26 July 2007

Benjamin Britten on Giuseppe Verdi:

"To analyse a devotion to an art is beyond me, but here are a few observations, which I hope will explain a little why I love the music of Verdi so much.

"The variety and strength of his melodies. Verdi can, of course, write the obvious square tunes, which use many repetitions of the same little phrase and work to an effective climax. These abound in the earlier operas, and are immediately endearing: I think particularly of Parigi o cara in Traviata. But he can also write the long casual lines, a succession of apparently unrelated phrases, which repeated hearings discover to have an enormous tension deep below the surface. The wonderful 'conversational' duet at the end of Act I of Otello is a case in point.

"The perpetual 'unobviousness' of his harmonies. Verdi has the gift, which only the very greatest have had: that of writing a succession of the simplest harmonies in such a way as to sound surprising and yet 'right'. The accompaniment to the Egyptian trumpet tune in Aida is an extreme example of this. Then later in his life he developed a new kind of harmonic originality, which I can most easily describe by reminding the reader of the astounding string accompaniment to the bell strokes in the last scene of Falstaff, and the obscure Ave Maria 'on an enigmatic scale' from the Quattro Pezzi Sacri.

"His attitude to the voices on the stage and the orchestra. This seems to me to be perfectly right. The voices dominate, and the orchestra is in the background -- but what a background! In the later works especially, the orchestra has a range of colours wider than with any other composer. For soft shading, the Nile scene in Aida is inimitable, and no one has ever made the orchestra roar so terrifyingly as at the beginning of Otello.

"In the construction of his later works Verdi seems to have discovered the secret of perfection. At the beginning of his life he accepted the convention of the times in the sharp definition of the numbers, and he balanced these numbers brilliantly. Fundamentally, he never changed this attitude, but later on the numbers melt into each other with a really astonishing subtlety. The fact that the most famous composer alive today [i.e., Stravinsky, in 1951] dismisses Otello and Falstaff 'because they are not written in numbers' shows, it seems to me, that he does not know the works very well.

"And so on. I have no space to write about his vitality, his breadth of humanity, his courage, his extraordinary career which developed into an almost divine serenity. I should like to end with a personal confession. I am an arrogant and an impatient listener; but in the case of a few composers, a very few, when I hear a work I do not like I am convinced it is my own fault. Verdi is one of these composers."

1 comment:

Ear Trumpet said...

This was originally published in Opera 2/3 (February 1951), pp. 113-15; and is reprinted in "Letters from a Life: Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, Volume Three: 1946-51," ed. Donald Mitchell, Philip Reed, and Mervyn Cooke (University of California Press" Berke;ey and Los Angeles, California, 2004).