Chapter 19

Chapter 19: Opera and Music Drama in the Nineteenth Century

Composer Biographies

Giuseppe Verdi

Born: October 9 or 10, 1813, Roncole (Parma), Italy

Died: June 27, 1901, Milan, Italy

In his own words . . .

"For dramatic effectiveness, it seems to me that the best material I have yet put to music is Rigoletto. It has the most powerful situations, it has variety, vitality, pathos; all the dramatic developments result from the frivolous, licentious character of the Duke. Hence Rigoletto's fears, Gilda's passions, etc., which give rise to many dramatic situations, including the scene of the quartet, which so far as effect is concerned, will always be one of the finest our theater can boost."

Italian operatic composer. He was the leading figure of Italian music in the nineteenth century and made important contributions to the development of opera.

In the third part of Nabucco, Verdi's first operatic success, the chorus of Hebrew slaves sings of their homeland: "Go, my thoughts on golden wings." For an Italian in 1842, the predicament of the Israelites in Egypt was a clear reference to Italian suffering under Austrian domination, and this chorus became a rallying cry for the Risorgiamento—the struggle for a unified and independent Italy. Its composer, Giuseppe Verdi, became a national hero (and eventually an honorary senator). Even today, the first notes of this moving chorus can bring a crowd to its feet singing, and Verdi is claimed as "Italy's Composer."

Verdi was born in the small village of Roncole in the province of Parma. His family—moderately well-off landholders, despite Verdi's continued references to childhood poverty—recognized and encouraged his talents early on, and he received a good basic education in the nearby town of Busseto. He studied in Milan and returned to Busseto to take the position of musical director for the town. Although his success at operatic composition soon took him all over Europe, he loved nothing more than to return to his small farm outside of Busseto.

Verdi is best known for the operas from his middle years, Rigoletto (1851), Il trovatore (1853), and La traviata (1853), and his three final works, Aida (1871), Otello (1887), and Falstaff (1893). In these works, as in all his operas, Verdi attempted to balance the art of bel canto, which he had inherited from Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini, with the demands of drama. Because of this, his works present characters that are vocally exciting and, at the same time, emotionally engaging. Verdi's orchestra and chorus also played a vital role. No composer has so dominated the Italian stage as Verdi did, and his works are still a mainstay of the operatic repertoire throughout the world.

Works

  • 28 operas, including Macbeth (1847), Rigoletto (1851), Il trovatore (The Troubadour, 1853), La traviata (The Lost One, 1853), Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball, 1859), La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny, 1862), Don Carlos (1867), Aida (1871), Otello (1887), and Falstaff (1893)

  • Vocal music, including a Requiem Mass (1874)

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    Musical Examples

    Click on the songs to listen:
  • La donne e mobile, from Rigoletto02:55
  • Quartet, Un di, se ben rammentomi, from Rigoletto 05:44
  • Libiamo ne'lieta, from La traviata 03:03
  • Facciamo il parentado . . . Tutto nel mondo e burla, from Falstaff 03:25
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    Links

    • A General Biography
      A biography from The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music. Includes a brief bibliography

    • Works and Recommended Recordings
      A list of Verdi's most popular works, along with recommended recordings and links to other sites, from ClassicalNet.

    • La Traviata: A Study Guide
      A good introduction to this Verdi masterpiece. The author focuses on the historical background of the opera and the Dumas novel on which it is based. The essay also introduces the Franco Zefirelli film of the opera and provides some hints for watching opera.

    Richard Wagner

    Born: May 22, 1813, Leipzig, Germany

    Died: February 13, 1884, Venice, Italy

    In his own words . . .

    "True drama can be conceived only as resulting from the collective impulse of all the arts to communicate in the most immediate way with a collective public. . . .Thus especially the art of tone, developed with such singular diversity in instrumental music, will realize in the collective artwork its richest potential—will indeed incite the pantomimic art of dancing in turn to wholly new discoveries and inspire the breath of poetry no less to an undreamed-of fullness. For in its isolation music has formed itself an organ capable of the most immeasurable expression—the orchestra."

    German opera composer, conductor, and musical writer. Wagner changed the concept of opera by viewing it as a "total art work" ( Gesamptkunstwerk ).

    It is telling that Richard Wagner's artistic beginnings lie in both music and drama. At the age of fifteen, he wrote his first play and a year later his first musical composition. He was largely self-taught in music, although he did study privately when he was a university student in Leipzig. His career centered almost exclusively on the theater, and he wrote his first opera at the age of twenty, while serving as chorus master at the opera theater in Würzburg. His first great success came with Rienzi in 1842, followed soon after by Der fliegender Holländer (The Flying Dutchman, 1843), Tannhäuser (1845), and Lohengrin (1850).

