Giuseppe Verdi

Tchaikovsky Research
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), in an 1886 portrait by Giovanni Boldini

Italian composer (b. 10 October 1813 [N.S.] at Le Roncole, near Busseto (Parma); d. 27 January 1901 [N.S.] in Milan), born Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi.

Tchaikovsky and Verdi

Although Tchaikovsky's written comments on Verdi were not quite as extensive as his many reflections on Wagner, that other giant of opera in the nineteenth century, it is interesting that his feelings about the Italian maestro's works were almost as ambivalent as with regard to Wagner. First of all, it is worth noting that in his youth Tchaikovsky had been as enthusiastic a Verdi fan as anyone else in Russia. Herman Laroche did, however, point out in the Foreword to his 1898 edition of his late friend's music review articles that "already in 1862, even though his musical horizons had not yet widened considerably, Tchaikovsky was conscious of all the uncouthness and decorativeness of the techniques (or rather the techniques at that time) of the composer of Rigoletto. On the other hand, like most of our generation, he was mightily impressed by the powerful dramatic temperament of this original and unique artist" [1].

In the first half of the 1870s, however, when Tchaikovsky was finding his feet as a composer and also working as a music critic, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow was effectively in the clutches of the impresario Eugenio Merelli (1825–1882) [2] who deluged the city's principal stage with crowd-pleasing Italian operas, amongst which were Verdi's enduringly popular Il trovatore and La traviata. Not surprisingly, in his feuilleton articles Tchaikovsky frequently quipped about the way Merelli was constantly dishing up such Italian fare as Traviata and Trovatore, which everyone was "sick and tired of already" (TH 291). In an article of 1875 he compared the situation in Saint Petersburg, where Russian operas and such interesting works as Wagner's Tannhäuser and Lohengrin were being staged at the Mariinsky Theatre (alongside the standard Italian repertoire), with that in Moscow, where the bill-boards exclusively "flaunted such 'delightful gems' as Trovatore, Traviata, and Ernani" (TH 301). Similarly, Tchaikovsky joked about the Muscovite theatre-goers "rushing to hear the 'inspired melodies' of Verdi and such everlastingly beautiful' works as Trovatore and Traviata" (TH 283).

These ironical remarks must, though, be seen in the context of Tchaikovsky's frustration at the policy of the Theatres' Directorate in Moscow, which, by tolerating Merelli's hegemony at the Bolshoi Theatre, was making itself guilty of a criminal neglect of Russian opera, to which the young composer was keen to make his own contribution. For Tchaikovsky even then held Verdi in great esteem, as is clear from several of his articles (see especially TH 266 in the list below), and it does not seem to have been with ironic intent that he frequently speaks of "Maestro Verdi", but rather out of genuine respect for the Italian's melodic gift and craftsmanship. True, Il trovatore found little favour with Tchaikovsky, who called it "thoroughly banal" (TH 265) and said that it had "already managed to bore everyone to death" (TH 281), but La traviata, that other masterpiece from 1853, was an opera which appealed to him considerably. We can say this with some confidence, despite those ironical remarks about Traviata, despite even Vladimir Pogozhev's assertion in his reminiscences of Tchaikovsky that "he particularly hated two operas by Verdi: Traviata and Rigoletto" [3]. For Pogozhev heard Tchaikovsky make these critical observations (not just about Verdi) at suppers in the house of the soprano Emiliya Pavlovskaya, where the composer felt at ease and was often in a sarcastic mood. So it is likely that he was exaggerating there his conversion from the Italian operas he was so fond of in his youth (see his Autobiography) to the 'serious' music which he now took as his model. After all, when he heard Pavlovskaya herself as Violetta in a production of La traviata in Kiev on 8/20 September 1877, Tchaikovsky had been greatly impressed [4]. And against Pogozhev's reminiscences we can also cite the testimony of Pavel Pchelnikov (who knew Tchaikovsky in the 1880s): "It seemed strange that Pyotr Ilyich should have been so partial to light Italian music. Very often he would come to the theatre to see Traviata, Il barbiere di Siviglia, and especially Lucia..." [5].

