Scripps-Howard News Service 4.10.02
As the world looked to London where, in Westminster Hall, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was lying in state, New York's Metropolitan Opera found itself in the middle of a production revival of "Falstaff" by Giuseppe Verdi. Both these remarkable lives spanned a century: Verdi's the nineteenth, the Queen Mother's the twentieth.
The year was 1937 when her husband was crowned King George VI. Just a few months earlier, the British Monarchy was in the midst of a constitutional crisis. We can only guess the extent of her strength, so desperately needed by the man whose Queen Consort she was destined to become. Derided by many, admired by none, he was never meant to ascend the throne.
She found herself on a world stage dominated by the hungry new masters in Tokyo, Rome and Berlin. The last of these now extended the same derision to the whole of Great Britain as had been meted out to the King. "We possess the most modern, best equipped, most highly trained fighting force of the world," Josef Goebbels jeered, "and England will be lucky to muster a better kind of fire brigade."
And the airplanes of the Luftwaffe came. And the V1 and V2 rockets came. And they rained fire upon London, day and night.
But the Queen decided that she and her daughters would stay with the People. And the same strength she had provided for her husband, she now extended to the whole of Great Britain.
During the half century by which she survived her husband, she has seen some of her own people engage in jeering. Royal institutions have been under attack as much from within as from without. Ridiculing tradition became something of a sport for assorted graduates with two-and-a-half semesters in journalism, on both sides of the Atlantic.
But her smile never faded, nor has the love and admiration of her people. "Why are you here?" a reporter asked some very young persons who were looking at great length through the railings of Buckingham Palace after placing some flowers on the ground. "Because we belong here, and she was ours," came the reply.
We need not wait for History to determine how much is owed to her for Britain's survival of World War II, and the Monarchy's survival of the assaults mounted from so many directions.
Giuseppe Verdi, too, received the wages of perseverance even before History delivered its verdict.
Derided by Europe's cognoscenti much of his life as a musical simpleton, capable only of trite melodies with crude accompaniment, he seemed condemned to live out his years in the shadow of Richard Wagner.
They were born in the same year. But while Verdi merely provided a rallying point and an unofficial anthem for the frustrated patriots of Italy, Wagner unfurled his banner over the whole world of music. On it, he proclaimed the total artwork as the way of the future. Providing the text for his own operas, building the "Festspielhaus" - the theater to end all theaters in which to perform them - publishing treatise upon treatise about huge topics, and demanding unqualified adulation from the world, he proclaimed himself as the total artist who creates the future.
One of Wagner's great operatic innovations was the "through-composed" act in which the music flows uninterrupted, as opposed to separate arias, duets, and other set pieces. To facilitate the process, Wagner, even in his magnificent "Meistersinger," had to resort repeatedly to the same (augmented) chord, thus avoiding that the music come to a halt. Verdi, rising on a succession of increasingly superb operas, reached a plateau in "Falstaff" where the seamless, effortless continuity of music impresses as the ultimate marriage between heavenly inspiration and consummate mastery.
In another strange reversal of fates, Wagner's immense contribution has been of late reduced to political football among the semi-informed. Like all aberrations, that will come to an end some day. But Verdi won't have to wait. The "peasant from le Roncole" (his words) who survived Wagner by 18 years, lived to receive the homage of a world that has made every musical theater Verdi's "Festspielhaus."
At the conclusion of "Falstaff," in a fugue of uncommon brilliance, Verdi literally has the last laugh. As befits royalty, the Queen Mother confined herself to her trademark gentle smile.
But both of them knew, they must have known, that surviving all they had was a gift bestowed upon the few.
And having the two of them among us has been a gift to the many.