by Daniel Snowman
Pocket Giants Series
ISBN 978 0 7524 9325 1
Paperback 127 pages, £6.99
The History Press
This bargain priced series edited by Tony Morris is published by The History Press. It includes some truly great names amongst which we find Jane Austen, Brunel, Pope John Paul II and Henry V. Operatic giant, Giuseppe Verdi is featured in this current tranche. It’s certainly as eclectic a selection as one could hope for given the title, with additions such as Elizabeth I, Robert the Bruce, Charles Darwin and William the Conqueror scheduled for later in 2014. At a mere 127 pages including notes of sources, a timeline, references to further reading and web links, I started my reading somewhat querulously.
Among my own many reviews and articles for MusicWeb International, I have published many on Verdi including an extensive, four-part conspectus on the composer and his operas. See:
- Part 1. Verdi's background, getting established and first five operas from Oberto (1839) to Ernani (1844)
- Part 2. Verdi’s Anni de galera (galley years). The ten operas from I due Foscari (1844) to Luisa Miller (1849)
- Part 3. Verdi’s middle period. The eight operas from Stiffelio (1850) to Un ballo in Maschera (1859)
- Part 4. Verdi’s great final operas from La Forza del Destino (1862) to Falstaff (1893) and including the revisions of Macbeth and Simon Boccanegra as well as appendices covering the Requiem, collections of arias, overtures and choruses.
The references in that conspectus, whose contents are somewhat dated now in terms of recordings, particularly in the video format. The original writing caused me to have recourse to many of the books referred to in the Notes given here. They are part of my own reference library including no fewer than eleven hardback volumes on Verdi whose weight and shelf space take are considerable. Yet, to my amazement, this slim, 650 gramme volume, is a well-researched and succinct synthesis of the great man’s life in its many facets. It includes his contribution to the evolution of Italy as a unified country, his major operas as well as his personal life, all in their historical context. The latter does not shirk the early loss of wife and children the impact of which could have broken lesser men. That he found companionship and support from Giuseppina Strepponi was a great support to him and she became his second wife. There were, however, complications in his domestic life when he first brought her back to Bussetto, without the benefit of marriage as the locals saw it. Their consequent ostracising of her caused him much bitterness. Her arrival also caused a brief rift with his first wife’s father, whom Verdi revered and without whose early financial support he might never have succeeded.
All these facets of the great man, and major points in his compositional development, feature in the pages of this slim volume. I was particularly pleased to find ample coverage of his liaison with Boito. This brought the revised Boccanegra and his two final great operas, Otello and Falstaff. The latter two are based on Shakespeare, a writer he loved and whose plays, in Italian translation, lived by his bedside. They were premiered at La Scala when the composer was in his seventy-fourth and eightieth years respectively. The long gap in operatic composition after Aida is mentioned as well as the historical perspective of the fall of France’s Second Empire that held up the Cairo premiere. That historical context is a theme throughout. It is impossible to understand Verdi or his works without grasping the relevance of what was happening around him and in his country.
There are so many gems of information to be found between the covers of this book that will be new to all but the keenest student of the composer and Italian opera. The relative merits and differences with Wagner and his works gets a mention, but perhaps any argument as to merit can be put aside by the statistics (p114) on the number of Verdi productions, worldwide, in 2011-12, at 3,020. This figure exceeds those by Mozart at 2,410, Puccini with 2,294. Wagner is a distant fourth with 1,292. No wonder Verdi, in his lifetime, was called ‘The Glory of Italy’.
Verdi’s view of himself was as an austere somewhat curmudgeonly individual. Such a view, whilst having elements of truth, does no justice to his generosity towards friends who fell on hard times or suffered illness. His treatment of Camarano’s widow, paying her a full fee after the untimely death of her husband during the writing of Il Trovatore, or of Verdi’s maintenance of Piave, the writer of half his librettos, who suffered a stroke. His ultimate act of generosity was the planning and construction of the Casa di Reposa in Milan, a home for elderly musicians. Verdi bequeathed his royalties to the home that exists to this day. The great man and Giuseppina are interred there. His death in Milan, the reverence of the populace for his peace and quiet in his last days in a Milanese hotel room and the reception of the citizens at this funeral are all recounted here with an easy-to-read flowing and coherent style.
Any criticisms? I would have liked an index but then not everybody will want to use this book for reference rather than carry about several kilos of tomes by others. It will not replace Budden’s seminal three volume detailed analysis of each of Verdi’s operas (Cassell, 1973, 1976 and 1981), nor his volume, Verdi, in The Master Musicians Series which is also more sequential in its treatment (Dent, 1985). I commend this book without reservation to lovers of opera and of Verdi’s music in particular.
Robert J Farr
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