    Wagner fled Germany after the political upheavals of 1848, spending the bulk of his time in Zurich writing the text for his Ring cycle, as well as a number of books on music. The most famous is the two-volume Opera and Drama, in which he set out his new ideas on reforming opera. The most infamous is his Jewishness in Music , a virulent antisemitic diatribe. In 1862, he returned to Germany, settling in Bavaria under the patronage of young Ludwig II. Here Wagner completed Tristan und Isolde, a tale of forbidden love made all the more fitting by the fact that he was at that time having an affair with Cosima von Bülow, daughter of Franz Liszt and the wife of Tristan's conductor, Hans von Bülow. In 1866, Wagner returned to Switzerland and continued work on the Ring, stopping to compose a completely different type of work, the comedic Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg .

    As each part of the Ring cycle was finished and performed, Wagner became more and more determined to create a theater capable of realizing the complicated lighting and staging he envisioned. Once again, Ludwig stepped in. In 1874, he committed to building just such a theater in Bayreuth. Two years later, Wagner's complete cycle of four music dramas was presented there. While an artistic success, it was a financial disaster, and Wagner had to turn his efforts to recouping his losses. Out of this effort grew his final music drama, Parsifal—a tale of love and redemption. It premiered in 1882; Wagner died that winter while on a trip to Venice.

    It is no overstatement to say that Wagner changed the face of opera. From his earliest works, he began to break away from the structure of separate numbers to one of continuous drama (he ultimately called his works music dramas rather than operas). Other composers were heading in this direction, but none so relentlessly as Wagner. Perhaps more important was his concept of the "total art work," in which the composer controlled all the elements of the dramatic production and put them to work in projecting the drama. Musically, this was reflected in the idea of the Leitmotiv, a musical theme that stands for a person, thing, or idea. Wagner's music dramas are seamless webs of these musical ideas, with the music itself telling as much of the story as the action on the stage.

    Perhaps due to the uncompromising nature of Wagner's musical ideals, or perhaps due to the difficulty of his politics and personality, he served (and still serves) as a polarizing figure in music. His admirers (often devotees) carried his legacy into the twentieth century, while his detractors either went in opposite directions or made use of some of his ideas while distancing themselves from him as much as possible. Although Wagner's place in history is established, the judgment of that position will be a source of controversy far into the future.

    Works

    • 13 music dramas (operas), including Rienzi (1842); Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman, 1843); Tannhäuser (1845); Lohengrin (1850); Tristan und Isolde (1865); Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Meistersingers of Nuremberg, 1868); Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), consisting of Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold, 1869), Die Walküre (The Valkyries, 1870), Siegfried (1876), and Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods, 1876); and Parsifal (1882)
    • Orchestral music, including Sigfried Idyll (1870)
    • Piano music, vocal music, and choral music

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    Musical Examples

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    Links

    Georges Bizet

    Born: October 25, 1838, Paris, France

    Died: June 3, 1875, Bougival, France

    French opera composer. Bizet is best known for his opera Carmen.

    Georges Bizet's life was short and full of difficulties, a fact that seems at odds with the enduring success of his final work, Carmen. Bizet was born into a musical family, where he received good early training that led to his entrance into the Paris Conservatory at the age of nine. Bizet did well in his studies, developing his skills as a pianist (he impressed Franz Liszt with his playing) and as a composer. At the age of seventeen, he composed his Symphony in C, a meticulous and effervescent work that was not heard until 1935. His studies at the conservatory were capped in 1858 with his receipt of the Prix de Rome, which allowed Bizet three years of financial support to concentrate on composition.

    Bizet's years in Rome were not very productive, and resulted in few works—only four of which survive. One, his opera Don Procopio, was not produced until 1906. Upon his return to Paris, he turned down a teaching position at the conservatory, wishing instead to concentrate on his writing. He found moderate success in 1863 with his opera Les pêcheurs de perles, but his next work, La jolie fille de Perth, saw only eighteen performances.

    Bizet's final years were marked by more problems: ill health and forced service during the Franco-Prussian War took their toll on the composer. In 1875, he completed a work that should have been his great triumph and the beginning of an illustrious career, his opera Carmen. In this opera, Bizet shows both a sure dramatic hand and a mastery of the musical demands of the genre. The story of Carmen, however, proved too much for the Parisian audience (especially in a theater designed to appeal to families). Set in Spain and dealing with the exotic culture of the Gypsies, the story presented Bizet with the opportunity to create a rich musical score full of the foreign flavor that was then in vogue. But the plot's exploration of sexual desire, moral ambiguity, and a brutal murder insured a brief and controversial run. Bitterly dejected by this supreme blow, Bizet's health deteriorated quickly, and less than three months later he died of a heart attack. Ironically, only five years later the work returned to the Parisian stage after a series of successes in Vienna, Brussels, London, and New York. It has, from that time on, remained one of the best loved of all nineteenth-century operas.

    Works

    • Orchestral music, including incidental music of L'arlésienne (The Woman of Arles, 1872) and the Symphony in C (1855)
    • Operas, including Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers, 1863), La jolie de Perth (The Fair Maid of Perth, 1867), Djamileh (1872), and Carmen (1875)
    • Piano music and vocal music

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    Musical Examples

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    Links

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