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Verdi in Victorian London

Massimo Zicari


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  • 1 See Carl Dalhaus, Grundlagen de Musikgeschichte (Cologne: Musikverlag Hans Gerig, 1977), trans. J. (...)

1By definition, a monograph on the reception history of a given composer will deal less with the musical content of his works than with those conditions that determined their reception in a specific country and over a specific timespan. In fact, the object of reception history does not lie in the artwork as an autonomous and self-contained object, but in the forces that shape its reception, among them those assumptions that underlie the age and country that have been taken into consideration and that define the cultural background.1 This shifts our focus from the artwork itself to that complex network of cultural relations surrounding it.

2Three components are at the heart of this network and its internal processes: the artist, the artwork and the people who receive the artwork. The picture becomes more complex if one looks at what lies behind (or beyond) each of these components. Who is the artist? To what extent can the artist’s intentions be found reflected in or expressed through his artistic product? To what extent can the artist’s ideas be said to mirror the broad cultural context to which he belongs? Can his art-product be considered the genuine expression of his cultural milieu? What is the nature of the art-product? What other functions did (and does) that artwork have, besides the merely aesthetic one? Do we have enough information to formulate a complete and correct idea of the manner in which it was delivered to the audience? Who sat in the audience? Who reviewed the artwork and its performance? What were the ideas, biases, prejudices, likes and dislikes of those in the audience who were called upon to review these works and assess their aesthetic value? To what extent did the opinion of the critics differ from the response of the audience?

  • 2 See Philip Gossett, “Giuseppe Verdi and the Italian Risorgimento,” Proceedings of the American Phil (...)
  • 3 See Mario Lavagetto, Un caso di censura. Il Rigoletto (Milan: Mondadori, 2010).

3In Italy, the figure of Giuseppe Verdi soon assumed an importance that went beyond the intrinsic value of his music. Whether and to what extent his republican ideas influenced his compositional work, and whether and to what extent his music played a role in the process leading to Italian unification are questions still open to discussion.2 The possibility of carrying out any in-depth investigation in this regard is highly problematic, given the severe restrictions political authorities, whether Austrian, Bourbon, or papal, imposed on both the operatic performances and the periodicals that reviewed them. Textual censorship covered all those aspects in a libretto which pertained to the political, moral and religious dimensions; a censor could intervene on a single word, a line, a dialogue in a scene, the name of a character and even the title or the subject matter of an entire opera.3 As we observed with Attila, it is impossible to exclude categorically the possibility that Italian operagoers understood its plot as an allusion to their own struggle against the foreign invader. The same can be said of many other operas belonging to Verdi’s first period, despite the numerous myths that still need to be debunked by historiography. Severe censorship was also exerted on the press, with the consequence that we cannot expect to find hints or references to the possible political function of these operas in the reviews that appeared in nineteenth-century Italy. All these limitations notwithstanding, how should we understand Verdi’s position when considering the events that led to the composition of La battaglia di Legnano? And why did Giuseppe Mazzini ask Verdi to set to music a text by Goffredo Mameli that was intended to become the “Italian Marseillaise”?

4Production and consumption conditions may also represent an issue, especially when dealing with a music genre such as opera, shaped as it is by the interventions of a number of individuals other than the composer. The discussion triggered by Marietta Piccolomini’s portrayal of Violetta represents a case in point since, as we have observed, some critics insisted that her dramatic talent was of pivotal importance in determining the popular success of such an unworthy opera as La traviata. Different production conditions may have contributed to the response to Italian opera in countries other than Italy. In Italy, even though only large and rich cities could count on first-rate singers and international stars for their prestigious operatic establishments, opera was a pervasive phenomenon and almost every town had a theatre where operatic performances could be given on a seasonal basis. These theatres formed circuits frequented by travelling companies that brought both the most recent novelties and the established repertoire to the remotest provinces of the peninsula. Thanks to its ubiquitous presence across the country, in Italy opera is often said to have played the same role that the literary novel played in France or Victorian England. Moreover, every city could present different performing conditions, depending on the political orientation of the local government—which could impose additional cuts or amendments to the libretto for the sake of public morality, social decorum and political stability—the quality of the local orchestra, the entrepreneurial attitude of the impresario and, not least, the financial prosperity of the theatre. Of course, not all these conditions need apply to the cultural milieu of Victorian London, where other forces led to the reception of a music genre which was still considered a frivolous commodity and an exclusive form of entertainment only occasionally approaching the status of true art.

