Friday, October 4, 2013

Verdi at 200 (1)

by Roger Parker
Ed. note: Verdi's 200th birthday is Wednesday, 9 October. Or maybe Thursday.
Photo Panser Born
Wikimedia Commons
A first question might be: does Verdi need a birthday? His operas are, after all, permanently in revival around the world; multiple recordings exist of all of them; we remember him as often as we wish. In some senses, the best celebration of this, his 200th anniversary, might be to try to forget him for a time: try, that is, to create artificially a hiatus, a pause in our memory, a way of somehow recreating the sense of newness his works once possessed. Perhaps that very thought has been lurking in other people’s minds: certainly the 2013 Verdian celebrations in theatres and concert halls seem to have been modest in comparison with 2001 (the hundredth anniversary of his death); they have also been modest in comparison with those dedicated to Wagner, around whom excess and publicity collects more easily.

What about the tiny world of musicology? Might we also detect an absence of celebratory zeal? True, NYU is hosting a conference (there’s very little activity in cash-strapped Italy); the critical edition rolls on, slowly; a huge Verdi Encyclopedia is about to emerge from Cambridge University Press. But, for the most part, the musicological caravanserai now houses different travellers. In the 1970s or early 1980s, to take on Verdi was unorthodox, even a bit daring; a generation and more later, he is a monument or—perhaps better—a lieu de mémoire: a subject-heading often deemed conservative by dint of being “composer-based” (an old, worn object within an old, worn category). Should such disciplinary shifts be a cause for lamentation, for the rending of garments and the gnashing of teeth? Surely not. Those professionally invested may, of course, drop some natural tears. But the fact that musicology moves ever onward tells us that it is alive and well; its places in the sun are always (should always be) temporary. What’s more, the discipline’s new enthusiasms can sometimes reflect welcome light on those of its past. One of my favourite Verdi articles of the last several years (I have several, among a small burst of stimulating new voices recently emerged) is Gavin Williams’s Cambridge Opera Journal piece about Verdi’s funeral; it brings media theory to bear on the Great Man’s last journey through noisy, tram-infested, riot-prone Milan.

But what of Verdi’s place in our own sound-drenched cities, in physical and virtual spaces unimaginable ca. 1901? What, to take one example, does Verdi mean to Italians today? When a reverent group of notables descended into the crypt of the Casa di Riposo in 1951, there were those who, peering at the screen embedded in Verdi’s coffin at face level, thought (or at least wrote) that they saw a face miraculously undamaged by the ravages of time. This was surely symbolic; in spite of the uses “Verdi and the (heroic) Risorgimento” had had for Mussolini’s regime, the postwar composer and his works remained somehow untainted, a still-triumphant symbol of a recently-disastrous nationalism. Today, though, there are signs that the situation has changed fundamentally. When La Scala showcased Wagner more prominently than Verdi during the 2013 celebrations of both composers, there were of course some chauvinistic outcries; but not as many as one might like (from the outside) to imagine. Indeed, some in the country found deeply offensive the fact that the foreign press, ever ready to foster easy stereotypes, strove to exaggerate this querelle and portray it as an exotic tale of operatic passion.

In this context, I am reminded of two circumstances. One is that, each time I report to colleagues that I’m off to Italy for a meeting or to do research, the invariable reply is some version of “God, you’re lucky,” or “Nice life you have.” Why oh why is Italy—increasingly disfunctional politically, its economy in seemingly terminal decline, its infrastructure crumbling, its youth unemployment ever more crippling—still characterized in the academy as a land of plenty and enjoyment? The second circumstance is a bon mot reported by an Italian acquaintance. Pavarotti had just died. On hearing the news, one of the acquaintance’s friends responded: “So now all we have left is pizza.” Instead of “pizza” this melancholy joker might have said “Va pensiero:” an object that continues to provide us with a way of celebrating nationalism, of forgetting its awful heritage.

To put this another, final way: there are many good things, many wonderful things, about Verdi and his legacy, many continuing reasons to love his operas and learn from them; but there are also bad things, dangerous habits of mind, and one of the worst is that, for some—even for some musicologists, who ought to know better—Verdi’s image helps to keep Italy ever passionate, ever sunny, ever exotic.
  • See also Gavin Williams, “Orating Verdi: Death and the Media c. 1901,”
    Cambridge Opera Journal, 23/3 (November 2011): 119-43.
Roger Parker is Professor of Music at King’s College London, having previously taught at Cornell, Oxford, and Cambridge. He is General Editor (with Gabriele Dotto) of the Donizetti critical edition, published by Ricordi. His most recent books are Remaking the Song: Operatic Visions and Revisions from Handel to Berio (University of California Press, 2006) and A History of Opera: The Last Four Hundred Years (Allen Lane / Norton, 2012), written jointly with Carolyn Abbate. He is director of the ERC-funded project “Music in London, 1800-1851,” which will continue for the next five years. His current project is a book about London, musical and otherwise, in the 1830s.


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