A 1901 Pamphlet on Verdi (Part 2)
This is Part 2 of this small pamphlet by Elbert Hubbard from 1901. In this installment, Verdi meets with early rejection, but also finds love!
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In his childhood young Verdi used to wear a bit of rope for a girdle, and when hunger gnawed importunately, he would simply pull his belt one knot tighter, and pray that the ravens would come and treat him as well as they did Elijah.For over a hundred years three-fourths of the population of Italy have been on reduced rations. Starvation even yet crouches just around the corner.
His parents were so poor that the question of education never came to them; but desire has its way, so we find the boy at ten years of age running errands for a grocer with a musical attachment.
New York, New York. Italian grocery store owned by the Ronga brothers on Mulberry Street, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
This grocer, at Busseto, Jasquith by name, hung upon the fringe of art, and made the dire mistake of mixing business with his fad, for he sold his wares to sundry gentlemen who played in bands.
This led the good man to moralize at times, and he would say to Giuseppe, who had been promoted from errand boy to clerk, “You can trust a first violin, and a cello usually pays, but never say yes to a trombone or an oboe; and as for a kettledrum, I wouldn't believe one on a stack of Bibles!”
Over the grocer's shop was a little parlor, and in it was a spinet that young Giuseppe had the use of four evenings a week. In his later years Verdi used to tell of this, and once he said that the idea of prohibition and limit should be put on every piano,—then the pupil would make the best of his privileges.
In those days there was a tax on spinets, and I believe that this tax has never been rescinded, for you are taxed if you keep a piano, now, in any part of Italy. Several times the poor grocer's spinet stood in sore peril from the publicans and sinners, but the bailiffs were bought off by Signior Barezzi who came to the rescue.
The note of thrift was even then in Verdi's score, for he himself has told how he induced the Barezzi household to patronize the honest grocer with musical proclivities.
When he was twelve years old Verdi occasionally played the organ in the village church at Busseto. It will be seen from this that he had courage, and even then possessed a trace of that pride and self-will that was to be first his disadvantage and then his blessing. Signior Barezzi's attachment to the boy was very great, and we find the youngster was on friendly terms with the family, having free use of their piano, with valuable help and instruction from Signiorina Grazia.
When he was seventeen he was easily the first musician in the place, and Busseto had nothing more to offer in way of advantages. He thirsted for a wider career, and cast longing looks out into the great outside world.
He had played at Parma, only a few miles away, and the bishop there, after hearing him improvise on the organ, had paid him a doubtful compliment by sayings, “Your playing is surely unlike any-thing ever before heard at Parma.”
Fair fortune smiled when Signior Barezzi secured for young Verdi a free scholarship at the Conservatory of Milan. The youth went gaily forth, attended by the blessings of the whole village, to claim his honors. Arriving at the Conservatory, the directors put him through his paces, after the usual custom, to prove his fitness for the honor that had been thrust upon him. He played first upon the piano, and the committee advised together in whispered monotone.
Then they asked him to play on the organ, and there was more consultation, with argument punctuated by rolling adjectives and many picturesque gesticulations. Then they asked him to play the piano again. He did so, and the great men retired to deliberate and vote on the issue.
Their decision was that the youth was self-willed, erratic, and that he had some absurd mannerisms and tricks of performance that forbade his ever making a musician. And, therefore, they ruled that his admission to the Conservatory was impossible.
Barezzi, who was present with his protege, stormed in wrath, and declared that Verdi was the peer of any of his judges; in fact, was so much beyond them that they could not comprehend him.
This only confirmed the powers in the stand they had taken, and they intimated that a great musician in Busseto was something different in Milan—Signior Barezzi had better take his young man home and be content to astonish the villagers with noisy acrobatics. There being nothing else to do, the advice was first flouted and then followed.
They arrived home, and Grazia and the grocer were informed that the Conservatory at Milan was a delusion & a snare—“a place where pebbles were polished and diamonds dimmed.” Shortly after, the townspeople, to show their faith in the home-product, had Verdi duly installed as organist of the village church at a salary equal to forty dollars a year.
Under the spell of this good fortune, Verdi proposed marriage to the daughter of Jasquith, the grocer, his friend and benefactor. Gratitude to the man who had first assisted him, had much to do with the alliance; and in wedding the daughter, Verdi simply complied with what he knew to be the one ardent desire of the father.
The girl was a frail creature, of fine instincts, but her intellect had been starved just as her body had been. Her chief virtue seems to have been that she believed absolutely in the genius of Verdi.