5Finally, an enormous question arises when, in the attempt to reconstruct the reception history of a composer through the countless reviews which appeared in a given country and timespan, one tries to hazard some generalisations. To what extent do these reviews originate from the distinctive personality of single individuals rather than the normative system underlying them? Can we reasonably pursue this task in the hope that the accumulation of data at our disposal will come to form a discernible pattern? Can we strike a balance between the role played by each individual and the commonalities that they all share as members of the same normative system? Shall we ever be able to explain why such a prominent critic as Davison expressed his opinions in the aggressive, often derisory and occasionally offensive manner we have observed? If the fear that foreign musicians might hinder the development of native composers explains, at least in part, Davison’s hostility to figures like Verdi, to what extent does this position stem from the same normative system to which Chorley and many other contemporary critics belonged? Can the characteristics of this normative system be described and analysed by reference, for instance, to its Italian and French equivalents? Furthermore, the opinions expressed by the musical cognoscenti, both in Italy and London, should not be confused with the response of the audience; if the opinion of the first is well documented, the reasons why operagoers continued to attend a given opera despite the castigating verdict of the press can be inferred only from scattered and partial evidence.

6Despite all the possible differences regarding cultural milieu, production conditions, artistic expectations and consumption habits, some of the arguments presented by the English critics when called upon to review Verdi’s works during the second half of the nineteenth century are similar to those made by their Italian colleagues. According to many, Italian opera had developed along a pathway that led from Domenico Cimarosa and Giovanni Paisiello, the founders of bel canto but already shelved in the 1840s, to Gioacchino Rossini and his immediate followers, Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini. Upon his arrival, Verdi was often considered as either the youngest exponent of an uninterrupted tradition that was approaching a new frontier, or the unworthy representative of a new type of lyric drama with which the composer had betrayed the very principle that lay at the heart of Italian bel canto: melodiousness. This betrayal was evident in the manner in which Verdi sacrificed proper singing to tasteless dramatisation. Still in the 1850s those critics, both Italian and English, who attacked the composer insisted that his oversimplified orchestration, his choirs always in unison and his lack of melodiousness signified his limited talent, despite the popular success some of his operas were enjoying at the international level. In general, a clear perception of the significant gap between what it was possible to listen to at the opera before the mid-1840s and the new dramaturgy proposed by Verdi was widely shared among the critics. What divided them was the manner in which they understood the cause of this gap. Whereas all the critics seemed to recognise the symptoms, not everybody agreed on the diagnosis: a complete lack of compositional skills for some, an innovative attitude that sacrificed traditional melodiousness to more dramatic effects for others. However, what strikes the modern reader when it comes to perusing the reviews that appeared in the London press in the 1840s and 1850s is the offensive quality the most adverse and hostile critics often exhibited. As we have seen, some adopted a language that would be considered unacceptable today, full as it was of scornful, derisive and mocking expressions.

  • 4 See Pasquale Trisolini, “Il Trovatore a S. Carlo,” Gazzetta Musicale di Napoli, II/42, October 15, (...)

7In the years to come even the most hostile critics had to put up with Verdi and accept the idea that at least some of his works were worth listening to on occasion. Ernani, Nabucco, La traviata, Rigoletto and Il trovatore had been incorporated in the regular operatic repertoire alongside the old classics. Here again, English and Italian detractors shared some similar arguments. For instance, some of them credited only the interpreters with the success of his operas and continued to criticise the composer on account of his numerous shortcomings.4 However, at some point it became also clear that, whoever was in the cast, operas like Ernani, Nabucco, La traviata, Rigoletto and Il trovatore continued to be successful. Did their succes depend merely on the interpreters, despite the poor quality of the music?

