Music is described as a form of art, which uses sound and silence as media. Some of the most common elements of music include pitch and rhythm.1
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Opera is one of the forms of art, which involves an artist performing a dramatic piece by combining text and musical elements.2 Opera is part and parcel of the western tradition, which includes classical music from Italy.
Francesco Verdi was a romantic Italian opera composer. He is one of the most influential romantic composers of the 19th century. His works dominate the opera industry centuries after they were produced.3
In this essay, the development of Verdi’s opera will be traced through his three periods. An analysis of what changed in the three periods, as well as what remained the same, will be provided.
Giuseppe Fortunino Francessco Verdi was born on 27th January, 1813,4 in the French empire. Together with his family, he moved to Busseto, where he began building his career in music.5
He used to visit libraries in the local school, as well as opera and concerts. At the age of twenty, he moved to Milan for further studies. He later returned to Busseto where he became a music teacher.
At the time, he already had vast experience in the composition and performance of operas.6 One of his most ardent supporters was Antonio Barezzi, who allowed Verdi to hold his first public performance at his home.
The first public performance took place in 1830,7 when Verdi was barely seventeen years old.
Verdi wrote his first opera, Orberto, when he was twenty eight. His first composition was released in 1841. The love he had for his family inspired his music. However, he lost this beloved family at a very tender age.
His two children died at a very young age, and shortly afterwards, his wife succumbed to encephalitis. The tragic turn of events was a big blow to Verdi and his musical career. He was depressed as a result of the tragedy.
Verdi neglected his passion for several months. However, he came back to life and composed a comic opera titled ‘King for a day’.8
Sadly, the comic was not well received by the public. The lacklustre performance of this piece aggravated Verdi’s situation.9
For a period of several months, Verdi neglected his writing. He was jolted back to reality when he came across a play, which motivated him to compose what Koestenbaum refers to as ‘musical score’.10
The venture, which was titled ‘Nabuco’, turned out as one of his greatest compositions. Critics hailed the piece as a success, which encouraged Verdi to continue writing operas.
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The musical score was well received when it was performed for the first time.11 Some of Verdi’s compositions, which have received widespread support from members of the public, include Attila, Ernani, and Macbeth.12
Throughout his career in music, Verdi was constantly forced to change his writing style to meet the emerging demands and changes in the society. At the start of his career in the mid 19th century, the demand for romantic music was high.
In the period just after 1850, the situation changed and the demand shifted to drama. People viewed dramatic operas as morally right compared to romantic operas. The music industry underwent further evolution in the early 1970s with the increasing demand for comic operas.
To address these changes, Verdi had to adjust his writing style. The development of his compositional writing is divided into three periods. The periods are initial recognition era, the great master Era, and the twilight era.
The periods incorporate different compositional styles and techniques, which are strongly linked to the changes in the society and the changes that occurred in Verdi’s personal life and growth.
The initial recognition era spanned from 1838 to 1851, when Verdi had just started his career in opera music. The exemplary performance of his first opera, Oberto, marked the beginning of his musical career.
The performance earned him three contracts, which he worked on for the next two years. The first composition was a comic opera titled ‘Un Giorno di Regno’. It performed poorly and failed to attract enough support from the public.13
The composition took place during a romantic era, which made many people view comic opera as out of place. Depression arising from the death of his wife and children is blamed for the poor quality of this composition.
At this point, Verdi vowed to quit music as a career. It took a lot of persuasion from Merelli to bring him back to the industry.
Verdi had to stick to romantic operas during that period for him to remain relevant in the music industry. The following decade saw Verdi compose a number of operas that did fairly well in the music world. The decade is described as the composer’s galley years.14
The Great Master Era spanned from 1851 to 1871. During this period, Verdi was already doing well in his career as an opera writer. The beginning of this era is traced back to Verdi’s affair with Gieseppina Strepponi.15
Many regarded the couple’s marriage as scandalous. Unlike other operas composed in his initial recognition era, Rigoletto, one of his operas during the period, was accompanied by a music band.
