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Verdi in Victorian London

Massimo Zicari

8. Il trovatore (1855)

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  • 1 Reginald Nettel, The Orchestra in England, A Social History (London: Cape, 1948), pp. 183–89.

1No sooner had 1855 begun than the critic of The Musical World engaged in a discussion that challenged his readers and called attention to the works and writings of Richard Wagner. Wagner had been recently invited to succeed Michael Costa as conductor at the Philharmonic Society, and his arrival was imminent. All of musical Europe had reacted badly to his Judenthum in der Musik, in which he pronounced the music of Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn a sham; wherever the names of these composers were respected, as a result, Wagner might expect many fierce and vindictive enemies, eager to counterattack. Chorley and Davison, who continued to favour Mendelssohn and value his classical composure, were ready to fight back.1

  • 2 The Musical World, January 20, 1855, p. 41.
  • 3 The first letter, although not dated was written presumably in the early weeks of 1855; the second (...)

2The issue of which conductor would lead the philharmonic concerts resonated in the columns of The Musical World, for already in January rumour had it that a decision was almost ready. Hector Berlioz was taken into consideration, but he had already given his word to Henry Wylde, co-founder of the New Philharmonic Society, to appear as conductor of that Society, a circumstance that would prevent him from appearing as the conductor of competing philharmonic concerts. Then Peter von Lindpaintner was asked, but the King of Wurtemburg refused to give him so protracted a leave of absence; Charles Lucas, William Sterndale Bennett, Robert Schumann, Franz Paul Lachner and Ferdinand Hiller were also considered among the possible candidates, but unsuccessfully. In the end, the name of Richard Wagner was announced, “the musician earnestly bent on upsetting all the accepted forms and canons of art, […] in order the more surely to establish his doctrines that rhythm is superfluous, counterpoint a useless bore, and every musician ancient or modern, himself excepted, either an impostor or a blockhead.”2 On 20 January it was reported that, according to the latest intelligence, one of the directors of the Philharmonic Society had gone to Zürich to engage the composer of Tannhäuser and secure his services for the ensuing season. This information is confirmed in a couple of letters from Wagner to Liszt, both written in January 1855.3 The agreement reached, on 10 February The Musical World took the opportunity to introduce the German composer and conductor to its readers and anticipate the nature of the battle that was to commence.

  • 4 “Reactionary Letters,” The Musical World, February 10, 1855, pp. 88–89.

Now that the period of Richard Wagner’s arrival approaches, it is well for Philharmonic subscribers to make themselves thoroughly acquainted with his art-doctrine, in order that they may easier comprehend his hidden meanings, and appreciate the subtler beauties of his compositions. We shall aid them to the best of our ability, by expounding, on fit occasions, whatever we have the wit to fathom. Our “line,” however, not being interminable, there are likely to be many soundings too deep for us to “make”—like Bottom’s dream, in Shakespeare, so called because it had “no bottom.” In such cases we shall appeal to those, who, having engaged Herr Wagner as Conductor of the Philharmonic Concerts, must be well versed in his philosophy, and steeped by anticipation in the “music of the future.”4

  • 5 Ibid.

3The tone clearly reveals a vein of sarcasm towards those who, having selected the most troublesome of German conductors, were certainly not sufficiently qualified to extricate themselves from the musical- dramatic entanglement presented by Wagner’s theories. The critic begged the directors of the Philharmonic Society to make the composer’s esoteric ideas comprehensible and, should they fail to accomplish such a challenging task, suggested the additional service of Dr Franz Liszt, whose efforts to support Wagner and evangelise the crowds were also ridiculed. At Weimar Liszt, who was said to be anxious to hold the torch “by which the Gospel of St. Richard may be revealed,” was certainly willing “to do for Wagner what Proclus did for Plato, Taylor for Aristotle, and St. Thomas Aquinas for the Immaculate Conception.”5 Wagner the messiah needed apostles to enlighten the uninitiated.

  • 6 Anne Dzamba Sessa, Richard Wagner and the English (London: Associated University Press, 1979), p. 1 (...)
  • 7 The first public performance in England of a Wagner composition appears to have been by the Amateur (...)
  • 8 The Musical World, February 17, 1855, p. 99. Since January 1855 a long series of reflections on Wag (...)
  • 9 The Musical World, March 31, 1855, pp. 177–79.
  • 10 The Musical World, March 24, 1855, pp. 200–301.