8Morality also represents an issue that many critics raised, whether belonging to Catholic Italy or Anglican England. The subjects of Il trovatore and Rigoletto were often said to be inappropriate to theatrical representation owing to their unabated viciousness; many wondered what the point might have been in putting on stage a hunchback whose daughter was first raped by a nobleman and then murdered by mistake. Similar objections were raised against the libretto of La traviata and critics made repeated reference to Violetta as a revolting Magdalene both in Italy and in London.

  • 5 Henry Sutherland Edwards, Rossini and his School (London: Marston, 1881), p. 109.

9By the 1870s, Verdi had consolidated his reputation and in his later years he came to enjoy the comfortable life we found described in the London periodicals when Otello was reviewed: a landed proprietor and a breeder of horses. In Italy, he had become a symbol of national identity but music critics, whether Italian, English, French or German, still expressed different opinions as to the value of his music. A common issue was the influence Richard Wagner and certain French composers may have exerted on him. Over the years the success of Verdi became unquestionable in London too and, as Henry Sutherland Edwards put it in 1881, in England “for the last twelve or fifteen years it has been considered bad taste not to admire Verdi’s music.”5 With Otello and Falstaff the old composer took everybody by surprise, for no one really believed that, given his age, he could still surpass himself and create two masterpieces.

10When Verdi passed away on 27 January 1901, in Italy his figure had already risen to the status of myth. With his operas, it was immediately remarked, he had given a voice to the feelings of a populace that had long been fighting for national unification. For instance, on 1 February 1901 Il Mondo Artistico published an obituary that suggested his role in the political unrest of the Italian Risorgimento:

  • 6 “Verdi,” Il Mondo Artistico, XXXV/6–7, February 1, 1901, front page.

We can say that with Giuseppe Verdi one part of the Italian soul fades; that which represented the dreams, the impetuses, the glories, the ideals that led to the formation of our fatherland. The Maestro was, with his vocal music, the wonderful interpreter of the yearnings of our national spirit, struggling between the melancholy of a dark present and a fervour of glory that pressed him bravely towards the future.6

  • 7 “Giuseppe Verdi,” Il secolo Illustrato della Domenica (special supplement), XII/576, February 1901, (...)

11We find similar tones in other obituaries published in the Italian press. The image of those martyrs who shed their blood on the altar of national unification is often presented in association with operas like Nabucco, I Lombardi, Ernani, Attila and I vespri siciliani. Their patriotic music was said to have sparked the heroic feelings of countless citizens, despite the useless efforts of the hated oppressors.7

12Of course, this tone was not adopted by the London press when the death of Giuseppe Verdi was communicated. 1901 was a sad year for the United Kingdom; Queen Victoria passed away and, as some periodicals quickly reported, an entire epoch had disappeared with her. Queen Victoria’s death occurred on 22 January, and that of Verdi followed immediately thereafter, on the 27th. As would be expected, the British periodicals were less interested in a foreign composer, however important in his own country, than in their sovereign, a woman whose death represented a turning point in the history of the United Kingdom and the British Empire. However, Verdi’s death provided some of the specialised journals with the opportunity to reflect on him not only as a musician, but also as a man who had distinguished himself for a lifelong career of integrity and uncompromising honesty. A quick look at some of the obituaries that made their appearance soon after the sad news was circulated gives us the opportunity to reflect on the manner in which his figure was now conceptualised retrospectively.

13A viewpoint shared among some of the critics involved a limited knowledge of Verdi’s earlier works and a declared preference for the later ones. The critic of The Spectator, for instance, having called attention to the degree of novelty instigated by Verdi’s early operas, a circumstance that encouraged some of the contemporary commentators to talk about a new school being founded, then mentioned their crude, vehement and coarse-fibred quality. It was not until Aida that Verdi’s compositional development could really reveal the composer’s genius, which was fully manifested only in Otello and Falstaff. A similar position was expressed by the critic of The Times, who, having hinted at the alteration in Verdi’s dramatic method that appeared in Rigoletto, again referred to Aida as the moment when a great change in Verdi’s compositional style had occurred; this would be fully realised only in his later operas: Otello and Falstaff. The same happened with the critic of The Athenaeum, although he expressed himself in slightly different terms. He insisted on the popularity of Verdi’s first operas and suggested that with Aida he had evolved towards a more mature style.

