that melody did not enjoy the favor of the ancient masters—is seen in the fact that even the finest composers before the creation of opera did not disdain to use in their masses, motets, etc. the melodies of popular songs (even indecent ones), madrigals, and so forth. Thus, old masses bear such titles as "Baciatemi o cara," "O Venere bella," "Che fa oggi il mio sole," and so on. Even the great Palestrina followed the custom and wrote a mass on "Io mi son giovinetta" and another on "L'homme armé"—this latter a very popular song that provided the theme of sacred compositions by the finest masters, including Josquin des Prez, Pierre de La Rue, Johannes Tinctoris, Cristóbal de Morales, and many others. It should be added that, in a dedication to Pope Gregory XIII, Palestrina confessed to this sinful practice. The likes of Bach, Handel, and Cherubini may have shown themselves to be masters of the art of fugue, but they never managed to give it any expressiveness other than the purely mechanical one born of hearing the same musical idea presented by different voices, at different pitches, and in different guises. Canons and fugues are useful academic exercises, nothing more. To temper the boredom generated by canon, Verdi employed the sonority effect [effetto di sonorità] in this piece, giving the chorus a final repeat of the theme in unison.
The mad scene of Nabucodonosor (baritone), which closes the second act, is extremely well conceived dramatically. The initial ten-measure period is cast in a single sweep [di getto], without symmetry of phrases, or repetition, or imitation—a manner fitting for declamation, and for passion, which does not adapt easily to certain regular, obviously studied procedures. After this allegro period, a little adagio phrase follows—symmetrical and regular, with a lovely melody—and then another ten-measure allegro period with an energetic melody, with which the aria ends. Then, rather than reprising the whole aria as usual, Verdi obeys dramatic truth by repeating nothing but the adagio, adding three measures to complete the melodic period. After this, the piece finishes with five measures of a sort of obbligato recitative for Zaccaria and Abigaille. To end an act without the usual cadential passages shows the composer's love of art, for he risks a lack of applause at the fall of the curtain. The brief adagio of this aria is particularly notable, as it makes a fine contrast [contrapposto] between the two allegros. Verdi often made shrewd use of effects of contrast; he identified the most propitious times for them—such as when the audience has the strongest need for powerful emotions. Contrast makes a profound impression because it finds our senses in repose and at their most receptive. Psychological contrasts operate in the same way as their physical counterparts. For instance, a hand previously immersed in cold water will be more sensitive to warm water: the effect of the contrast is to make this seem extremely hot. In a sense, contrast is an artificial means of increasing sensitivity—or rather of compensating for its deficiency. Contrast was in great fashion in literature before much use of it was made in music. Mercadante and Pacini in their operas, written shortly before the advent of Verdi, were the first to avail themselves of this effect. Mercadante in particular often used it well: the rapid transition from fortissimo to pianissimo in the andante of the pezzo concertato toward the end of act 2 of La vestale is of magical effect. As everyone knows, there are various kinds of contrasts. They consist mostly in the opposition of soft and loud, of slow and quick, and of solo and tutti, and in variety of rhythms, meters, keys, orchestration, and so forth. Most sensibly, Verdi has done his best to avoid one kind of contrast, one often embraced by particularly mediocre and careless composers: the contrast achieved by the juxtaposition of tedious music with enjoyable music. The tedious never changes its nature; rather it has the effect of rendering anything in its vicinity tiresome. Thus the pleasant, instead of acquiring greater prominence, loses it through proximity to the tedious.
Excerpted from THE OPERAS OF GIUSEPPE VERDI by ABRAMO BASEVI, Edward Schneider, Stefano Castelvecchi. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Table of ContentsEditor’s Introduction
2. I Lombardi alla prima crociata
4. I due Foscari
5. Giovanna d’Arco
9. I masnadieri
11. Il corsaro
12. La battaglia di Legnano
13. Luisa Miller
16. Il trovatore
17. La traviata
18. Giovanna de Guzman [Les vêpres siciliennes]
19. Simon Boccanegra