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Giuseppe Verdi, Nation Builder

October 10, 1813 to January 27, 1901

by Claudio Celani
January 2013

Back to Part I: The Verdi Bicentennial: Giuseppi Verdi — Composer and Statesman

Giuseppe Verdi
Giuseppe Verdi.

This year is the two-hundredth anniversary, the bicentennial, of Giuseppe Verdi's birth. Verdi is not only the most famous Italian composer, but the composer most performed in opera theaters throughout the world. There is no other composer more identified with opera than Verdi.

A composer of "dramas in music," Verdi saw his role as a nation-builder as the Italian people were fighting for liberation from Austrian occupation. Not only were his operas filled with patriotic sentiment, but he actively participated in the Milan political-intellectual circles which organized Italy's Independence War in 1859. As Piedmont statesman Camillo Cavour became the leader of the Italian national movement, Verdi gave up his initial support for British puppet Giuseppe Mazzini and fully endorsed Cavour's plan to unite the country under the leadership of the Piedmont monarch, Victor Emmanuel. Animated by Verdi's operas, Italian patriots invented the acronym "W Verdi" to mean "Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D'Italia."

As the war was won, and the first Italian Parliament convened in Turin, Prime Minister Cavour wanted Verdi to become a member of the Parliament, to give prestige to the new national institution. As Cavour prematurely died (probably poisoned), Verdi watched how corrupt oligarchies took over, and he withdrew from active political life, and began building his nation through his creative activity, reaching the conscience of his nation in the domain of the imagination.

Academic circles first rejected Verdi (he was not accepted at the Milan Conservatory) and later slandered him as a Romantic or even as Wagnerian. In fact, Verdi was a defender of Classicism and an opponent of Wagnerism. When he heard the Lohengrin, he wrote that the music was "mediocre" and "boring." When he heard the Tannhäuser symphony in Russia, he wrote of Wagner in a letter, "he is crazy." Until his death, Verdi had Bach's Well-Tempered Klavier on his piano.  Brahms's circles in Germany recognized Verdi's genius and creative power and invited him to Cologne in 1877.

Giuseppe Verdi
William Shakespeare.

Verdi's preferred dramatists were Shakespeare and Schiller. He composed seven of their dramas: Giovanna d'Arco (Die Jungfrau von Orleans), I Masnadieri (Die Räuber), Luisa Miller (Kabale und Liebe), Don Carlo, and scenes from Wallensteins Lager in Forze del Destino from Schiller; and Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff, from Shakespeare. He tried for many years to compose King Lear, but he never got an adequate libretto. He venerated Shakespeare so much that he called him "Our Father."

In 1881, at the Musicians Congress in Milan, Verdi endorsed lowering and standardizing the tuning pitch to 432 Hertz, corresponding to C=256, which then became Italian law in 1882. The "Verdi tuning" was re-discovered by the Schiller Institute, which launched a campaign for its reintroduction which was endorsed by hundreds of famous singers in the world in the late 1980s.

The official date of the Bicentennial is Verdi's birthdate, Oct. 10, but he and the world deserve that we celebrate him every day of this year 2013!

[1] Va Pensiero Chorus
[2] Duet on Friendship in Don Carlo