  • 8 “Verdi,” The Athenaeum, February 2, 1901, p. 153.

Verdi had, however, acquired fame and fortune with his Rigoletto (1851), Il Trovatore and La Traviata (both in 1853); and in these works, old fashioned as they may now appear, there was individuality and dramatic instinct, the latter quality manifesting itself particularly in the first of the three. It has truly been said that, “if popularity were a sure test of merit, Verdi would indisputably be the greatest operatic composer of the second half of the last century.” But early popularity augurs badly for lasting success. In 1871 Aida was produced at Cairo, and in this work the composer showed a change of style, one which, as M. Reyer, the French composer and critic, at the time declared, would, if maintained, cause a falling away of some of his partisans, but, on the other hand, would win many to his side. And so it turned out.8

14What these three critics had in common seems to have been a limited knowledge of Verdi’s early operas and a definite preference for the most recent ones, whose unequivocal success they had personally witnessed. This was the opinion expressed by such a sharp observer and commentator as George Bernard Shaw. In an article that appeared in The Anglo-Saxon Review in March 1901, Shaw raised a critical question about his colleagues’ true qualifications when it came to discussing Verdi’s early operas.

  • 9 G. B. Shaw, “A Word more about Verdi” The Anglo-Saxon Rivew, March 1901, in Laurence, Shaw’s Music, (...)

I have read most of the articles on Verdi elicited by his death, and I have blushed for my species. By this I mean the music-critic species; for though I have of late years disused this learned branch I am still entitled to say to my former colleagues Anch’io son critico. And when I find men whom I know otherwise honourable glibly pretending to an intimate acquaintance with Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio, with Un giorno di regno, with La battaglia di Legnano; actually comparing them with Falstaff and Aida, and weighing, with a nicely judicial air, the differences made by the influence of Wagner, well knowing all the time that they know no more of Oberto than they do of the tunes Miriam timbrelled on the shores of the divided Red Sea, I say again that I blush for our profession, and ask them, as an old friend who wishes them well, where they expect to go to after such shamelessly mendacious implication when they die.9

15The picture which Shaw illustrated in such vibrant terms resulted, at least in part, from that generational change we have already discussed; between the 1870s and 1880s a new group of critics substituted for those who had witnessed Verdi’s first appearance in London in the 1840s. Figures like Chorley and Davison, whose antagonistic positions we have examined at length, had long abandoned the profession, while those younger critics who had taken over their positions in the meantime had grown up in a very different musical milieu. While the old generation had attended the first performances of Verdi’s early operas in London and described the manner in which they impinged on the models represented by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, the young generation, having Verdi in the background, was confronted with the overwhelming presence of Richard Wagner. Early Victorian critics conceptualised Verdi’s Ernani, Nabucco or I Lombardi on the basis of direct knowledge, whereas the same cannot be said of those younger journalists who were now retrospectively commenting on Verdi’s long career. Moreover, some of Verdi’s early operas were not revived in London in the second half of the century: while Il trovatore, La traviata and Rigoletto had entered the repertoire and were regularly performed in London, earlier works like Attila, I masnadieri or I due Foscari had been long shelved.

16By the mid-fifties, Verdi’s most successful operas came to be accepted even by those critics who were averse to his early works, thanks partly to Wagner’s controversial positions and threatening figure. In that regard, Verdi the popular composer and Wagner the lofty theoretician were said to hold antagonistic but, to some extent, complementary positions. Gradually, Wagner’s music came to be accepted even though his figure continued to suffer from the pompous attitude exhibited in his writings. Eventually, some of the younger Victorian critics, having familiarised themselves with Wagner’s music and embraced his theories, could not avoid assessing the value of a newly composed opera through the critical lens of Wagner’s doctrines.

  • 10 Ibid., 3: 574.

