A Century of Verdi

Washington Times 8.21.01
Balint Vazsonyi

A hundred years ago, Giuseppe Verdi died without attending the opening of his last opus. The work in question was not an opera - it was the Casa di Riposo, also known as Casa Verdi, built by the composer to house elderly musicians less fortunate than himself.

For the more fortunate among us, Verdi's legacy is steadily received through the ears by the heart. The combination of great music and deep humanity did not occur too many times in the history of the art form. A stark reminder is the man who was born in the same year as Verdi, 1813. Richard Wagner composed some of the greatest music ever conceived and those who, out of misguided political considerations, forego the intoxicating beauty of Tristan or Meistersinger are punishing only themselves. But not even the staunchest admirer would accuse Wagner of deep humanity.

Was it genes, or the intense trials of his life that made Verdi the human being equal to the greatest of his works?

His musical beginnings were overshadowed by the refusal of the Conservatory of Milan to admit him as a student. Later, his young family - wife and two children - was wiped out by an epidemic. And, while none of his early operas brought success, the one comic opera he attempted turned into a humiliating fiasco. He vowed never to write anything humorous, if he could just compose again.

And then - Nabucco. His sudden popularity did not come about merely by writing a good work for the theater. It became anchored very specifically in "Go forth thought on golden wings," a chorus instantly adopted by all Italians as their unofficial anthem, a chorus that the crowd sang spontaneously wherever Verdi's coffin passed in 1901.

Yet not until Rigoletto did the public receive notice of the composer's true potential. And even Rigoletto gives little hint of all that was yet in store for a disbelieving musical world. Giuseppe Verdi turned out to be the proverbial developing composer. Some, like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Frederic Chopin - though their late music is more complex - reveal their full genius at a very early age. Others (Ludwig van Beethoven is usually mentioned as the prime example) travel a long road and undergo profound transformations on the way. Indeed, few if any could listen to Beethoven's first piano sonatas and perceive the slightest premonition of the glimpse at the entire universe his last piano sonatas will allow.

But, in terms of the length of the road traveled, Verdi surpasses even Beethoven. No one could have imagined the kind of music he wrote at the end, the way in which the effervescent humor of Falstaff lights up the sunset of the 19th century.

There is much we can learn from Verdi, today and always. His humble beginnings did not impede him. His rejection by the Conservatory of Milan did not impede him. The lack of recognition did not impede him. Personal tragedy did not impede him.

Most importantly, the "slings and arrows" of criticism did not impede him. As the adulation Richard Wagner demanded and inspired grew to manic proportions, many in the professional world of music portrayed Verdi capable only of "trite melodies with crude accompaniments." That was the typical German view of Italian opera, and the astonishing musical sophistication of Un ballo in maschera, Don Carlo, or Aida was conveniently ignored.

We can look to Verdi as we conduct some of our political debates. Much is being said today about the need for certain types of people to be represented only by the same type of people. Example: "only women can represent women, because only women know how women feel." From Louisa Miller, through Gilda, Violetta, Leonora, Amelia, Elisabetta and Aida, all the way to Desdemona, Verdi placed the suffering woman at the center of his dramas. Would anyone seriously propose that Patricia Ireland understands women better than Giuseppe Verdi?

And we can learn from him about giving back. He did not think it was his right to be successful; he thought himself fortunate. Yes, to reach one's greatest heights at the age of 80 is fortunate indeed. Characteristically, Verdi's thoughts were with the less fortunate as he began planning and building the home that bears his name today. Physically, he remained aloof from the venue because he did not want to receive gestures of personal gratitude. He merely wanted to do the deed.

We live at a time when conventional wisdom has done away with the concept of greatness. Assorted persons have come to believe - and advocate - that nothing is great. By some perverted thinking, that is supposed to render everything equally great. These persons - who teach at universities, write books, and appear on talk shows - are depriving generation after generation of the incentive to become acquainted with the truly great, so they may learn, be inspired, and prosper themselves.

But a glance at the lengths and breadths to which the world has gone this year to commemorate the anniversary of this simple, unassuming man from a little village in the Po Valley should reassure all of us. Sooner or later noise will subside, and greatness shall always prevail.