The ambition of Verdi began to show itself. He wrote an opera, and offered it to Marelli, the impresario of La Scala at Milan. The impresario had heard of Verdi, through the fact that he had been black-balled by the Conservatory. This of itself would have been no passport to fame, but the Committee saw fit to defend themselves in the matter by making a public report of the considerations which had moved them to shut the doors on the young man from Busseto. This gave the subject a weight and prominence that simple admission never would have given.
Marelli, the Major Pond of Milan, saw the expressions “bizarre,” “erratic,” “unprecedented,” and “peculiar,” and kept his eye on the young man. And so when the opera was written he pounced upon it, thinking possibly a new star had appeared on the musical horizon.
The opera was accepted. Verdi, feverish with hope, moved his scanty effects to Milan, and there with his frail and beautiful girl-wife and their baby boy, lived in a garret just across from the theatre.
Preparations for the performance were going on apace. The night of November 17th, 1839, came, and the play was presented. The critics voted it a failure.
Marelli, the manager, saw that it was not strong enough with which to storm the town, and so decided to abandon it. He liked the young composer, though, and admired his work: and inasmuch as he had brought him to Milan, he felt a sort of obligation to help him along.
So Verdi was given an order for an opera bouffe. That’s it! Opera bouffe!—the people want comedy—they must be amused. Even Verdi's serious work ran dangerously close to farce—bouffe is the thing!
Marelli's hope was infectious. Verdi began work on the new play that was to be presented in the spring.
The winter rains began. There was no fire in the garret where the composer and his frail girl-wife lived. They were so proud that they did not let the folks at Busseto know where they were: even Marelli did not know their place of abode.
Under an assumed name Verdi got occasional work as underling in one of the theatres, and also played the piano at a restaurant. The wages thus earned were a pittance, but he managed to take home soup-bones that the baby-boy sucked on as though they were nectar.
Another baby was born that winter. The mother was unattended, save by her husband—no other woman was near. Verdi managed to bring home scraps of food by stealth from the restaurant where he played, but it was not the kind that was needed. There was no money to buy goat's milk for the new-born babe, and the famishing mother, ever hopeful, assured the husband it wasn't necessary—that the babe was doing well. The child grew a-weary of this world before a month had passed, and slept to wake no more.
But the opera bouffe was taking shape. It was rehearsed and hummed by husband and wife together. They went over it all again and again, and struck out and added to. It was splendid work—subtle, excruciatingly funny, and possessed a dash and go that would sweep all carping criticism before it.
Food was still scarce, and there was no fuel even to cook things; but as there was nothing to cook, it really made no difference. Spring was coming,—it was cold, to be sure, but the buds were swelling on the trees in the park. Verdi had seen them with his own eyes, and he hastened home to tell his wife—Spring was coming!
The two-year-old boy didn't seem to thrive on soup-bones. The father used to hold him in his arms at night to warm the little form against his own body. He awoke one morning to find the child cold and stiff. The boy was dead.
The mother used to lie abed all day now. She wasn't ill, she said,—just tired! She never looked so beautiful to her husband. Two bright pink spots marked her cheeks, and set off the alabaster of her complexion. Her eyes glowed with such a light as Verdi had never before seen. No, she was not ill, she protested this again and again. She kept to her bed merely to be warm; and then if one didn't move around much, less food was required—don't you see?
Spring had come. The opera was being rehearsed. The title of the play was “Un Giorno diabetes Regno.” Marelli said he thought it would be a success; Verdi was sure of it.
The night of presentation came. After the first act Verdi ran across the street, leaped up the stairs, three steps at a time, and reached the garret. The play was a success. The worn woman there on her pallet, the pale moonlight streaming in on her face, knew it would be. She raised herself on her elbow and tried to call “Viva Verdi!” But the cough cut her words short. Verdi kissed her forehead, her hands, her hair, and hurried back in time to see the curtain ascend on the second act.
This act went without either applause or disapproval. Verdi ran home just to say that the audience was a trifle critical, but the play was all right —it was a success! He said he would remain at home now, he would not go to hear the third and last act. He would attend his wife until she got well and strong. The play was a success!
She prevailed upon him to leave her, and then come back at the finale and tell her all about it. He went away.
When he returned he stumbled up the stairway and slowly entered the door.
The last act had not been completed—the audience had hissed the players from the stage!
Upon the ashen face of her husband, the stricken woman read all. She tried to smile. She reached out one thin hand on which loosely hung a marriage ring. The hand dropped before he could reach it.
The eyes of the woman were closed, but upon the long black lashes glistened two big tears. The spirit was brave, but the body had given up the struggle.