Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner Verdi, Wagner – To This Day

Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner
Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner | Photos (montage): public domain

They really probably never did meet: Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, the main figures of German and Italian oepra of the nineteenth century, never exchanged a word between them. This is so surprising that we simply cannot get it into our heads. We would so much like to know what the two would have had to say to one another.

Taking together everything the composers, who have been stylized as “antipodes” and declared representatives of two kinds of music, actually proclaimed about one another, we must assume they would have had little to say had they met. And as the paths of their lives crossed again and again – in Paris, Venice, Vienna and elsewhere – we may suspect that the great music dramatists kept out of one another’s way. After attending a performance of Verdi’s Requiem in Vienna in 1875, Cosima Wagner confided this malicious comment to her diary: “In the evening, Verdi’s Requiem, about which it is decidedly best not to say anything”. For Wagner, Verdi was one of the hurdy-gurdy musicians of Italian opera; the only thing about his colleague that impressed him was Verdi’s considerable fees.

“È matto” – he is crazy

Richard and Cosima Wagner Richard and Cosima Wagner | Photo: public domain On Verdi’s side, relations were more complicated. He was quite interested in his colleague beyond the Alps. As Wagner’s fame grew, Verdi obtained his writings and scores – discreetly. For the practical musician, however, what counted was what he could hear. When he heard the Tannhäuser overture in Paris, Verdi’s judgement was short and hard: “è matto” – he is crazy. Nevertheless, in 1871 he travelled to the Italian premiere of Lohengrin in Bologna and followed the evening with the piano score in hand, writing comments in the margin. Unlike Wagner, he made an effort o arrive at a nuanced perception of his colleague’s music: some things he thought beautiful; almost all of it he thought too long.

Wagner and the Liebestod as ascent into heaven

Both changed the opera in the same period, but in very different ways, and it is worth considering the difference. One aspect is the treatment of time: in Wagner’s music dramas, the stretching of time – indeed in the later works such as the Ring of the Nibelung and Parsifal, even the suspension of the sense of time – is one of the strategies deployed to transform the audience itself. In the seemingly endless stream of ecstatic love and suffering in Tristan and Isolde, the audience falls into a trance and in the end, with Isolde’s “Liebestod” (Love Death), experiences a kind of an ascent into heaven, “gentle and soft ...”.

In Verdi, there is little about death that is comforting

Giuseppe Verdi Giuseppe Verdi | Photo: public domain Reading Verdi’s sometimes harsh instructions to his librettists, we find a leitmotif of a wholly different dramaturgy: he always wanted it still shorter, more concise, more pointed, if possible in one word that illuminated the meaning in a flash. Verdi wrote for the world as it is – a market, of which opera too was a part. And he saw the world as it is: merciless. When at the end of Aida, the Ethiopian princess follows her condemned beloved into the subterranean burial chamber so as to die with him, Verdi does not compose a Liebestod with painfully sweet violins tremoloing in the highest register. He makes audible why this love between two people who are on the wrong political sides cannot be in this world: the final bars layer the final breathes of Aida und Radamès, the rival’s prayer for peace and the choir of priests who call upon “great Ptah”. It is they who have pronounced the sentence of death; it is their singing that is the wall which even love cannot surmount, and the death of the lovers holds little comfort.

Bayreuth and the newly invented world

Verdi shows the world as it is: hard and realistic – and often enough governed by absurd chance, the “power of fate”. For Wagner, the world was not enough; he wanted to invent a new one, and because this exceeded even his powers, he invented at least a new kind of theatre: Wagner’s theatre in provincial Bayreuth was the attempt to escape the “culture industry”. Ironically, it was precisely the founding of the Bayreuth Festival that has proven the longest-lasting and most effective innovation for this industry: the world-famous flagship of German culture.

Crying at the opera

2013: two hundred years Wagner, two hundred years Verdi. Both these composers have exercised a formative influence on the history of musical theatre; and they shaped the century whose concentrated expression they both are. The “opera” is an essential part of our picture of the nineteenth century. That Wagner and Verdi still dominate opera programmes, surpassed only by Mozart, has to do probably not only with the “timeless” dramatic-musical qualities of their works, but also with a deep longing for great emotions. Wagner and Verdi, each in his own way, create moments, which can never be long enough, that close the gap separating our everyday selves from our emotions. We can therefore cry at the opera. It is a weeping for something lost: the whole, the great, the beautiful. And when it comes to emotions, there is still more of the nineteenth century in us than we inhabitants of an alienated modernity would like to admit. Hence Wagner and Verdi – to this day.