A 1901 Pamphlet on Verdi (Part 3 - Final)
This is Part 3 of this small pamphlet by Elbert Hubbard from 1901. In this final installment, Verdi meets finds success and finally a true love to last a lifetime.
To begin with Part 1, please click here.
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The calamities that had come sweeping over Verdi well nigh broke his proud heart. He was only twenty-six, but he had had a taste of life and found it bitter.
He lost interest in everything. All musical studies were abandoned, his little excursions into science went by default, and he was quite content to bang the piano in a concert saloon for enough to procure the bare necessaries of life. Suicide seemed to present the best method of solving the problem, and the various ways of shuffling off this mortal coil were duly considered. Meanwhile he filled in the time reading trashy novels—anything to forget time and place, and lose self in poppy dreams of nothingness.
Giuseppe Verdi by Giacomo Brogi, 1822 - 1881
Two years of such blankness and blackness followed. He was sure that the desire to create, to be, to do, would never come again,—these were all of the past. One day on an idle stroll through the park he met Marelli. As they walked along together Marelli took from his pocket a book, the story of “Nabucco,” and handing it to Verdi, asked him to look it over, and see if he thought there was a chance to make an opera out of it.
Verdi responded that he was not in the business of writing operas—he had quit all such follies. He took the volume, however, but neglected to look at it for several days. At last he read the pages. He laid the book down and began to pace the floor. Possibilities of creation were looming large before him—a rush of thought was upon him. His soul was not dead—it had only been lying fallow.
He secured the loan of a piano and set to work. In a month the opera was completed. Marelli hesitated about accepting it—twice he had lost money on Verdi.
He finally decided he would put the play on if Verdi would waive all royalties for the first three performances, if it were a success, and then sell the opera outright “at a reasonable price,” if Marelli should chance to want it. The “reasonable price” was assumed to be about a thousand francs—two hundred dollars—pretty good pay for a month's work.
Verdi took no interest in the production of the piece. He had come to the conclusion that the public was a fickle, foolish thing, and no one could tell what it would applaud or hiss. Then he remembered the blackness of the night when only two years before his other opera was produced.
He made his way to his dingy little room and went to bed.
Very early the next morning there was a loud pounding on his door. It was Marelli. “How much for your opera?” asked the impresario, pushing his way into the room.
“Thirty thousand francs,” came a voice, loud & clear, out of the bed-clothes.
“Don't be a fool,” returned Marelli—“why do you ask such a sum!” “Because you are here at five o'clock in the morning—the price will be fifty thousand this afternoon.” Ten minutes of parley followed, and then Marelli drew his check for twenty thousand francs, and Verdi gave his quit-claim, turned over, and went to sleep.
Moshe Pridan, GPO 1958. CC BY-SA 3.0
The success of “Nabucco” was complete. Its author had his twenty thousand francs, but Marelli made more than that. From 1842 to 1851 may be called the first Verdi Period. A dozen successful operas were produced, and simultaneously at Rome, Naples, Venice, Florence, Milan, and Genoa, Verdi's compositions were being presented.
The master was a business man, as well as an artist,—the combination is not so unusual as was long believed—and knew how to get the most for the mintage of his mind. Money fairly flowed his way.
In 1850 Verdi married again. His life now turns into what we may call the Second Verdi Period. After this we shall see no more such curious exhibitions of bad taste as a ballet of forty witches in “Macbeth,” capering nimbly to a syncopated melody, with “Lady Macbeth” in a needlessly abbreviated skirt singing a drinking song to an absent lover. In strenuous efforts to avoid coarseness Verdi may occasionally give us soft sentimentality, but the change is for the best.
His mate was a woman of mind as well as heart. She was his intellectual companion, his friend, his wife. For nearly fifty years they lived together. Her dust now lies in the “House of Rest” at Milan, a home for aged artists, founded by Verdi. This “House of Rest" was a Love Offering, dedicated to the woman who had given him, without stint, of the richness of her nature; who had bestowed rest, and peace, and hope and gentle love.
She had no feverish ambitions and petty plans and schemes for secretly corralling pleasure, power, place, attention, or selfish admiration. By giving all, she won all. She devoted herself to this man in whom she had perfect faith, and he had perfect faith in her. She ministered to him. They grew great together.
When each was over eighty years of age, Henry James saw them at Cremona, at a musical festival in honor of the birthday of Stradivarius. And thus wrote Henry James: “Verdi and his wife were there, admired above all others. And why not? Think of whom they are, and what they stand for—nearly a century of music, and a century of life!
The master is tall, straight, proud, commanding. He has a courtly old time grace of bearing; and he kissed his wife's hand when he took leave of her for an hour's stroll. And the Madame surely is not old in spirit; she is as sprightly as our own Mrs. John Sherwood, who translated ‘Carcasonne’' so well that she improved on the original, because in her heart spring fresh and fragrant every day the flowers of tender, human, God-like sympathy.”