4Wagner arrived in London on 4 March 1855 and was to conduct eight concerts on the following days: 12 and 26 March, 16 and 30 April, 14 and 28 May, 11 and 25 June. It is unsurprising, therefore, that at the same time a number of articles made their appearance in the columns of The Musical World, and raised the issue of Wagner’s music and theories.6 Long before either Tannhäuser or Lohengrin could be properly performed and listened to in London,7 the composer was pronounced contemptuous of everybody but himself, devoid of any technical skill and deficient in the treatment of both the orchestra and the voice.8 Despite the acrimonious attitude exhibited by the editor, however, Wagner was not denied space in the columns of The Musical World, and on 24 March his long introductory text to Beethoven’s Choral Symphony was published. The editor referred to this text as “an interesting rhapsody,” by which he did not intend to pay him a compliment.9 A few days later, a review of the second concert of the Philharmonic Society (26 March), which included some select pages from Lohengrin (Prelude, Procession to the Minster, Wedding March and Bridal Chorus), appeared in the journal’s columns and confirmed its scepticism with regard to Wagner’s music. Terms such as mysterious, incoherent, abstruse and tone-defying were pronounced, especially to describe the manner in which Wagner seemed to defy the traditional notions of key and key-relation.10

  • 11 The opinion appeared in The Spectator was also reproduced in The Musical World, April 7, 1855, pp.  (...)
  • 12 The Musical World, April 28, 1855, pp. 268–69.
  • 13 The Musical World, April 7, 1855, pp. 211–12.

5Later reviews of the same concert appeared in the columns of The Musical World, reproducing what other critics had reported. The Spectator pronounced Wagner a conductor capable of holding the orchestra in his hands and realising any desired expressive nuance, in terms of both timing and dynamics. As a dramatic composer, however, the critic declared Wagner different from what he had been led to expect; he was neither obscure nor extravagant, but rather broad and clear, conventional in the treatment of the form and by no means new in melodic invention.11 The critic of The Morning Post shared with his colleague from The Spectator a sense of disappointment, for while the theories presented in Wagner’s Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft were worth the critic’s respectful attention, his music, at least as far as the recently performed selection from Lohengrin was concerned, showed “no marked individuality of style in the score, no epoch-making innovations, such as the very original literary works of the composer had taught us to look for.”12 For his part, and not surprisingly, Chorley was much less lenient towards Wagner, whom he criticised strongly for a good number of shortcomings. To start with, the conductor had allowed himself to “finish up” Mendelssohn’s music and withdraw the ripieni instruments from the solos in his Violin Concerto, Henry Blagrove being the soloist. The instrumentation of his own music was particularly objectionable, for Wagner’s acute fancies of scoring gave more pain than pleasure; his melodic invention was poor and his music commonplace.13

  • 14 The Musical World, May 5, 1855, p. 283.
  • 15 Ibid.

6One week later The Musical World started publishing the libretto of Lohengrin in its columns, to which Oper und Drama, translated expressly for that journal, was added on 19 May, thus providing readers with further and more in-depth access to Wagner’s theories. In the meantime the season at the Royal Italian Opera commenced on 12 April with Rossini’s Le comte Ory (as Il conte Ory). Ernani followed at the end of the month and was repeated three times.14 While not a single word was uttered on the performance of Verdi’s Ernani, the third concert of the Philharmonic Society was carefully reviewed and Wagner’s conducting was pronounced “unsatisfactory, full of fits and starts, not always intelligible, sometimes leading to new effects and good effects, but generally incoherent.”15 The critic disliked the manner in which Wagner invariably took all the second subjects of the symphonic works at a slower pace than the first, and the extent to which crescendi and rallentandi were abused by the conductor at the expense of the general balance. Despite this, the public was enthusiastic and some of the works were even encored. A further note of regret concerning Wagner’s musical art as well as his conducting skills made its appearance in the columns of The Sunday Times, whose critic had taken some time to peruse two songs from Lohengrin and pronounce his verdict.

  • 16 “Two Songs by Richard Wagner,” The Sunday Times, reproduced in The Musical World, May 12, 1855, pp. (...)