Judging from what Tchaikovsky said in an article of 1872 about Adelina Patti's "profoundly moving" interpretation of Violetta, especially in her duet with Alfredo's father in Act II, and the "inescapable anguish and despair" which she conveyed (see TH 266), it is very likely that Verdi's opera affected him in a way similar to the remarkable description near the end of Ivan Turgenev's 1860 novel On the Eve of a performance of La traviata in Venice. Turgenev's narrator describes how this performance of Traviata — "a rather banal work, to be honest, but which has already spread all over the stages of Europe and is well known to us Russians" — failed to awaken much enthusiasm at first, but then, in the final act, the singer playing Violetta suddenly found her inspiration: "There began the duet, the best number in the opera, in which the composer succeeded in expressing all the regrets of senselessly squandered youth, the final struggle of a despairing and powerless love. Carried away and aloft by the breath of general sympathy from the audience, with tears of artistic joy and real suffering in her eyes, the singer abandoned herself to the wave that was sweeping her up; her face was transformed, and, before the ominous sign of suddenly approaching death, the words: Lascia mi vivere… morir si giovane! broke from her lips with a supplication of such fervour as must reach up to heaven, that the whole theatre was bursting with frenetic applause and enthusiastic cries" [6].

It is such dramatic and emotional moments as Violetta's dying scene that Tchaikovsky probably had in mind when in that article of 1872 (TH 266]]) he spoke admiringly of the "genuine sincerity of feeling" which suffused every work of Verdi's. Nevertheless, over-exposure to the latter's operas, as a result of the profit-greedy Merelli's unimaginative repertoire planning, clearly did try the patience of Tchaikovsky. Thus, in an article of 1873, discussing mainly Weber's Der Freischütz (an opera which he liked very much), he referred disparagingly to the "vulgar striving after effects and trivial puppet-show works of Messrs Verdi and Offenbach" and said that after Der Freischütz it seemed improper to talk about the other opera which had recently been staged — I Lombardi, "another product from Maestro Verdi's musical factory" (TH 282).

In view of all this it is very significant that in that interesting article of 1872 (TH 266) Tchaikovsky dwelt mainly on an opera by Verdi which had not yet been shown in Russia — namely, Aida, whose piano score Tchaikovsky had recently bought in Paris. While studying it he had been agreeably surprised to find signs of Wagner's influence and he praised Verdi for striking out in new directions. In December 1873 he was exhorting the Italian Opera Company in Moscow to add Aida to its repertoire, as it was a work in which Verdi had shown himself "in a completely new and attractive light" (TH 283). Tchaikovsky's suggestion was not taken up by Merelli — probably because staging such a monumental opera as Aida was too costly a venture for this thrifty impresario — but in February 1876 he did finally get to see one of the first performances of Aida in Russia, at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, and was particularly impressed by Désirée Artôt's interpretation of Amneris (see the letter quoted below).

From a number of letters Tchaikovsky wrote in 1877–78, we know that as he was working on Yevgeny Onegin, Verdi's Aida was very much in his mind as an example of what he wanted to avoid in his new opera. Thus, in letter 565 to his brother Modest, 18/30 May 1877 (a week after Yelizaveta Lavrovskaya had suggested to the composer that he should write an opera based on Pushkin's novel Yevgeny Onegin), Tchaikovsky exclaimed: "You can't imagine how crazy I am about this subject. How glad I am to get away from Egyptian princesses, pharaohs, poisonings, and all kinds of stiltedness!" In a letter to Sergey Taneyev written in 1878 (see below), when Tchaikovsky had almost finished scoring Yevgeny Onegin and was already looking for a new opera subject, he again made a very interesting comparison between his "lyrical scenes" (as Onegin was entitled) and the exotic Grand Opera setting of Aida.

During his stays in various Italian cities Tchaikovsky often went to the theatre to see operas by Verdi. For example, in Pisa, in February 1878, he and his brother Modest attended a performance of La forza del destino [7]. We also know that Tchaikovsky had studied Verdi's Requiem (1874) (see letter 1609 to Nadezhda von Meck, 8/20–10/22 October 1880). From the composer's diaries we also find out that while staying in Tiflis, in June 1887, he was studying the newly published score of Otello [8]. Tchaikovsky seems to have heard Verdi's last tragic opera for the first time in Prague, on the very evening that he arrived in the city on 31 January/12 February 1888, as part of his first European conducting tour. It must have impressed Tchaikovsky considerably, given what he says about Verdi in Chapter IX of the Autobiographical Account]] of this tour — namely, that in Aida and Otello the aged maestro was a beacon to younger Italian composers showing them how one could escape the all-pervasive influence of Wagner. It is also interesting that Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the Director of the Imperial Theatres, when drawing up the repertoire for the 1887–88 season at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, was keen to stage Otello before Tchaikovsky's The Enchantress (so that the latter would be premiered around December, when attendance at the theatre was generally higher). Tchaikovsky, however, objected to this, and so the premiere of The Enchantress (on which he had placed considerable hopes) preceded the first performance in Russia of Verdi's Otello (26 November/8 December 1887) [9]. The latter opera (with Nikolay Figner in the title role) proved to be a resounding success, but not so The Enchantress unfortunately.

