On Saturday, May 1, 2010, a rare cultural event took place in Santa Monica, California. A classical music ensemble known as The Verdi Chorus presented a program entitled Wagner & Verdi: Opposing Roads to Greatness. In a two act presentation, The Verdi Chorus performed excerpts from the works of the two preeminent masters of 19th century opera, Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi.
Why would a joint classical music program like this be such a rare phenomenon?
The answer lies in the competitive relationship of these two great music masters, a rivalry that was based on the personal styles of the music they composed and the ethnic and national traits that their lives and work embodied. Wagner and Verdi never actually met nor publicly criticized each other’s musical compositions. Yet, their rivalry was acknowledged during their lives and occasionally manifested itself in off-hand remarks. It has continued since in a duel of comparisons that has extended even to the way that their music has been incorporated into motion pictures like Apocalypse Now and Pretty Woman.
This shadow-boxing match is the subject for a major interpretative study by Peter Conrad. In Verdi and/or Wagner, Conrad takes hold of every conceivable strand of the professional careers, political ideals and personal lives of the rival composers. These he weaves into an intricate tapestry that evokes major themes of human creativity and cultural identity.
Conrad, who taught at Oxford University from 1973 to 2011, is the author of several highly regarded books such as Modern Times, Modern Places and A Song of Love and Death: the Meaning of Opera. Conrad is a profound and original author, whose vast knowledge is presented in a literate and highly readable style. This is a matter of no-small importance. Conrad places high demands on his readers’ willingness to think deeply and clearly about fundamental matters of human life and thought. To properly read one of Conrad’s books, one must be ready to enter into a dialogue with a writer of exceptional insight – and with our own inner voice as well.
Wagner and Verdi composed their immortal works during opera’s golden age. This halcyon era for music, however, coincided with decades of political turmoil and a crisis of religious faith brought about by the publication of Charles Darwin’s theories on human origins.
As Conrad shows in considerable detail, Wagner sought to use the myths of the ancient Germanic tribes and of the Middle Ages to create a new religious experience for the civilization of the West. The faith that the French Revolution and Darwinian evolution had undermined, Wagner devoted himself to replace with a new creed. His temple to music at Bayreuth in Bavaria was built to become the new Delphi, with himself as the prophet and oracle of the modern world.
Verdi, an agnostic with deeply felt human convictions, held a less grandiose conception of music. It is this difference between the two composers that provides the essential conflict in Conrad’s book. The contrast between their operatic forms has been commented upon so often in the past that it would merit at most an analytical article, hardly a book-length treatment. The true rivalry of Wagner and Verdi dealt with the first principles of human life, a clash that was of far greater significance than a squabble over the primacy of symphonic music in Wagner’s operas versus the traditional role of lyricism in Verdi’s. Conrad explains:
Verdi and Wagner represent two sides of our nature that are usually not on speaking terms – the virtue of charity or caritas as opposed to the rage of the egotistical will, a need for human connection as opposed to the mind’s proud solitude … Verdi appeals to humanists, Wagner to mystics and also to misanthropes. Is it impossible for one person to love them both?
From the distance of the 21st century, Conrad certainly displays a high regard for both men. He conceived the idea for his book after viewing portrait busts of the two composers in a public garden in Venice. The sculptures are set at a discrete distance, the faces of each – fittingly – looking in opposite directions.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, this “temperamental opposition” of Verdi and Wagner was enhanced by geopolitical forces. There was a perceived superiority of Europe north of the Alps over “backward” Italy. Commentators seized upon these contrasts, Verdi vs. Wagner, Latin Europe vs. the Teutonic north, in order to pontificate on the way that “Italians used music to express feeling, whereas for Germans it was a mode of thought.”
Conrad’s book is literally a study of contrasts. Fortunately, he quickly dispels a lot of facile nonsense by noting that in their personal demeanor and habits, Verdi and Wagner completely confounded the ethnic stereotypes that cultural pundits were intent on underscoring.
Verdi was taciturn and pragmatic, haunted by the death of his first wife and children. He was anything but a histrionic Latin, being something of an English country-squire in temperament. He used the financial rewards that his operas brought him to buy farmland in his native province in the north of Italy, showing a commendable solicitude for the agricultural workers who made his estate into a model farm and a commercial success.
Wagner may have been the son of a Jewish actor, Ludwig Geyer. This raises quite a few questions over his obsession with the Nordic gods and the adulation paid him by Hitler and the Nazi cultural elite. Wagner’s private life, likewise, did not bear close inspection and he was improvident with money, despite the huge sums that he enticed from patrons such as the “mad king” of Bavaria, Ludwig II. He dressed and lived extravagantly, posing – and perhaps believing – that he was the supreme creative genius of his age. Friedrich Nietzsche described him less positively as “the most enthusiastic mimomaniac … who ever existed.”
Culture was a serious matter in Germany and Italy during the 19th century. Both Wagner and Verdi were born in 1813, the year that Europe rose up against Napoleon. Following the French emperor’s downfall, their countries remained divided and dominated by the Hapsburg dynasty of Austria, with the jackboot of militaristic Prussia on the rump of Germany that the Austrians did not control. Wagner was a political radical during his youth, a supporter of the abortive Liberal revolutions of 1848. Verdi was an ardent, if not strident, Italian patriot. His chorus Va, pensiero, sung by the Hebrew slaves during the third act of Nabucco (1842) became an anthem for Italy’s unification movement, the Risorgimento.
