The Parallel Lives of Verdi and Wagner
by Peter McKenzie-Brown
Born a few months apart in 1813, German composer Richard Wagner (May 22) and Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi (October 9) were the greatest operatic composers of all time. They tower above all others except Mozart, whose output of great operas was unfortunately small.
Musically the two men were leagues apart, yet their lives and times were strangely parallel. They represented two powerful cultures. Italian culture had roots that drew from the traditions of Rome, the Catholic Church and the Renaissance; its cultural identity was well established. In the area of opera, its most popular musical entertainment, the emerging state sought perfection. In time, Verdi provided it.
By contrast, the high culture of the German-speaking countries had mostly developed during the 18th century – first with the Baroque genius of Bach and Handel; later through the classicism of Gluck, Hayden and Mozart. With growing intellectual, diplomatic and economic influence, in the 19th century the Germanic states sought a unique identity and unwittingly became centres of cultural revolution. Richard Wagner epitomized those developments.
In many ways Italy and Germany had parallel national experiences during the 19th century, and each composer was closely associated with the political and cultural life of his country. Italy and Germany each achieved national unification only one year apart.
From birth, the two men were different in almost every way. For example, Verdi began to show his musical genius as a boy, and received a solid musical education. By contrast, Wagner showed little interest in music until late in adolescence. However, he then advanced at breakneck speed – to a large extent self–taught.
Consider even the geopolitical perspective. For much of Europe, the Napoleonic period marked the beginning of the end of aristocratic rule.
Verdi was born in the Duchy of Parma – now an Italian province, but at the time annexed to France as part of Napoleon’s empire. The diminutive emperor came from nearby Corsica and many (perhaps most) Italians were French partisans. Verdi’s family certainly fit this mold.
Germans were more likely to hate the incursions of Imperial France. Wagner was born in Leipzig just months before Napoleon was handed a decisive defeat just outside that very city. Fought within miles of Wagner’s birthplace when the future composer was just a few months old, the “Battle of Nations” led to the emperor’s banishment to the small Tuscan island of Elba.
The two men also experienced different fates in response to the trans–European revolutions and rebellions of 1848–9. After those tectonic events, Verdi returned from Paris to Milan a national hero. Wagner was not so lucky. Because of his radical pamphleteering, he had to flee Saxony to Switzerland for 16 years as an outcast.
Although the two composers never met, there was rivalry between them. Wagner despised contemporary opera that diverged from his own ideas – especially if it were commercially successful, as Verdi’s operas were. Later in life, he dismissed all Italian opera as “Donizetti and Company.” There are no references to Verdi in Wagner’s extensive writings or letters. There are two, however, in Cosima’s detailed diaries. “In the evening Verdi’s Requiem” she wrote, “about which it would certainly be best not to say anything.” On the other occasion she recorded an incident in which Wagner mocked a Verdi theme he heard being sung on a canal in Venice.
Even though Verdi’s Aida had been musically influenced by Wagner, the composer went apoplectic when critics commented on his rival’s influence. Moreover, in Verdi’s later years an avant–garde group of Italian composers influenced by Wagner dismissed his work. Those many insults notwithstanding, Verdi called Tristan und Isolde “one of the greatest creations of the human spirit”. Of his rival’s life, however, he said “The great Wagner left much evil in his wake”.
The Matter of Character
Verdi was an astute businessman: tenacious in dealings with his publishers, cautious in his spending habits yet generous to a fault when his friends were in need. Most of his friendships were long–lasting, and he was devoted to his two wives. His first wife, Margherita, died as he was composing a comic opera, Un Giorno di Regno. Both of his young children also died around this time. As he wrote later on, “My family was destroyed! And in the midst of this terrible anguish, to honour the commitment I had undertaken, I had to write an entire comic opera!” He did not write another comedy until the end of his very long life.
His second wife, Giuseppena, was the greatest soprano of her time, and a source of inspiration to him for many years. He almost certainly took on a younger mistress later in life – Teresa Stolz, another great soprano – but did his best within the complications of a long–lasting ménage a trois to treat his wife with respect and dignity. In her extensive diaries, the extraordinary Giuseppena never speaks ill of her rival.
Verdi wrote triumphant operas well into old age. He understood what his audience wanted, whether they were Italian or French. His productions in Paris – the centre of European culture – were successful when produced there in either language. He composed three operas for French libretti, each of which met the peculiar needs of Parisian grand opera. Each was better than the one before. His work continually improved, as did Wagner’s.
One of the hallmarks of Verdi’s character was his tolerance. By contrast, Wagner’s intolerance was legendary. The Paris production of his great opera Tannhäuser was a debacle. He had spent more than a decade trying to stage this opera in Europe’s cultural Mecca, but on opening night a claque booed the opera from its opening notes. He spent much of his later life promoting antagonism to French culture, as he boasted about the superior culture of Germany.
