KPAC Blog
5:01 pm
Fri October 11, 2013

Why Verdi?

My first exposure to the music of Guiseppe Verdi came in high school. Fred Junkin, the director of the Victoria High School Band, chose Verdi's "Overture to La Forza del Destino" for one of our contest pieces. The drama of the piece stuck with me, such that as a professional musician and devoted listener to classical music, my heart still responds to Verdi's restless score. Like many other fans of great music, I went on to know other of Verdi's essential operas, especially "Aida," "La Traviata," "Il Trovatore," (and the list goes on) through repeated exposure, both as a performer and a listener. Unfortunately, after a while one might be inclined to resign, to shout "basta!" This is too much Verdi! Stop!

But then we hear "Va, pensiero," the Hebrew slave chorus from "Nabucco" and, what else, we stop and listen. It is great music. If anything, maybe Verdi is too much of a good thing. But try telling that to him. Even the famous Verdi operas were not unanimously praised on first hearing, and for every hit Verdi had numerous failures. Giuseppe Verdi was human, just like us, yet his spirit drove him ever upward. Perhaps this is why we remember him on this 200th anniversary of his birth. Giuseppe Verdi was born October 10, 1813, in Le Rincole, Italy.

Verdi's first two operas have been largely forgotten. In fact, the double blow of the death of his wife and the failure of his second opera, in 1840, was almost more than Verdi could bear. He withdrew and vowed never to compose again. Fortunately, he was persuaded to continue work on his third opera, "Nabucco" and the rest, as they say, is history. The famous slave chorus from "Nabucco" was one of the most frequently requested works on KPAC's long-running Listeners' Choice.

Like many other masterworks in classical music, much of Verdi's music suffers from overexposure. This is not a criticism, for our opera houses are right to include Verdi's top works in a regular rotation. But it does mean that even the most devoted listeners have to take a break now and then. Who hasn't "had enough" of the "Triumphal March" from "Aida" at least a few times in a lifetime of listening? Yet, when I caught a rebroadcast of Met's most recent "Aida" on KLRN, just a few months ago, I couldn't turn away. There is nothing quite like great music, in a great performance, to remind us of the durability of classical music.

Riccardo Muti, conducting Verdi Requiem
Credit Chicago Symphony Orchestra

I had a similar experience last night as I tuned in to the live stream of the Chicago Symphony's performance of Verdi's "Requiem," conducted by Riccardo Muti. What a treat! And you can still listen to the performance online, by going here. Although the "Requiem" is not as overexposed as "Traviata" or "Aida," it is nevertheless, for me, one of those works from which I need an ocassional break. As a professional musician, I have performed the "Requiem" numerous times, a few times muttering "no mas" at the final bar. But last night, even though the music is so familiar to me that I can sing along with even the most complex choral fugues, I watched and listened with rapt attention, heart AND mind firmly 

CSO Principal Percussionist Cynthia Yeh with the dramatic blows to the bass drum in Verdi's Requiem
Credit Chicago Symphony Orchestra

engaged. And even though I knew the high musical and visual drama of the "Dies Irae" my heart pumped and a shiver ran down my spine on hearing the dramatic pounding of the bass drum (in this case, the female percussionist striking two drums at once!). I commented online that if that moment doesn't thrill, then perhaps you are dead.

The title to this modest argument is "Why Verdi?" Why IS this birthday so important? The answer is not only in the music, but also in the life of Verdi. He went from despair to supreme success not once, but several times during his life. We can all relate to that, just as we relate to the dramatic sweep of "La Forza del Destino" or perhaps shed a tear over "Va, pensiero." It was, in fact, this Hebrew slave chorus, from "Nabucco" which prompted applause from stage workers at La Scala as it was rehearsed for the first time and then provided the sound track to Verdi's public funeral, in 1901. This is why we remember Verdi, and why we should: the drama and humanity of his musical ambition, so often realized to perfection.