We may not have secured the key to this great music-mystery, or we may be in that state of invincible ignorance impolitely termed obstinacy; but, be it as it may, we are, on the evidence before us, forced to adopt one of two conclusions—either Richard Wagner is a desperate charlatan, endowed with wordly skill and vigorous purpose enough to persuade a gaping crowd that the nauseous compound he manufactures has some precious inner virtue, that they must live and ponder yet more ere they perceive; or else he is a self-deceived enthusiast, who thoroughly believes his own apostolic mission, and is too utterly destitute of any perception of musical beauty to recognise the worthlessness of his credentials.16

  • 17 Ibid.

7A detailed analysis of the music in question followed, in which the critic elaborated further on the numerous “stupid and unmeaning oddities” contained in the score. The article concluded with a couple of reflections on the way in which a charlatan composer such as Wagner was harmful to the English nation, in that his music had been imposed on the public so as to mystify them and “still more to divert their attention from the just claims of their artist-countrymen.”17 Speaking of him as a conductor, the critic held that there was little need for him in London, for at least half a dozen Englishmen would have done better: Wagner represented a real threat to the English music. A later review appeared in The Sunday Times and called attention to the extreme liberties Wagner took when conducting Beethoven.

  • 18 The Sunday Times, June 17, 1855, p. 3.

Firstly he takes all quick movements faster than anybody else; secondly he takes all slow movements slower than anybody else; thirdly he prefaces the entry of an important point, or the return of a theme— especially in a slow movement—by an exaggerated ritardando; and fourthly, he reduces the speed of an allegro—say in an overture or the first movement—fully one-third, immediately on the entrance of its cantabile phrases.18

8In the middle of such an animated discussion, Il trovatore premiered on 10 May at Covent Garden, featuring Pauline Viardot as Azucena, Jenny Ney as Leonora, Enrico Tamberlik in the title role and Francesco Graziani as the Conte di Luna. W. H. Beverley took care of the unsurpassed scenery while Michael Costa was the conductor. The performers were all positively received, and particular emphasis was bestowed on Viardot’s rendition of the main character. With regard to the composer, some of the critics did not spare themselves and insisted on the usual repertoire of recriminations and objections while, to our surprise, much milder judgments were pronounced by some of the severest among them.

9The critic of The Musical World assumed an ambivalent position, oscillating between the reiteration of a well-known repertoire of faults and a more positive response, possibly owing to the new challenge, present in the background, of Wagner’s musical and dramatic achievements. After having described the plot as an accumulation of horrors, and mentioned the extent to which the interpreters should be credited with the success of the performance—Graziani the only exception—the critic pronounced a first tentatively positive judgment.

  • 19 The Musical World, May 12, 1855, p. 293.

Signor Verdi so frequently “surpassed himself,” that we looked forward to much more pleasure from the music of Il Trovatore, where he is said to have “surpassed himself” once more. It is apparently written with more care than the majority of his works; the unisons are fewer; and the desire to give a true dramatic interest to the scene is more manifest. On the other hand—which surprised us—the tunes are not so frequent as in his former operas. Much of the music of Il Trovatore, however, has character, is often pleasing, oftener well adapted to the situations, and occasionally in point of freedom and breadth—for example, the air “Ah! Ben mio,” in the third act, so magnificently sung by Sig. Tamberlik—worthy of unqualified praise.19

  • 20 The Musical World, May 19, 1855, p. 313.
  • 21 Ibid., p. 314.