General Reflections on Verdi

Bold references indicate particularly detailed or interesting references.

In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles

  • TH 259 — Tchaikovsky briefly remarks that "even the renowned maestro Verdi" had borrowed Wagner's effect of high notes on the divided violin choir from the Lohegrin prelude and made use of it in Violetta's dying scene in La traviata.
  • TH 266 — observes that Verdi's operas, despite "occasional flashes of inspiration", were full of the "commonplaces" that were so typical of the Italian operatic school; concedes nevertheless that although Verdi, "this child of the sunny south" had polluted the whole world with his "tasteless barrel-organ melodies", he still deserved great sympathy for the "indisputable talent" and "genuine sincerity of feeling" which shone through in every work of his; Tchaikovsky then shares his impressions of his close study of the piano score of Verdi's most recent opera, Aida, in whose music he was agreeably surprised to find a strong influence of Wagner; discusses admiringly Adelina Patti's performance as Traviata.
  • TH 316 — Tchaikovsky, commenting on the decline of music in Italy, points out to the younger generation of Italian composers that "old Verdi, that genius" had managed to strike out in entirely new directions in Aida and Otello without succumbing to the all-pervasive influence of Wagner (seemingly a contradiction of what he had said earlier about Aida!)

In Tchaikovsky's Letters

Today [at the Teatro dal Verme] there was a performance of Marchetti's opera Ruy Blas. This opera has enjoyed great success all over Italy for some years now, and I was expecting to find something interesting in it. However, it turned out to be an extremely talentless, banal copy of Verdi, without that strength and sincere warmth which distinguish the rather coarse, yet powerful creations of the latter.

Don't feel sorry about The Voyevoda — good riddance! I do not at all regret it myself, as I am profoundly convinced that this is a work which would compromise me. If I were an inexperienced youth, then it would be a different matter, but a grey-haired old man should either move on (even that is possible, since Verdi, for example, continues to develop and he's getting on for eighty) or else stay put at the height which he has already reached.

Views on Specific Works by Verdi

Bold references indicate particularly detailed or interesting references.

In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles

In Tchaikovsky's Letters

I heard Aida and went into raptures over it, my delight being intensified by Artôt's wondrous interpretation of the role of Amneris [10].

Letter 716 to Sergey Taneyev, 2/14 January 1878:

[If you think that Yevgeny Onegin is] not effective on the stage, don't put it on then and don't play it through. I wrote this opera because one fine day I felt an inexpressible urge to set to music everything in [[[Pushkin]]'s novel] Onegin that is just asking to be turned into music. I did this as best as I could. I worked on the opera with an indescribable enthusiasm and pleasure, not worrying too much as to whether it had action, effects, etc. I don't give a damn about effects! Besides, what are effects anyway? If you have in mind Aida, say, then I can assure you that for all the riches in the world I could not now write an opera on such a subject, because I need people, not puppets; I would gladly tackle any opera in which, even if it did not have any powerful and unexpected effects, I should find beings like me, experiencing emotions which I too have experienced and can understand. The emotions of an Egyptian princess, of Pharaoh, of some frantic Nubian, I cannot know or understand. Some instinct tells me that these people must have moved, spoken, felt, and, consequently, expressed their feelings in a very peculiar manner — not as we do. That is why my music, which, in spite of myself, is suffused with Schumannism, Wagnerism, Chopinism, Glinkaism, Berliozism, and all the other 'isms' of our time, would fit the characters of Aida about just as well as the graceful, urbane speeches of Racine's heroes, who address one another as Vous, correspond to one's notion of the real Orestes, the real Andromach,e etc. It would be false, and such falsehood is loathsome to me […] Unfortunately, I can't find [any suitable subject] myself and I don't know anyone who could point me to such a subject as Bizet's Carmen, say, which is one of the most delightful operas of our times. You may be wondering what I'm looking for. Well, I'll tell you. What I need is something without any kings or queens, without any popular revolts, battles, marches — in short, without all those attributes of grand opéra. I am looking for an intimate but powerful drama, based on a conflict of situations which I have experienced or witnessed myself, and which are able to touch me to the quick. I am not averse even to have some fantastic element, since there is no need to restrain oneself then, and one can give free rein to one's imagination. I suppose, though, that I'm not making myself quite clear. Anyway, what I want to say is that Aida seems so remote to me; I am moved so little by her unhappy love for Radames, whom I likewise cannot picture to myself, that my music [on a subject like that of Aida] would not be heart-felt, as is necessary for all good music [11].