17It should not surprise us that Shaw argued against the widespread opinion according to which the stylistic gap between works like Ernani and Attila on the one hand, and Aida on the other, depended on the influence of Wagner. Shaw denied Wagner’s influence and insisted that when Aida was first heard in London it made an impression of “Wagnerism” only because nothing later than Lohengrin was then known in the country. On this account, when any recurring theme was erroneously taken for a leitmotiv, any unusual or unprecedented compositional device would be understood as “Wagnerian.” Instead, Shaw argued that the reason why a change had occurred between Il trovatore and Verdi’s later operas lay in the manner in which Verdi’s creative vein had dried up. His initial spontaneity having died out, he was compelled to search for more sophisticated, more distinguished orchestral solutions. Even though Shaw agreed with his colleagues that Verdi had accomplished this process with Otello, he declared the idea that Verdi had been Wagnerised heresy; instead, he suggested that Verdi’s genius consisted in expressing “all the common passions with an impetuosity and an intensity which produced an effect of sublimity.”10

  • 11 “Giuseppe Verdi,” The Musical Times, March 1, 1901, pp. 153–56.

18Finally, a very interesting point was made by Joseph Bennett in the columns of The Musical Times; he portrayed in very honest and straight- forward terms the acrimonious manner in which for many years Verdi’s operas had been attacked and his figure ridiculed by the English press. Bennett was fully appreciative towards Verdi and, in going through the critical positions held by some of his colleagues in the past decades, he insisted that the Italian composer had been repeatedly ill-treated on the basis of many mistaken judgments: “In England, the strenuous, fiery composer, whose music flamed along in such an unmeasured manner, met with strong opposition; in some cases with downright abuse.”11

19Although it was clear that the composer was possessed of “strong dramatic feeling, energy, passion, and exuberant conception,” it could not be denied that he was supremely capable of composing beautiful melodies. Bennett compared him to a locomotive whose power and strength not one critic could either resist or oppose. In concluding his contribution, Bennett acknowledged the value of the composer not only in spite of his first detractors’ many objections but also in defiance of the apparent popular decline some of his operas were experiencing at the time.

  • 12 Ibid.

Writing as above, I have taken no note of the fact that, in England especially, and more or less everywhere, Verdi’s operas have gone out of fashion. That does not touch the question of their work; fashions come and go, and neither their coming is evidence for the temporarily favoured nor their going testimony against the cast off. The higher tribunal—the final court of appeal, where sit as judges the wise and prudent of every nation—that alone decides upon value. To those judges, who are unaffected by mere vogue, the position of Verdi among dramatic composers must be committed. They will say of him, or I am miserably mistaken, that not only was he a sincere and devoted musician, but also that he achieved great things, that every note of passion, every shade of sentiment finds in his works true and natural expression. To say this truthfully of any composer is to crown him with unfading laurels.12

  • 13 See Susan Rutherford, “Remembering—and Forgetting—Verdi. Critical Reception in England in the Early (...)

20Finally, any attempt to summarise the reception history of Verdi’s operas in Victorian London by suggesting an overarching development from initial hostility to widespread, although still hesitant, acceptance may constitute an oversimplification. Despite the apologetic tone adopted by Joseph Bennett and the mild opinion we find expressed in other obituaries, it is difficult for us to determine to what extent in 1901 the initial antagonism to Verdi still remained.13

21In tracing the trajectory of Verdi’s compositional development and in pinpointing the changes in his style, most of the critics still tended to make a distinction between the undeserved popularity of his early operas and the undeniable artistic value of the later achievements (Otello and Falstaff).

  • 14 “Giuseppe Verdi,” The Spectator, February 23, 1901, p. 15.

When one thinks of Traviata and Trovatore, and the barrel-organs of one’s youth, one is tempted to ask whether there is anything quite comparable to this development, this change from being the idol of the mob to the admired of the elect, in the whole history of art,—a change, moreover, that was effected without the aid of a literary propaganda, Verdi Societies, or any of the machinery which contributed so materially to the appreciation of Wagner’s commanding genius.14

22Although nobody could deny Verdi’s prominent position at international level, some critics continued to adopt a condescending tone, implying that popularity had nothing to do with artistic value. A case in point is presented by the article that appeared in The Saturday Review on 2 February 1901, in which the critic, John F. Runciman, still wondered whether it was really possible to find any beauty in Verdi’s melodies and questioned whether his fragile and ephemeral success really meant something, if anything at all, in the end.

