The Man Beyond the Melody

A composer through his materials.
A composer through his materials. // Akash Salam

In the years between 1809 and 1813, some of Europe’s most pre-eminent composers were born: Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner and Verdi. Over the past four years, each composer’s bicentenary has been honored by the Gilmore Music Library. “Verdi and his Singers” marks the culmination of this series.

Giuseppe Verdi is one of the greatest opera composers of the 19th century. The Italian Romantic is best known for his operas: “Nabucco,” “Rigoletto,” “La Traviata,” “Aida,” “Otello” and “Flastaff,” among countless others.

Popular culture has immortalized Verdi’s work into cliché musical phrases that almost everyone can hum, but which no one knows by name. “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto has appeared in a commercial for Axe body spray and “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” is in a Doritos ad. Most people know that elephants and horses come on stage in the “Grand March” from “Aida,” but few can place the details of the plot.

This exhibit, however, moves beyond what is immediately recognizable about the composer. Much of it is devoted to the relationship between Verdi and French Baritone Victor Maurel, for whom the title role in “Falstaff” and that of Iago in “Otello” were created. As was the fashion in the late 19th century, Verdi gave Maurel an exhibited “autograph manuscript”— a handwritten musical quotation from a well-known passage of “Otello.”

The exhibit reminds us that composers are as equally colorful as the artists they work with. Included is a letter from Verdi addressed to Maurel, advising the actor to stop reading too much into Falstaff and stressing that there was enough meaning already on the page — he argues that the music “will come, as it were, of its own accord.” Apparently this was not a good enough explanation for Maurel, and, in a later letter, Verdi more explicitly attempts to dampen Maurel’s affectations. Archivist Richard Boursy was apt to include a draft of Maurel’s reply, in which he argues for a scientific approach to music, beyond “emptier personal formulas.”

Another distinctive highlight was a caricature of Verdi drawn by celebrated tenor Enrico Caruso that depicts the composer’s angular nose in profile. In addition to being a best-selling recording artist in the early days of the phonograph, Caruso drew thousands of these caricatures, many of which are owned by Yale. Also included in “Verdi and his Singers” is Robert Shaw’s annotated score of Verdi’s Requiem and photographs of Verdi and his second wife, the singer Giuseppina Streppi.

Perhaps the most striking part of this exhibit is that it reminds us of a time when opera was at the height of entertainment. During the 19th century, vocal and piano arrangements of Verdi’s operas were performed in thousands of private parlors across the United States and Europe. Even those who might have never have seen his opera in person almost certainly had access to his music via published arrangements or personal manuscripts. One such handwritten copyist’s manuscript of the Duet from “Rigoletto” is displayed in this exhibit.

In forgetting the history behind these works of art, we lose their very essence. Verdi reluctantly wrote the libretto of “Nabucco,” his third opera, after the death his two children and wife. But out of this opera came the chorus of the Hebrew slaves, “Va pensiero,” a piece that has remained so popular as an anthem of hope that in 2009 it was proposed to replace Italy’s national anthem. Though some might brush opera off as a vestige of a fading age, Verdi’s music is anything but antiquarian.

All Yale students can log into the Naxos Music Library and access countless recordings by Verdi, from “Va Pensiero” to “Già nella note densa.” And, for those who want a break from Bass, what’s a better study break than climbing up the stairs to Sterling for a quick visit to see the handwriting of the master himself?

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