Yet his intellectual capacity was enormous. Wagner's intellectual strength was probably unequalled among composers. He was powerfully influenced by the German philosophy of his day - especially that of Arthur Schopenhauer - and he was an enormous influence on the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. The two men had an extremely close friendship for many years, but Nietzsche then turned - and turned rather savagely - on his former mentor. British scholar Bryan Magee offers a fascinating account of this aspect of Wagner in his book The Tristan Chord.
Wagner was profligate and somewhat unscrupulous. He borrowed money from friends with pledges to repay, but frequently not honouring those promises. It was almost as if, shortly after fleeing Saxony, Wagner became convinced that his genius should be supported by others rather than by his own toil in the grubby world of theatre. He never lost that conviction.
He was near ruin (again) and in hiding from debtors when 18–year–old King Ludwig II of Bavaria ascended the throne. An admirer of Wagner and his work, the gay king provided the composer with a generous state annuity for the rest of his life. This was not enough, and Wagner shamelessly took advantage of the weak royal to secure astonishing amounts of money from him. A few years after Wagner’s death, Ludwig was declared insane, dethroned and likely murdered.
Wagner would periodically undertake character assassination of former friends – for example, of the great opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, from whom he borrowed both musical ideas and money. One essay – originally published under an alias – attacked both Felix Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer for their “Jewishness,” and made the general claim that Jews are a harmful and alien element in German culture. Many historians believe his thought and writings contributed to the horrors of the Holocaust. To this day, public performances of Wagner’s music are unofficially taboo in Israel.
Neither did Wagner have scruples in respect to women. His relationship with his first wife – actress Wilhelmine “Minna” Planer could best be called abusive, and he frequently seduced the wives of friends to whom he was pleading for money. Even so, his second wife Cosima – much younger, and the daughter by a married French countess of piano virtuoso and composer Franz Liszt – was devoted to him throughout her long adult life. Cosima’s talents, iron will and emotional and intellectual support made possible many of Wagner’s great accomplishments. Both understood that he had an astonishing genius, and went to great lengths to soften the memory of his many personal flaws. They wanted history to remember him for more than his musical creations.
The Musical Legacies
Just as their lives and personalities were strangely parallel but wildly different, so are their musical legacies. The two men went through three periods of composition which were roughly parallel in time. Each got better with age and experience. Each was a product of the prevailing Romanticism of the age. There the similarities end.
Verdi’s genius reflected cultural roots that went back to the Roman Empire and a sense of Catholicism as the true church. Wagner’s genius seemed laden with the mythology of the peoples that brought down Rome, the Holy Roman Empire that succeeded them and the Reformation.
Verdi refined and virtually perfected the operatic tradition that had developed in Italy and France. He relied heavily on his gift for creating melody as the basis of opera but also took full advantage of the expressive power of the orchestra. Some of his many orchestral innovations are so closely identified with the composer that to this day other composers will not use them.
Verdi was one of the first composers to insist on patiently seeking out plots to suit his particular talents. Aware that dramatic expression was his strength, he worked closely with his librettists – primarily Francesco Maria Piave, but later in life Arrigo Boito, who was a fine composer as well as a librettist. His aim was to make certain that the libretto had no unnecessary detail or superfluous participants. In his best operas, only characters brimming with passion and scenes rich in drama remained.
Above all, Verdi was a dramatist of human passions. His music was so fittingly made for this purpose that even absurd plots made sense once he had developed their scores – Il Trovatore, for example. He was concerned with the human condition and the experiences of human life. His characters were vehicles for humanity – not for idealism or the expression of religious truths. His characterizations were superb, and every drama – melodrama, some critics would complain – was superbly crafted.
Set in historical periods, Verdi’s stories were often based on historical events. He frequently adapted stage plays, achieving notable successes with the work of William Shakespeare – Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff. His dramatizations of dynamic relationships (often love triangles) are brilliant, although they sometimes lead to the suggestion that he was all about melodrama. This is not true. His operas have great depth.
Aware that he was a musical descendant of the Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrine, Verdi famously proposed that turning to the past is a way to progress. His respect for the past notwithstanding, Verdi pushed the limits of compositional colour in ways that are technically appreciated by specialists, but which audiences instinctively love. Four of his operas – La Traviata, Rigoletto, Aida and Il Trovatore – are among the 20 most popular in North America.
None of Wagner’s operas are on the most-popular list, yet his innovations fundamentally changed the art form. His greatest work drew from North European mythology and German philosophy rather than from history and real events. His extraordinary four–part, 17–hour Der Ring des Nibelung reflects a vision of the creation and development of the world itself. It virtually takes place outside of time. Part of the intent of this work was to create a foundation of myths for the gathering German culture and nation. His characterizations were idealizations rather than real people.
