Verdi composed his “Pater noster,” a choral setting of the Christian “Our Father” prayer, in 1880. As was the case with the “Ave Maria,” the text at the time was attributed to Dante but is now believed to be by Antonio de’ Beccari. (It is similar, though, to the prayer that opens Canto XI of the Purgatorio).
Like the 1880 “Ave Maria,” the “Pater noster” is one of Verdi’s least familiar works, though it has been recorded in recent years and turns up in concert from time to time. With the bicentennial approaching, I expect we will be hearing it more often.
The performance I offer you today dates from 2010 and is by the University of London Chamber Choir. Does their distinctively “English” sound seem odd for Verdi? Perhaps, but pity the fool who would pick nits in the face of such lovely and heartfelt music-making.
Domenico di Michelino (1417–1491), “La Commedìa illumina Firenze.”
Verdi’s Laudi alla Vergine Maria had its world premiere in Paris in 1898. It is a setting of verses from Canto XXXIII of the Paradiso, the hundredth and final canto of Dante’s Commedìa. The pilgrim Dante and his guide, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, are in the Empyrean, beyond the material world. Saint Bernard prays to the Virgin Mary on Dante’s behalf that his charge be granted a vision of the ultimate mysteries. His prayer begins with three paradoxes—theological truths that surpass mere reason: “Virgin mother, daughter of your son, / more humble and exalted than any creature…”
You can read the complete text (in Italian with facing English translation) here. Verdi set verses 1–21.
Verdi made the intelligibility of Dante’s text a priority, crafting a largely homophonic setting and marking the end of each tercet (group of three verses) with a cadence. He conceived the Laudi as a work for “for four treble voices [a quattro voci bianche]: a Soprano, a second Soprano, an Alto, a second Alto,” and that is how it was performed in Paris. However, since the work’s Vienna premiere later in 1898, it has generally been performed by a four-part women’s chorus.
This performance of the Laudi is by the women of the Philharmonia Chorus led by Carlo Maria Giulini.
Eugène Delacroix, “Dante et Virgile aux enfers” (1822).
Verdi’s admiration for Shakespeare is well known, but he also had a great love for Dante. One of his earliest surviving letters (from 1835) begins with a quotation from the Inferno; and near the end of his life, he wrote to a friend, “Ah, yes: Dante is simply the greatest of all! Homer, the Greek tragedians, Shakespeare, the biblical writers are great, often sublime, but they are neither so universal nor so exhaustive…”
The Romantics in general adored Dante, but for nineteenth-century Italians Dante was more than simply a literary genius: he was also one of the men who forged the Italian language. Italy in Verdi’s time was divided both politically and linguistically, and most people spoke their local dialect. One of the reasons why Verdi revered Alessandro Manzoni, the author of I promessi sposi, is because Manzoni sought with his much-revised novel to create a modern literary language for all of Italy, a language based largely (but by no means exclusively) on the Florentine in which Dante and others wrote.
One of Verdi’s most obscure mature works is the “Ave Maria” for soprano and string orchestra from 1880. (Follow the link to hear the “Ave Maria”; the YouTube clip cannot be embedded.) Verdi thought that this vernacular rendering of the prayer was by Dante; in fact, it is now believed to be by Antonio de’ Beccari, a Ferrarese from the early fourteenth century.
In any event, one of Verdi’s motivations in creating this “Ave Maria” was, in a broad sense, political. He wished to highlight Italian traditions (of poetry, of vocal music) in contrast to the foreign works then in fashion in Italy. (Does Italy ever change? Sigh…) Verdi wrote to colleagues in 1879:
It is right to educate the public to, as the cognoscenti say, high art, but it seems to me that the art of Palestrina and Marcello may also be high art… and it is ours.
November 14 was the anniversary of the death of Giuseppina Strepponi, Verdi’s second wife, who created the rôle of Abigaille in Nabucco.
Giuseppina was born in Lodi in 1815 to a musical family. She attended the Milan Conservatory (which famously denied admission to Verdi), where in 1834 she took first prize in “bel canto” (that vaporous term!). She made her operatic début later that year, and her repertoire embraced (among many other works) Bellini’s Norma, I puritani, and La sonnambula; many operas by Donizetti (including Adelia, written especially for her); Rossini’s Matilde di Shabran and La Cenerentola; and, by Verdi, Oberto, Un giorno di regno, Ernani, and I due Foscari in addition to Nabucco.
Giuseppina suffered a rapid vocal decline, brought on by overwork (at one point, she reportedly sang either Norma or La straniera six times in one week) and by a chaotic personal life that included three or four out-of-wedlock children. (Mary Jane Phillips-Matz has examined these and other issues relating to Giuseppina’s private life in depth.) That said, Giuseppina in decline was apparently still a formidable artist: Hector Berlioz, who knew from singing (and, as a critic, sometimes had a poisoned pen), expressed the utmost admiration for her after hearing her in concert in Paris, where she had gone to teach after withdrawing from the operatic stage.
The Man Verdi by Frank Walker, an essential book for all who love the composer, offers abundant information about Giuseppina. She was an unsurpassed writer of letters and almost certainly a betrayed spouse—though, in a canny and (I think) truly admirable way, she managed to forge her own relationship with Verdi’s probable mistress, Teresa Stolz.