10Even though the work did not match the critic’s expectations, his evocations of fewer unisons, a defined character, a pleasing quality and a freedom and breadth worthy of unqualified praise are unprecedented in the earlier issues of The Musical World. The critic concluded his first review of Il trovatore by promising his readers a more detailed analysis of the music and its performance the following week. On 19 May he fulfilled his promise, elaborated amply on Verdi’s last opera and raised a couple of issues of some relevance. First of all, he denied the transformation in Verdi’s style that had been postulated on the continent; the new opera exhibited the same faults and shortcomings as the earlier ones. Although he was ready to admit that dramatic power was more present in Il trovatore than in any of Verdi’s previous operas, he was equally ready to argue that the composer had not improved, for his music was still characterised by want of refinement, coarseness of style and contempt for pure forms.20 Verdi’s growing popularity was unquestionable and it would be absurd to deny that he was to some extent gifted; however, the basis on which his popularity was founded was still open to debate. Bellini and Donizetti were dead and Rossini had also expired, though only musically speaking. Thus Verdi was simply the only living Italian operatic composer. His compositional work was intended for the mob, those common people who were not capable of critical judgment. Verdi was very good at caressing their uneducated ears and at gaining their most deafening applause; he spoke their language and was able to raise their enthusiasm to such an extent as to consign most of his colleagues to neglect. This was his talent. The critic went so far as to draw a comparison between Verdi and those “mundane speculators of the school ironically termed ‘fast,’ who, incessantly presuming to detect the ‘weak side’ of humanity, are too intellectually blind to distinguish one side from the other.”21 The critic was referring to Richard Wagner, whose contemptuous sneer towards all his colleagues and whose lofty theories about the music of the future made him the natural antagonist to Verdi as a popular composer. The critic concluded his analysis by inviting Verdi and Wagner to join forces and learn from each other; he suggested that Verdi would particularly benefit from listening to Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Seen in the light of Wagner’s challenging theories and quite unpleasant, if not offensive attitudes, Verdi’s way of composing and complying with his estimators’ tastes and orientations was now understood by the critic as talent, something not at all undesirable, even if not entirely satisfactory in terms of pure art.

  • 22 The Times, May 14, 1855, p. 11.

11On 14 May, The Times published a detailed review of Il trovatore focussing on the way in which the composition appeared to be uneven, even though it exhibited some dramatic power; the habitual list of shortcomings was presented but the general result could not be said to be ineffectual. Although the reviews published in The Times and in The Musical World a few days later are marked by strong similarities, such wordings as “nonentity,” “popular composer” and “the longest opera of the composer” appearing in both, they suggest quite different critical attitudes. While The Musical World analysed Verdi’s opera in the light of contemporary conversations concerning the future of dramatic music, the critic of The Times did not make any similar effort to contextualise. The Times pronounced the libretto horrendous, even worse than Rigoletto’s, while acknowledging that the music contained some good moments, despite many mistakes. The canzone “Stride la vampa,” for Azucena, was pronounced “touching and simple” and displaying a “marked character,” while the duet between Azucena and Manrico “Mal reggendo all’aspro assalto” offered many points for praise. Of the opera’s four long acts, the fourth was pronounced the best, thanks to the scene of the “Miserere” and the subsequent remarkable duet between Count di Luna and Leonora. The performance was exceptionally good, the scenery stunning and the interpreters worthy of praise.22 Not a single word was offered on the extent to which this last work might represent a progress in Verdi’s compositional career, nor did the critic try to draw a comparison between Verdi’s unquestionable popularity and Wagner’s dubious success.

  • 23 The Athenaeum, May 12, 1855, p. 539.
  • 24 Ibid.
  • 25 The Athenaeum, May 19, 1855, p. 593.
  • 26 Chorley, Musical Recollections, 2: 219.

12The critic of The Athenaeum pronounced the libretto of Il trovatore “a miscellany of forced, yet familiar, melodramatic combinations, owing such little individuality as it possesses to the gipsy troop, who pass through its labyrinths of crime, sorrow, and mystery.”23 The critic was not particularly happy with a libretto that combined dramatic situations of dubious value and limited interest, most of which borrowed from the most hackneyed contemporary French dramas. However, he did not declare himself entirely unsatisfied with the new opera, for Verdi’s promise to favour truth and nature over meaningless stage-effects had been fulfilled, at least in part. The “Miserere” was pronounced “effective as a concerted piece being musical and melancholy,” while the terzettino “Parlar non vuoi?” appeared “a fair specimen of Signor Verdi’s desire to produce effect by the combination of different emotions in regular musical form.”24 But, the critic continued, “these gleams of purpose and intelligence” remained isolated against a general background of musical trivialities and countless shortcomings, among them the frequent employment of unison in the main voices. The performance itself was judged excellent in all respects. The following week the critic returned to this topic, for increased acquaintance with Il trovatore had put him in a position to elaborate further on both the good and bad points in Verdi’s music. The beginning of the second act, the concerted piece at its close and the entire fourth act were said to comprise Verdi’s best music, while the rest offered the usual mannerism of phrases and that meagreness and brevity of melodic inspirations that were already known in the composer. Verdi’s orchestration showed greater care and delicacy than some of his former operas and in general Il trovatore could be listened to “from time to time without repugnance, and the fourth act with pleasure.”25 This was especially true if the opera was performed as well as at Covent Garden. Even more appreciative comments on Il trovatore can be found in Chorley’s Musical Recollections, in which he calls it “the work among his works in which his best qualities are combined, and in which indications scattered throughout earlier productions present themselves in the form of their most complete fulfilment.”26 Chorley insisted that some pieces were particularly effective, among them the “Miserere,” and bestowed words of unprecedented praise on Verdi’s music, whose personal success as a popular composer was now indisputable in London.