Wagner turned his back on German musical tradition. A talented poet, dramatist and theorist as well as a musical genius, he developed a concept he called “the art–work of the future.” In a series of essays published in 1849, he proposed that opera should become a total artwork – a unity of music, song, dance, poetry, visual arts, and stagecraft. He called this “music drama,” and wrote his own libretti – “poems,” he called them. He created deeply philosophical tales with meaning that went beyond human passion, but after discovering the work of the still obscure philosopher Schopenhauer rejected his earlier ideas. Instead, he came to believe that pure music is an essential expression of a metaphysical will.
Wagner developed a compositional style in which the orchestra’s role is equal to that of the singers. The orchestra’s dramatic role includes its performance of leitmotifs – musical themes that announce specific characters, locales, and elements of the plot. Their complex musical development illuminates the progress of the drama.
As an individual, Wagner was as complex as anyone who ever lived. For all his faults, he had stupendous power and inexhaustible vitality. Through his operas, theoretical essays and self–promotion, Wagner exerted a vast influence on the art of the 19th century. Because of its unprecedented exploration of emotional expression, his musical style is often considered the epitome of Romantic music. He introduced new ideas in harmony and musical form, including extreme chromaticism – the use of tonal discord to convey musical ideas. In Tristan und Isolde, he explored the limits of the traditional tonal system that gave keys and chords their identity.
According to Wagner scholar John Deathridge, “…the expansion of harmonic possibilities in the very first chord of the Prelude to Tristan (the so-called Tristan chord is by far the most widely analyzed collection of four notes in Western music) and the sheer freedom and invention in the handling of individual chromatic lines mean that it is quite justifiable to speak of the music of the opera as a harbinger of the new music of the twentieth century.” Deathridge hastens to add that Tristan itself is never actually atonal.
Bricks and Mortar
Toward the end of their lives, each man left a bricks-and-mortar testament. In Wagner’s case, it was the Bayreuther Festspielhaus. An opera house north of Bayreuth, Germany, this building is dedicated principally to the performance of Wagner’s operas. It is the exclusive venue for the annual Bayreuth Festival, for which it was specifically conceived and built. Despite a prior falling out with Ludwig II of Bavaria, the king again came to Wagner’s rescue and provided much of the funding for the project.
The building was first opened for the premiere of Der Ring des Nibelung from August 13, 1876 to August 17, 1876. The opera house was innovative, its most famous feature being an unusual orchestra pit. It is recessed under the stage and covered by a hood, making the orchestra invisible to the audience. This feature was a central preoccupation for Wagner, since it made the audience concentrate on the drama onstage, rather than the distracting motion of the conductor and musicians.
Since its opening in 1876, the Bayreuth Festival has become a socio-cultural phenomenon. A monument to his extraordinary vanity and conceit, only Wagner’s operas may be performed at the Festspielhaus. Each year the festival is a great success.
Indebted as always, Wagner died of heart disease on February 13, 1883, in Venice. He was buried at his home near Bayreuth, as was Cosima 47 years later. His biographer and a great admirer of his achievements was Ernest Newman. “He ended his stormy course with hardly a single friend,” said he. “Followers he had in the last days, parasites he had in plenty, but no friends whose names rang through Europe as the old names had done. One by one he had used them all for his own purposes; one by one he had lost them by his unreasonableness and his egoism.”
In that year Verdi was a wealthy man, and some of his greatest work was yet to come: Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893). The former was perhaps his greatest tragedy. The latter was a comic masterpiece – only the second comic opera he composed, the first being the disastrous Un Giorno di Regno, which he was writing as his first wife died.
In his later years, Verdi was a philanthropist of note. His bricks-and-mortar contribution to music was the Casa di Reposo per Musicisti – the Rest Home for Musicians – in Milan. He devoted his last years to this charitable project. According to Verdi biographer Charles Osborne, “as he told more than one friend (the Casa) was his favourite of all his works, musical or otherwise.” Known locally as the Casa Verdi, the home still serves retired musicians. “Some very distinguished opera singers have been content, indeed proud, to end their days at this home provided for them by their beloved Verdi,” wrote Osborne.
On hearing of his death, all of Italy mourned. Although he had a large home and estate near the town of Bussetto, where he was born, Verdi and Giuseppina were re-interred on the grounds of the Casa when the home was completed, a month after his death. The occasion of their re-interment was a state ceremony. According to Osborne, “Two hundred thousand people lined the black-draped streets of Milan to say farewell to the greatest and most popular Italian of the nineteenth century.”
The above essay is reproduced with the kind permission of Peter McKenzie-Brown from his blog