Verdi composed two main pieces in this era. He continued to produce high quality pieces in the period spanning from 1855 to 1867. There were no major interruptions in his career during this period.16 During this period, there was a high demand for drama in the society.
Verdi’s music was not spared by this demand. Macbeth, one of his compositions during this period, is considered as one of his most important and original early works.
It was an adaptation of a play composed by his favourite dramatist, Shakespeare. Lack of a romantic story behind the opera serves as an evidence of Verdi’s shift from romantic writing to dramatic writing.
La traviata, another of Verdi’s operas during the period, is also dramatic. The title itself means ‘the fallen woman’ or ‘the woman who goes astray’. It is based on the life of Violetta, who has just recovered from an illness, and her encounters with her two suitors.
Another opera by Verdi during the period is Rigoletto. Rigoletto revolves around Duke, Rigoletto and the curse that was placed on them. Rigoletto encourages Duke to seduce his daughter. At the end, she is opposed to the whole idea.17
His compositions during this period involved the use of drama. On the contrary, the previous era was characterised by romantic operas. Aida is one of the most popular pieces written in this era.
The opera was performed during the grand opening of the Suez Canal in Cairo, Egypt. It was an instant hit, which marked the climax of Verdi’s Great Master Era.18
The twilight era spanned between 1872 and 1893. During this time, Verdi spent most of his time revising some of the scores written in the past.
For instance, he created new versions of such operas as ‘Don Carlos’, ‘La Forza del destino’, and ‘Simon Boccanegra’. Verdi’s last opera was ‘Falstall’, which was based on ‘The Merry Wife of Windsor’, another comic play by Shakespeare.19
The opera enjoyed unprecedented international success. It was translated to English by Victor Hugo. Humour in the opera serves as an evidence of Verdi’s shift from dramatic to comic writing.
As already indicated in this essay, various changes took place in Verdi’s writing career.20 During his first era, Verdi was more of a romantic than a comic writer. The period was referred to as the romantic era. The romance is evident in most of his compositions.
One of them is ‘Oberto’. In this opera, one of the characters, Riccardo, arrives at the palace and begins to sing, “Here I am amongst you! The day hasted by my desire has now arrived”. The phrase is romantic given that Riccardo is attempting to express his love for Leonora.
The voice used in the opera ranges from bass, soprano, mezzo-soprano and tenor. The three types of voices, which are provided by characters, are used to create rhythm in the opera.
During the first era, Verdi’s family served as a source of inspiration.21 For instance, his wife’s passion for music largely contributed to his success. The death of his son, daughter, and wife was a big blow to his career in music composition.
He emerged from the resulting depression as a dramatist, with most of his works devoid of love stories.22 The changes in the first era are largely attributed to the depression brought about by the sudden loss of his entire family and the various changes in the world of music.
During his second era, Verdi concentrated on drama. In the opera ‘Macbeth’, one of the characters, Macbeth, is quoted as saying, “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” The phrase is dramatic given that it portrays Macbeth’s hunger for power.
Verdi used various types of voices to create melody and rhythm in this opera. The voices include baritone, soprano, bass, tenor, mezzo-soprano, as well as silence. Verdi composed several plays during this period.
His shift from a romantic writer to a play writer was attributed to the fact that dramatic opera had become morally acceptable, which was not the case in the romantic era. One of the most popular operas composed in this era was ‘Rigoletto’.
During the third era, Verdi started writing comics.23 The shift from a play writer to a comic writer is largely attributed to socio-economic changes in the music industry.
In the opera ‘Falstaff’, Falstaff tells his servants, “Honour! You rogues, honour is intangible and cannot be either eaten or felt, such as hair being pulled or being saved from death by honour!”
The phrase is comical given that Falstaff rebukes the servants after they refuse to deliver a letter to his married mistresses, claiming they are honourable.
