Thoughts on a Young Composer
One of the first operas I ever heard, and one which undoubtedly influenced my passion for opera, was Giuseppe Verdi’s magnificent Othello. I was a young high school student, I believe a sophomore, and the recording was lent to me by a friend of my mother’s. When I first heard it, I had no idea of the huge leap forward Verdi had made with this opera which broke all the traditional rules: no overture, very few arias, orchestration far beyond what he had done with earlier compositions, intricate and complex choral writing. I was simply caught up in the beauty of the music and the visceral reaction to both the story and the musical telling of it.
Eventually I went to music school where the master was part of my course of study, and I understood better why Othello is such a powerful composition. It remains to this day, many decades later, my favorite opera and the one I consider as close to perfection as is humanly possible. People may argue that Falstaff, his final opera, was actually Verdi’s masterpiece. No matter, Othello speaks to me as no other opera does.
A biography of Verdi by Vincent Sheean, Orpheus at Eighty, became a favorite book while I was a college student. I still find it a fascinating read, an in-depth portrait of a complex genius and his life and work, as well as a study of the Italy of his day and how closely integrated he was into the changing politics of the country. Actually, the rebirth of Italy as a country.
Recently I have been re-reading this book, after a period of several years. It’s interesting to see the annotations I made; some for a classical music program I hosted for a couple of years on the local university radio station, no doubt some because they struck me as important when I first read the book. But during this reading I am considering things about the young Verdi: the boy, really, of eighteen through his early twenties, I had been aware of the disappointments and tragedies he suffered at a young age, and thought of that part of his life as having an impact on his music for the rest of his career.
The first image of Verdi I ever saw was the well-known portrait by Boldoni painted when he was in his seventies, I believe. That was how I most often thought of him. I hadn’t considered Verdi the boy, Verdi the youth, and how terribly painful for him that time of his life was. While he was enduring, he had no inkling of the prolific and celebrated – in fact, revered ─ composer he would become.
Perhaps I am viewing him differently because I just wrote two books about young men who were gifted musicians and who had struggles and tragedies of their own. My protagonists are performers and not creative geniuses, but the similarities struck me, nevertheless.
In his mature years, Verdi liked to self-style himself as a peasant. In actuality, while he understood farming and loved the earth of his native Busseto, he was hardly a rube. He had a good education – Shakespeare was an early passion ─ and from a young age his musical ability was recognized by his family and the professional musicians who worked with him.
He received fine musical training and was conductor and performer, as well as composer, by his teens. At the age of eighteen he was sent off to Milan to apply to the conservatory, with every expectation he would be accepted and continue his musical education. The fact that he was not granted admission was the first blow to befall him.
In today’s world, eighteen would be the age most people are applying for a college-level music program. In Verdi’s world, most applicants above the age of fourteen were generally not admitted. Verdi was an extraordinary talent, but according to what we know, one of the judges felt his keyboard ability was sub-par and he was turned down. This was a terrible disappointment for both Verdi and his benefactors. However, he did remain in Milan and continued his study of music as a private pupil, eventually returning to Busseto as a professional musician.
The rejection rankled all his life. It is said when the conservatory many years later wanted to change its name to honor him, he refused. “They didn’t want me when I was young. They can’t have me now that I’m old,” or words to that effect, was his response.
After marrying his sweetheart Margherita Barezzi, the daughter of his benefactor, Verdi returned to Milan to compose opera for La Scala. The La Scala of the mid-nineteen century was quite different from the prestigious opera house of today, but Verdi was doing what his soul demanded … writing for the theater. Giuseppe and Margherita had loved each other since they were seventeen and were married when they were twenty-three. Two children arrived during the next two years. That must have been a brief period of happiness for the young composer.
Within a year after the birth of the second child, both children had died. Not long afterward the death of his adored and no doubt very loving wife totally devastated the young composer. Giuseppe was twenty-six. It seems he sank deeply into despair and depression, vowing to never write another note of music so long as he lived.
He did, of course. But what a struggle it must have been for him to cope with these blows, two children – little more than babies, really, a loving wife, all ripped from him in a matter of months. And after his wife’s death he was required by contract to complete the composition of a comic opera, the opera which was the most abysmal failure of his career. No wonder he never wrote another comedy until many decades had passed and he presented the world with Falstaff.
My heart goes out to this young man, bereft, grieving, feeling his life has ended. All of the passion and emotion of this period I feel he poured into some of the most beautiful melodies, the most skillfully wrought orchestrations, the most thrilling opera choruses, the world has ever heard. Without this tragedy, this angst, would he have been the same composer?