RIGOLETTA, produced at Venice in 1851, is founded on Victor Hugo's “Le Roi s’ amuse;” and the music has all the dramatic fire that matches the Hugo plot. Verdi's devotion to Victor Hugo is seen again in the use of “Hernani” for operatic purposes. “Il Trovatore” and “La Traviata” followed “Rigoletta,” and these three operas are usually put forward as the Verdi masterpieces.
The composer himself regarded them with favor that may well be pardoned, since he used to say that he and his wife collaborated in their production—she writing the music and he looking on. The proportion of truth and poetry in this statement is not on record. But the simple fact remains that “Il Trovatore” was always a favorite with Verdi, and even down to his death he would travel long distances to hear it played.
Il Trovatore (1911 film)
A correspondent of the “Musical Courier,” writing in 1887 from Paris, says: “Verdi and his wife occupied a box last evening at the Grand Opera House. The piece was “Il Trovatore,” and many smiles were caused by the sight of the author and his spouse seemingly leading the claque as if they would split their gloves.”
The flaming forth of creative genius that produced the “Rigoletta,” “Il Trovatore,” and “La Traviata,” subsided into a placid calm. The serene happiness of Verdi's married life, the fortune that had come to him, and the consciousness of having won in spite of great obstacles, led to the thought of quiet and well-earned rest.
The master interested himself in politics, and was elected to represent the district of Parma in the Italian Parliament. He proved himself a man of power—practical, self-centered and business-like, and as such served his country well.
The sentiment of the man is shown in his buying the property at Busseto, his old home, which was owned by Signior Barezzi.
He removed the high picket fence, replacing it with a low stone wall; remodeled the house, and turned the conservatory into a small theatre, where free concerts were often given with the help of the villagers. The adjoining grounds and splendid park were free to the public.
The master's attention to music was now limited to enjoying it. So passed the days.
Ten years of the life of a country gentleman went by, and the Shah of Persia, who had been on a visit to Italy and met Verdi, sent a command for an opera. The plot must be laid in the East, the characters Moorish and the whole to be dedicated to the immortal Son of the Sun,—the Shah.
It is a little doubtful whether the Shah knew that operas are produced only in certain moods, and cannot be done to order as a carpenter builds a fence. But it was the way that Eastern Royalty had of showing its high esteem.
Verdi smiled, and his wife smiled, and they had quite a merry little time over the matter, calling in the neighbors and friends, and drinking to the health of a real live Shah who knew a great musical genius when he found one. But suddenly the matter began to take form in the master's mind. He set to work, and the result was that “Aida” was completed in a few weeks.
The stories often told of the long preparation for composing this opera reveal the fine imagination of the men who write for the newspapers. Verdi seized upon knowledge as a devil-fish absorbs its prey—he learned in the mass.
“Aida” was produced at Cairo in 1871 with a magnificent setting, and the best cast procurable. A new Verdi opera was an event, and critics went from London, Paris, and other capitals to see the performance. The first thing the knowing ones said was that Verdi was touched with Wagnerism, and that he had studied “Lohengrin” with painstaking care.
Libretto of Aida. 26 aprilm 1890. Cover by Alfredo Edel
If Verdi was influenced by Wagner, it was for good; but there was no servile imitation in it. The “Aida” is rich in melody, reveals a fine balance between singers and orchestra, and the “local color” is correct even to the chorus of Congo slaves that were introduced at the Cairo performance.
All agreed that the rest had done the master good, and the correspondents wrote, “We will look anxiously for his next.” They thought the stream had started and there would be an overflow. But they were mistaken.
Sixteen years of quiet farming followed. Verdi was more interested in his flowers than his music, and told Philip Hale, who made a pious pilgrimage to Busseto in 1883, that he loved his horses more than all the prima donnas on earth.
But in 1887 the artistic and music-loving world was surprised and delighted with “Othello.” This grand performance made amends for the mangling of Macbeth.
Mr. James Huneker says: “The character-drawing in Othello is done with the burin of a master; the plot moves in processional splendor; the musical psychology is subtle and inevitable. At last the genius of Verdi has flowered. The work is consummate and Complete.
“Falstaff” came next, written by a greybeard of eighty, as if just to prove that the heart does not grow old. It is the work of an octogenarian who loved life and had seen the world of show and sense from every side. Old men usually moralize and live in the past—not so here.
The play flows with a laughing, joyous, rippling quality that disarmed the critics and they apologized for what they said about “Wagnerian motives. There were no sad, solemn, recurring themes in the full ripened fruit of Verdi's genius. When he died, aged eighty-seven, the curtain fell on the career of a great and potent personality—the one unique singer of the century.