  • 15 “Verdi and Italian Opera,” The Saturday Review, February 2, 1901, p. 138.

When a really great man goes abroad from this spinning globe one feels at once the difficulty—nay, the impossibility—of summing up his work for many a year to come. No contemporary of Bach could possibly have foretold the meanings Bach’s music would have for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; that Mozart would be placed amongst the immortals would probably have seemed preposterous even to Mozart’s most fervent admirers in his own day. Even now there are many who love Wagner and his music, and yet doubt whether he will in the future be regarded as one of the commanding figures of the nineteenth century; and on the other hand, there are some of us who are perfectly sure that he will be, and in addition know Wagner to contain much that is past our powers of perception, much that will be seen and felt only in a far later time. Has anyone any doubts whatever about Verdi? Does the content of his music overflow the narrow days in which he lived and worked, and stream far away ahead into the centuries not yet born? Will those centuries find in him anything that overshot us, unperceived by us, any new beauty of melody or thought or emotion unfelt by us, and will the people of that time be able to explain to one another why we missed it as we explain to one another why the eighteenth century could not comprehend Bach? The answer must be decisive: No. One knows intuitively and absolutely that there is nothing in Verdi beyond the understanding of this his time. The very fact of his immediate and constant success helps to prove it: he has given the time just as much as it could grasp with nothing baffling or (as the critics said in turn of Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and Wagner) “obscure” to annoy it. He was not a great creative artist; he was a competent workman and stuck to his job with commendable industry and regularity—not Anthony Trollope was more comically methodical; he knew what the public liked, or perhaps he liked what the public liked, and he gave it to the public, and he had his reward always with promptness. He does not stand amongst the mighty ones; his work, everything he wrote, began to wither from the moment it was first put to paper; and now when he is only dead a few days we can perceive how old-fashioned it is already grown. To set him up as an immortal, to place Falstaff and Otello with Don Giovanni, the Ring or Tristan, is to Verdi himself a very cruel injustice. Such hasty overpraise cannot but bring about an immediate unjust reaction.15

23Neither in his early works nor in the last masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff, could he find a single reason why Verdi’s operas should outlive their composer.


1 See Carl Dalhaus, Grundlagen de Musikgeschichte (Cologne: Musikverlag Hans Gerig, 1977), trans. J. B. Robinson, Foundations of Music History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 150–65.

2 See Philip Gossett, “Giuseppe Verdi and the Italian Risorgimento,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 156/3, September 2012.

3 See Mario Lavagetto, Un caso di censura. Il Rigoletto (Milan: Mondadori, 2010).

4 See Pasquale Trisolini, “Il Trovatore a S. Carlo,” Gazzetta Musicale di Napoli, II/42, October 15, 1853, pp. 333–35, in Marco Capra, Verdi in Prima Pagina, pp. 125–31.

5 Henry Sutherland Edwards, Rossini and his School (London: Marston, 1881), p. 109.

6 “Verdi,” Il Mondo Artistico, XXXV/6–7, February 1, 1901, front page.

7 “Giuseppe Verdi,” Il secolo Illustrato della Domenica (special supplement), XII/576, February 1901, pp. 34–35, 38–39. See also Capra, Verdi in Prima Pagina, pp. 263–76.

8 “Verdi,” The Athenaeum, February 2, 1901, p. 153.

9 G. B. Shaw, “A Word more about Verdi” The Anglo-Saxon Rivew, March 1901, in Laurence, Shaw’s Music, 3: 570.

10 Ibid., 3: 574.

11 “Giuseppe Verdi,” The Musical Times, March 1, 1901, pp. 153–56.

12 Ibid.

13 See Susan Rutherford, “Remembering—and Forgetting—Verdi. Critical Reception in England in the Early Twentieth Century,” in La Critica musicale in Italia nella prima metà del Novecento, ed. Marco Capra and Fiamma Nicolodi (Venice: Marsilio, 2011), p. 263.

14 “Giuseppe Verdi,” The Spectator, February 23, 1901, p. 15.

15 “Verdi and Italian Opera,” The Saturday Review, February 2, 1901, p. 138.

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