  • 27 Ibid.

The mixture of platitude with rugged invention—the struggle to express passion,—the attempt at effect,—in two important points (the “Miserere” one of these) wholly successful,—have been equalled by Signor Verdi in no subsequent opera;—nor did he before, nor has he since, been so happy in tenderness, in beauty, in melody.—“Il balen” has been the ruling London tune for five years, as undeniably as “Di tanti palpiti” was the tune some forty years ago!—when barrel organs were (and brass bands) as one to ten!27

13The critic of The Spectator expressed himself in terms that sound less harsh when compared to his reviews of Verdi’s earlier operas; however, he insisted on the composer’s weak invention and noisy orchestration.

  • 28 The Spectator, May 12, 1855, p. 11.

In the treatment of this gloomy subject, Verdi has certainly shown greater power than in any of his former works. We find his old addiction to trite phraseology and to noisy and ponderous instrumentation. But we find also melodies of much expression, more solid and satisfactory part-writing, and considerable constructive skill. In this branch of his art he seems to have profited by the works of Meyerbeer; for some of the principal scenes are carried on in concerted music in which the voices of separate groups are combined and blended with that composer’s characteristic art.28

14Even though it cannot be asserted that the number of positive remarks regarding Verdi had increased meaningfully, it can be argued that, by the time Il trovatore was produced in London, some of the critics had softened the aggressive edge of their reviews. Those expressions of repugnance and disgust that had accompanied the first appearance of Verdi’s music in London are no longer to be found. An increased familiarity with his works, some of which were already part of the regular operatic repertoire at Covent Garden, together with a gradual, but still significant transformation in Verdi’s style, however it was defined by contemporary critics, contributed to the improvement of the composer’s image among his traditional detractors. As a result, by 1855 milder tones and more appreciative remarks substituted for the scornful expressions typical of the earlier years.

15This new understanding of Verdi’s music emerges in a review of Il trovatore in The Illustrated London News of 19 May that year. The critic availed himself of the opportunity to share with his readers a reflection on the common destiny to which, generation after generation, all young composers were subject when compared with the so-called classics.

16Each young generation had to stand comparison with the earlier and suffer from the unequal confrontation. The old classics were inevitably cherished at the expense of the newcomers. Moreover, the critic called attention to the extent to which the judgment of the experts differed from that of the general public, as in the case of Verdi. His operas had continued to score undeniable popular success despite the severe reproach of the learned critics and their repeated attempts to sink him.

  • 29 The Illustrated London News, May 19, 1855, pp. 495–96.

Verdi has long been popular as a dramatic composer; and his popularity has been literal—gained by the voice of the multitude on opposition to that of criticism. While writers learned in musical lore have been labouring to prove that Verdi is a shallow pretender, his operas have been giving delight to thousands in every part of Europe.29

17The author compared the manner in which Verdi had been treated by critics to the treatment reserved for all of his predecessors. Rossini had been pronounced a shallow pretender when compared to Mozart, Paisiello or Cimarosa, and the same had happened to Donizetti and Bellini when their operas were set against those of Rossini. Sooner or later all those critics who had described the first appearance of a new composer in terms of musical decadence, defining their works as “the spurious claims of charlatans,” had been proven wrong. The same was happening now with Verdi.

  • 30 Ibid.