For half a century, Giuseppina was also an unfailingly loyal friend and adviser to Verdi. She died at age 82 of pneumonia on 14 November 1897 at Sant’Agata. In his final years, Verdi was rarely alone, with Stolz and other friends at his side. Nonetheless, Giuseppina’s death remained an open wound. In 1897, he wrote (in French) to the critic Camille Bellaigue:
Poor Maestro! Yes, poor, poor indeed!
After half a century of family life (vie intime), I am alone, alone, alone, without a family, in a desolate void… and… 85 years old! Weep for me. Adieu!
In 1900, he wrote to Donna Giuseppina Negroni Prati Morosini:
It’s true… It is a comfort to think that a friend, even one far off, takes an interest in the matters of our own life, especially on those days that recall the saddest moments of life! Tomorrow, 14 November, is a fatal day for me, just as the day that Annetta died was for you. But you have affectionate and attentive children… I am alone!!
Sad sad sad!
Giuseppina was buried in Milan’s Cimitero Monumentale, where Manzoni, Francesco Maria Piave, and Countess Clara Maffei were also laid to rest. In February 1901, on the occasion of Verdi’s state funeral, her remains and those of her husband were moved to the crypt at the Casa di Riposo, where we can pay our respects to them today. (The Casa di Riposo is always my very first stop when I visit Milan.)
To remember Giuseppina: music she created sung by Maria Callas, Abigaille’s recitative and aria from Nabucco, “Ben io t’invenni… Anch’io dischiuso.”
The Budapest-born American conductor Fritz Reiner died on 15 November 1963.
The Manzoni Requiem has had a happy history on disc, I think, with many superb recordings from which to choose. Reiner’s 1959 set is among the most admired. Most (and perhaps all) of it can be heard on YouTube, but for now I offer you the beginning of the Offertorium, with soloists Leontyne Price, Rosalind Elias, Jussi Björling, and Giorgio Tozzi, along with the Wiener Philharmoniker under Reiner’s direction. (The remainder of the Offertorium is here.)
My immediate response hearing it for the first time in ages: It’s slow. And it’s magnificent, too.
Garry Wills has written a book about Verdi and Shakespeare entitled Verdi’s Shakespeare: Men of the Theater. It is not a perfect book, but it is an interesting one, and I may have more to say about it anon.
For now, you can read a substantial excerpt from (or précis of) Verdi’s Shakepeare in The New York Review of Books. It is well worth your attention.
Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio (1839), is to be performed this week in concert form at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris and broadcast on Radio France on 19 November. Its world premiere took place on 17 November 1839 at La Scala.
In 1888, Verdi was not entirely happy to read that a Jubilee was planned to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Oberto’s premiere. He wrote to Giulio Ricordi:
Misericordia! Among all the useless things that are done in this world, this is the most useless of all, and even I, guilty as I am of so many [useless things] myself, detest en masse all uselessness. What’s more, it’s something undoable, an imitation of foreign ways predicated on what does not exist, cannot exist, and must not exist! In repertory theatres this jubilee, while still useless, would at least be doable, but [here in Italy] it could only be a wretched thing without importance…
If it were necessary to make some kind of concession, suggest that they mount a jubilee fifty days after my death! [Because] three days suffice to cover men and deeds in oblivion! The Great Poet [Shakespeare] says: Heavens! two months dead, and not yet forgotten!
I put my trust in three days.
In addition to the overture, I offer you two arias from Act II: Cunizza’s “Oh, chi torna l’ardente pensiero,” sung by Shirley Verrett; and “L’orror del tradimento,” performed by Samuel Ramey.
The month of November seems to be a good one for Verdi and Verdians. La forza del destino had its world premiere on 10 November 1862—I think. (This old date/new date hanky-panky makes my small and aging brain hurt.) Verdi Duecento has already marked the November birthdays of Giuseppe Sinopoli, Dame Joan Sutherland, and I due Foscari (see recent posts); today, instead, it is the turn of the baritone Piero Cappuccilli (9 November 1926–11 July 2005) and the conductor Lamberto Gardelli (8 November 1915–17 July 1998).
Cappuccilli is probably best remembered for his performances in the great Giorgio Strehler stagings of Macbeth and Simon Boccanegra at La Scala in the 1970s (follow the links for snippets posted earlier). With apologies for the unspeakably bad video quality, today I offer you “Fatal mia donna” from the Scala Macbeth, with Shirley Verrett as Lady Macbeth and Claudio Abbado conducting.
Gardelli was considered by many something of a routinier, but we have him to thank for many worthy recordings of rarities and familiar works by Verdi. At the end of this post is a performance of the Forza duet “Solenne in quest’ora” sung by Cappuccilli and Carlo Bergonzi. I believe that the source is the recording conducted by Gardelli, but if I am wrong please let me know.
To the world, as to the nation he helped to found, Verdi left an enduring legacy of music, charity, patriotism, honour, grace, and reason. He was and remains a mighty force for continuing good. Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, Verdi: A Biography
Se noi uccidiamo la cultura su cui è fondata la storia dell’Italia, veramente sarà la nostra patria bella e perduta. Il maestro Riccardo Muti