Musically, it has a wonderful potential, and, besides, it's not a worn-out subject, even though Verdi has already used it. In Vienna I got hold of a copy of Verdi's Giovanna d'Arco. First of all, it's not based on Schiller, and, secondly, it's extremely poor, but still I'm glad that I got hold of the score. It will be useful to compare his libretto with the French one [of Auguste Mermet's opera Jeanne d'Arc]" [12].

Since at the opera-house they were putting on Les vêpres siciliennes, which doesn't interest me in the least, I went to the circus with Alyosha].

"I very much like one melody by Verdi (a very gifted person) in his opera Bal-masque".

  • La traviata, opera (1853). Letter 3215 to Anton Arensky, 2/14 April 1887, in which Tchaikovsky criticizes the latter's orchestral fantasia Marguerite Gautier:

First of all, the very choice of subject […] It is a pity that for your theme you selected La Dame aux Camélias. When there are Homer, Shakespeare, Gogol, Pushkin, Dante, Tolstoy, Lermontov, etc. to choose from, how can an educated musician pick a work by M. Dumas fils which depicts the adventures of a harlot — which depicts them, it is true, with French deftness and savoir-faire, but essentially in a false, sentimental manner, and not without a fair share of banality. Such a choice was understandable in Verdi's case, as he was looking for a subject that would tickle the nerves of people in an age of decadence in art. But it is incomprehensible in a young, gifted Russian musician, who has received a good education, who is a former student of Rimsky-Korsakov […] and a friend of S. I. Taneyev.

In Tchaikovsky's Diaries

  • Aida, opera (1871) — diary entry for 27 January/8 February 1890, Florence:

After dinner I was at the [Teatro] Pagliano, again I stayed for the first two acts of Aida. […] This time the orchestration of Aida seemed to me horrendously coarse in places. As always, I was fascinated by the opening of the scene between Aida and Amneris" [13].


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Notes and References

  1. Herman Laroche's Foreword to Музыкальные фельетоны и заметки Петра Ильича Чайковского, 1868-1876 (1898); here cited from the German translation in P. Tschaikowsky. Musikalische Essays und Erinnerungen (2000), xxxi.
  2. He was the son of the more well-known impresario Bartolomeo Merelli (1794–1879), whose "financial and artistic sharp practice" also provoked the wrath of Verdi in his time. See The Oxford Dictionary of Opera (1992), p. 281.
  3. Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1980), p. 164.
  4. See also Letter 599 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 9/21 September 1877.
  5. Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1980), p. 144; English translation in Tchaikovsky remembered (1993), p. 162.
  6. Turgenev, I. F. On the Eve (1860), chapter XXXIII.
  7. See Letter 754 to Nadezhda von Meck, 8/20 February 1878.
  8. Diary entry for 6/18 June 1887. See Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 151.
  9. Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1980), p. 164.
  10. Aida was first performed in Russia at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg on 19 November/1 December 1875. Tchaikovsky had arrived in Saint Petersburg on 15/27 January 1876 after spending almost a month abroad and stayed there (mainly to oversee the first performance in Saint Petersburg of his Third Symphony) for almost two weeks, returning to Moscow on 26 January/7 February. Thus, during his stay at Saint Petersburg he clearly attended one of the performances of Aida in the production by the Italian Opera Company, which was then on tour in the Imperial capital and included Désirée Artôt in the cast. It has not been established exactly when this performance took place.
  11. By the time he wrote this very important letter to Sergey Taneyev, Tchaikovsky had completed the orchestration of the first two acts of Yevgeny Onegin and had sent them to Moscow, where he wanted Nikolay Rubinstein to look through them for an eventual production of his opera (or "lyrical scenes", as he preferred to call it) at the Conservatory. However, he was already looking for his next opera subject, and from this and other letters written in the first months of 1878 it is clear that he wanted it to be as far removed from the style of Aida as possible.
  12. The libretto for Verdi's Giovanna d'Arco was written by Temistocle Solera (1815–1878) and based rather loosely on Schiller's tragedy.
  13. See Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 252. Tchaikovsky had attended a performance of Aida at the same theatre on 20 January/1 February 1890 and left at the end of the second act because the conductor, the choruses, and the staging had struck him as provincially mediocre (see letter 4012 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 23 January/4 February 1890). On 4/16 February he went to yet another performance of Aida at the Teatro Pagliano, and this time he did almost stay until the end. It is worth noting that Tchaikovsky had just started working on The Queen of Spades at the time.