Verdi showed more understanding for Wagner’s situation. The Sturm und Drang traditions of German culture all but demanded the heroic action and the dramatic symphonic structure that Wagner gave to the four operas of Der Ring des Nibelungen, composed between 1848 and 1874. Wagner, by contrast, paid scant regard to Verdi’s work. Verdi’s operas, especially during the high tide of the Risorgimento, were bound by the constraints of Italian musicology. Its central features, melody and lyricism, were not to be lightly ignored. When Verdi incorporated symphonic elements, as opposed to a pure reliance on singing, in his later operas, he was condemned by critics for having deserted the hallowed traditions of Italian opera.
“Fine result after 35 years of career,” Verdi gruffly noted.
Even a revered cultural hero like Verdi could not discount the musical traditions of his county. Opera played a vital role in promoting unique national identities for the German and Italian peoples as both nations achieved their dreams of unification in the same year, 1871. Moreover, the operas of Wagner and Verdi achieved the status of instruments of state, bolstering the reputations of their respective countries.
Wagner’s opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, first performed in 1868, is especially relevant in this respect. Die Meistersinger was Wagner’s only comic opera, depicting the lives of the musicians and singers of Germany during the Middle Ages. Comedy it might have been, but it had the serious purpose of promoting the claim that Germany pioneered opera centuries before Claudio Monteverdi did so in Italy in the early 1600′s.
This was a challenge that Italian patriots like Verdi and his colleague, Arrigo Boito, who wrote the libretti for Verdi’s Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893), could not let pass without challenge. Wagner had died four years before the first performance of Otello, but as Conrad shows in the following passage, opera had become so bound in the coils of nationalism that even the influence of artistic genius was of little account.
Fending off accusations of Wagnerism late in his career, Verdi made a point of re-establishing Italy’s pre-eminence in Otello and Falstaff. Boito reminded him that Shakespeare’s tragedy had its source in a tawdry tale from Giovan Batisita Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, and later sneakily traced the character of Falstaff back to Il pecorone by Ser Giovnni. Here was a mythic source as primordial and as elusive as any of Wagner’s…
Shakespeare, amazingly, was not sufficient authority for Verdi to create a new opera. Forgotten Renaissance pot-boilers like Hecatommithi and Il pecorone had to be dusted-off because the authors were Italians. In the increasingly poisoned atmosphere of late 19th century nationalism, even a composer of Verdi’s stature had to remain aware that opera was no longer immune to realpolitik.
For the most part, Verdi evaded nationalism’s iron-grip. A man of compassion, Verdi filled his operas with flawed protagonists, Violetta in La Traviata, Falstaff, who rise above the tragedy or comedy of their situations to stand for humanity as a whole. In Wagner’s case, however, the obsession with Nordic mythology led to life-denying themes, to a realm where sins are not forgiven but purged with cosmic fire. This was a strange foundation on which to build a new culture for the German nation. Yet, at the first performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen at Bayreuth in 1876, Wagner proclaimed, “My children, here you have a truly German art.”
Conrad presents Wagner as a fully nuanced character, brilliant, possessive, mercurial and deeply conflicted. Germany achieved unification, but not through the agency of Wagner’s creation of a mythic creed. Bismarck’s cunning diplomatic moves and the skill of the Prussian General Staff succeeded where Sturm und Drang had failed. Wagner, for all his genius at self-advertisement, was largely a marginal figure in the drama of German unification, as testified by the fact that his Kaisermarsch (1871) was rejected as the national anthem for the German state. It was his posthumous role in German history, when the four operas of Der Ring were embraced as foundational texts of the Third Reich, which toppled him from the pedestal of renown.
All of the many contrasts between Verdi and Wagner are dissected, analyzed and commented upon by Conrad with amazing versatility and insight. However, the structure of the book, along with its sheer mass of information, presents a number of problems. The lives of Verdi and Wagner are not depicted in alternating chapters, but rather thematically, with dense, detailed paragraphs treating both men at the same time – and often in the same breath. Without a general introduction or a timeline to guide them, readers lacking prior knowledge of opera are likely to experience considerable frustration trying to stay afloat amid Conrad’s total immersion approach to 19th century music and culture.
Also, the very nature of “compare and contrast,” when utilized to such an intimate degree, can lead to a skewed appreciation of these two composers. Wagner’s relationship with Franz Liszt was closer and more significant than any general rivalry with Verdi, even without Wagner’s marriage to Liszt’s daughter, Cosima, being entered into the equation.
Perhaps, the best way of approaching Conrad’s book is to regard it primarily as a meditation on creativity. As with opera itself, where passion and empathy lead, intellectual appreciation will follow. The key insight of this fine book is easy enough to grasp. In an age of strutting nationalism, both Verdi and Wagner gave the world music that ultimately transcends the limits of borders or political ideology, regardless of how subsequent regimes used it.
“You may have the universe if I may have Italy,” Verdi is famous for having said. And in fact it was a universe, a universe of the heart’s torment and the soul’s desire, which he and his German rival bequeathed to us.