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8.557778 - VERDI: Songs
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Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

It may seem odd that Italy’s greatest opera composer should have first come before the Milanese public with a set of salon pieces, but in fact the ‘liriche da camera’ which punctuate his long career would often serve as a forging ground for his treatment of dramatic verse. He was 25 and pursuing the humble calling of municipal music master in Busseto when, doubtless as a result of useful contacts made during his student years at Milan, the firm of Canti brought out his Sei Romanze for voice and piano. Within their modest scope fingerprints of the mature master can already be discerned. The heavily charged harmonies that introduce Non t’accostare all’urna 5 set a mood of high tragedy, while at midpoint the lyrical flow gives way to forceful declamatory gestures and a convulsive urgency as the singer inveighs against his faithless beloved. Simpler and more tranquil, More, Elisa, lo stanco poeta 4 is notable for its almost Bellinian phrase-lengths and its epigrammatic approach to the final cadence of each verse. The melody of In solitaria stanza 2 is encrusted with weary chromatic inflections amid which there surfaces a phrase that will recur at a crucial point of Leonora’s ‘Tacea la notte’ (I1 trovatore). Nell’orror di notte oscura 3 returns to the subject of the jilted lover with a piano accompaniment of, at times, almost Schubertian intimacy, but at the words ‘Maledetta la memoria di colei che lo tradì’ the dramatic claws are once more unsheathed.

Two songs belong to 1839, the year of Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio. L’esule 15, to words by its librettist, opens with a long, pianistic introduction, but soon reveals its true colours as a miniature operatic aria in two contrasted movements linked by a ‘tempo di mezzo’ and preceded by a recitative. The concluding cabaletta ‘Oh, che allor le patrie sponde’ foretells the energetic style of Ernani. In La seduzione 12 a design of plain, lilting melody is worked out so as to reflect every detail of the text, whether by unexpected harmonic shifts or by variety of accentuation.

Chi i bei dì m’adduce ancora 14, a setting in translation of Goethe’s ‘Erster Verlust’ dating from 1842, was clearly an outcome of the triumph of Nabucco, which won Verdi a number of admirers among the Milanese aristocracy. Written for the album of the Marchesa Sophie de Medici, it too is stalked by the ghost of opera with pre-echoes of Azucena’s ‘Giorni poveri vivea’ (Il trovatore) and Alfredo’s ‘Di quell’amor’ (La traviata).

Another set of six romances followed in 1845, often lighter and generally more sophisticated in style than those of 1838. Il tramonto 7, to words by Verdi’s friend Andrea Maffei, has an almost classical regularity of design embellished by a rich-textured piano accompaniment; and, as so often in Verdi’s arias, the main melodic weight falls on the final phrase, a trait developed still further in Ad una stella 8, another Maffei setting, in which Verdi for the first, but by no means the last time foreshortens his melodic period by running the last two lines of a quatrain into a single climactic strain (but for an operatic example we shall have to wait until ‘Parmi veder le lagrime’ from Rigoletto). Nor is the anticipation of Alvaro’s ‘Or muoio tranquillo’ (La forza del destino) likely to go unnoticed. Lo spazzacamino 10 is of course, universally familiar as an encore piece at song recitals, for which it might seem to have been designed. So much more cheerful than Britten’s, Verdi’s Little Sweep can be guaranteed to send the audience away in a good mood. A subtlety of wordpainting marks Il mistero 9, from the ambivalent chord with which it opens to the illustration of Romani’s simile of a lake unruffled on the surface but turbid in its depths (a plagiarism here of a motif from Les Préludes can be safely ruled out, since Liszt’s tone-poem had yet to be composed). The concluding Brindisi exists in two versions: the autograph score 13 brasher and more exuberant, and the published edition 16, narrower in its compass and harmonically more varied.

The year 1847 found Verdi in London for the production of I masnadieri. Among the dependants of Her Majesty’s Theatre was the librettist Manfredo Maggioni (probably not the author of Lo spazzacamino), who supplied him with the poem of Il poveretto 11, a long-breathed essay in musical pathos, which with an altered text (‘Prends pitié de sa jeunesse’) would serve as an insert-aria for Maddalena, in a French performance of Rigoletto at Brussels in 1851 (she is, of course, pleading with her brother to spare the Duke’s life).

In 1868 Verdi’s librettist of long standing, Francesco Maria Plave, was laid low with a stroke. To help his family, Verdi proposed a song-album to which leading composers of the day would be invited to contribute (including Wagner, who, needless to say, would have been horrified at the suggestion). His own offering, entitled Stornello 6 (though Rispetto would be the more technically correct term) takes us straight to the world of Hugo Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch. The faithless beloved is mockingly reminded that infidelity is a game at which two can play. The setting is witty and pointed; while the long, eleven-syllable verse, normally confined with rare exceptions to recitative, will henceforth inspire some of the finest lyrical gems of Aida, Othello and Falstaff. The same metre underlies the Ave Maria 1, published in 1880 but, according to the composer, written several years before, probably as a by-product of his Requiem. The design is an elaboration of the operatic minor-to-major romanza, but one that is wholly devotional in spirit, the singer moving from subdued declamation to broad cantilena. Towards the end the clouds descend once more; and it is left to the piano (originally a string orchestra) to shed the final ray of light. Nothing shows more clearly how even in his smaller compositions Verdi’s invention kept pace with that of his large-scale masterworks.

© 1997 Julian Budden

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