In this opera, various voices were used to create melody and rhythm. They include baritone, soprano, mezzo-soprano, contralto, tenor, bass, and silence.
Several aspects of Verdi’s writing remained the same throughout his three periods. One of the most notable constants in Verdi’s works is that he remained an opera writer throughout his career as a musician.24
In spite of changing the quality of his compositions, and in spite of shifting from a romantic writer to a dramatic writer (and later to a comic writer), Verdi only produced operas.25
Examples of Verdi’s operas spread over the three eras include ‘Oberto’, ‘Macbeth’, and Falstaff. In all the operas, Verdi avoided applying the high C note, which he claimed distracted him. In addition, he always took advantage of his gift in melody to make musical impressions.
In conclusion, it is important to note that just like any other facet of human society, music has undergone changes. What this means is that many changes have taken place in the music industry.
Musical evolution is significantly influenced by artists trying to improve their skills and expertise in the field.26 Verdi, a renowned opera musician, was not spared from such changes. He was constantly forced to change his writing style.
Changes among the audience forced the artist to modify his style to meet the new demands during his career, which is divided into three distinct eras. The three eras are initial recognition era, the great master era, and the twilight era.27
The three eras saw Verdi change his style from that of a romantic writer, to a dramatic writer and later, to a comic writer. However, certain aspects of Verdi’s music remained constant throughout the three eras. The quality of his work explains his fame in the music industry to date.28
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1James Budden, The Operas of Verdi, Volume II (United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2004), 34.
2 Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire (London: Penguin, 2004), 67.
3 Bill Ashcroft, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-colonial Literatures (London: Routledge, 2009), 22.
4 Koestenbaum, The Queen’s Throat, 68.
5 John Dizikes, Opera in America: A Cultural History (London: Yale University Press, 2003), 23.
6 Noel O’Regan, “Asprilio Pacelli, Ludovico da Viadana and the Origins of the Roman Concerto Ecclesiastico,” Seventeenth-Century Music, 2012.
7 Paul Robinson, Is Aida an Orientalist Opera? In Opera, Sex and Other Vital Matters, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 48.
8 Budden, The Operas of Verdi, Volume II, 56.
9 Lynn Hunt, The Making of the West (Bedford: St. Martin’s, 2009), 46.
10 Koestenbaum, The Queen’s Throat, 67.
11 Richard Kamien, Music: An Appreciation Student Brief (New York: McGraw Hill, 2007), 267.
12 Peter Kinny, “Opera Music over the Years,” Ancient Music, 2012.
13 Gabriele Erasmi, Ed Aida: Momenti Estremi Della Concezione Romantica (Studi Verdiani: Petrobelli, 2004), 1.
14 Franz Werfel, The Man and His Letters (New York: Vienna House, 2003), 78.
15 Budden, The Operas of Verdi, Volume II, 78.
16 Phillip Matz, Verdi: A Biography (London: Oxford University Press, 2003), 29.
17 Roger Parker, Giuseppe Verdi (London: Oxford University Press, 2001), 26.
18 John Budden, The Operas of Verdi (London: Oxford University Press, 2003), 34.
19 Gilles DeVan, Verdi’s Theatre: Creating Drama through Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 56.
20Charles Rosen, The Romantic Generation (Carrftridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005), 45.
21 James Budden, The Operas of Verdi, Volume III (United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2005), 78.
22 James Budden, The Operas of Verdi, Volume I (United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2003), 54.
23 Milton Brener, The Forgotten Man In Opera Offstage: Passion and Politics Behind the Great Operas (London: Robson Books, 2003), 45.
24 Robinson, Is Aida an Orientalist Opera, 46.
25 Christopher Small, Music, Society, Education (London: John Calder Publishers, 2007), 34.
26 Dane Harwood, “Universals in Music: A Perspective from Cognitive Psychology,” Ethnomusicology 20, no. 4 (2006): 530.
27 Brener, The Forgotten Man In Opera Offstage, 45.
28 Robinson, Is Aida an Orientalist Opera, 47.