18They have resisted the general voice as long as they could; and now that they can do so no longer, they are constrained to allow that there must be something in it. Verdi is now talked of, ex cathedra, with tolerable respect; and his claims to the character of an artist will at length be admitted, as those of his predecessors have been.30

19During the last months of the year further discussion was carried out in some journals, addressing both Wagner’s objectionable theories and Verdi’s popular success. With regard to the first, The Musical World reported in August on an article from The Morning Post in which it was stated that the German composer’s erroneous principles were more harmful to music than his compositions, in the same way that a murderer does less harm to society than the cunning sophist who seeks to justify such a horrendous crime with the blandishment of his words.

  • 31 The Morning Post, reproduced in The Musical Times, August 18, 1855, p. 529.

The most hopeless mediocrity—the most insane rhapsodies, might be passed over in silence, or merely provoke a smile; but the dissemination of false theories, rendered still more seductive and dangerous by the brilliant wit, keen satire, imagination, fervid eloquence, and occasional glimpses of truth which this gentleman’s literary works include, would require a strong hand to oppose them; and still, in the end, that opposition would prove useless, for the downward course once taken, none but a Sisyphus would attempt to arrest it. Herr Wagner is a necessary devil.31

20Wagner was a dangerous man and English musicians were cautioned, for while it was clear that Germany was experiencing that moment of decline that inevitably follows the rise of a great culture, England was still in its musical childhood and should steer clear of such cultural degeneration.

  • 32 The Athenaeum, October 27, 1855, p. 1248.

21On 27 October, a correspondent for The Athenaeum reported from Paris on the recent premiere of Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes. He mentioned a number of oddities in the composer’s instrumentation—for instance the cellos were now substituting for the violins in singing the melody— but acknowledged “a certain style, evidence of purpose and spirit in the music.”32 Although it was stated that the first success scored by Les vêpres siciliennes would not last long, in October the opera, probably also thanks to Sophie Cruvelli’s splendid personation of Hélène, was prospering and still attracting the fashionable Parisian public.


1 Reginald Nettel, The Orchestra in England, A Social History (London: Cape, 1948), pp. 183–89.

2 The Musical World, January 20, 1855, p. 41.

3 The first letter, although not dated was written presumably in the early weeks of 1855; the second was written on 19 January 1855. Francis Hueffer, Half a Century of Music in England, 1837–1887. Essays Towards a History (London: Chapman and Hall, 1889), pp. 43–45.

4 “Reactionary Letters,” The Musical World, February 10, 1855, pp. 88–89.

5 Ibid.

6 Anne Dzamba Sessa, Richard Wagner and the English (London: Associated University Press, 1979), p. 18.

7 The first public performance in England of a Wagner composition appears to have been by the Amateur Musical Society on 10 April 1854, when the March from Tannhäuser was performed. “Wagner’s Music in England,” The Musical Times, September 1, 1906, p. 589.

8 The Musical World, February 17, 1855, p. 99. Since January 1855 a long series of reflections on Wagner’s alleged virtues were published in the columns of The Musical World under the title “Reactionary Letters.”

9 The Musical World, March 31, 1855, pp. 177–79.

10 The Musical World, March 24, 1855, pp. 200–301.

11 The opinion appeared in The Spectator was also reproduced in The Musical World, April 7, 1855, pp. 211–12.

12 The Musical World, April 28, 1855, pp. 268–69.

13 The Musical World, April 7, 1855, pp. 211–12.

14 The Musical World, May 5, 1855, p. 283.

15 Ibid.

16 “Two Songs by Richard Wagner,” The Sunday Times, reproduced in The Musical World, May 12, 1855, pp. 290–91.

17 Ibid.

18 The Sunday Times, June 17, 1855, p. 3.

19 The Musical World, May 12, 1855, p. 293.

20 The Musical World, May 19, 1855, p. 313.

21 Ibid., p. 314.

22 The Times, May 14, 1855, p. 11.

23 The Athenaeum, May 12, 1855, p. 539.

24 Ibid.

25 The Athenaeum, May 19, 1855, p. 593.

26 Chorley, Musical Recollections, 2: 219.

27 Ibid.

28 The Spectator, May 12, 1855, p. 11.

29 The Illustrated London News, May 19, 1855, pp. 495–96.

30 Ibid.

31 The Morning Post, reproduced in The Musical Times, August 18, 1855, p. 529.

32 The Athenaeum, October 27, 1855, p. 1248.


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