There it is. Click on it. Go ahead.
Listening to Verdi, you quickly have to banish words like “simple” from your head, if only because his music reveals that word to be meaningless. Verdi is teaching me that the simplest resource can have the clearest, strongest effect when applied correctly. Think of Iago’s aria in Otello–“Credo in un Dio Crudel”, which begins with an imposing lower register melody in octaves, stomped out in the brass; the tremolo that immediately follows in the strings is one of the creepiest effects I’ve ever heard in music, not because of the effect itself, but of when and how and why he deploys it. It immediately conveys a crawling sensation, as he booms out the words “I believe in a cruel God”. Boom. It’s very unsettling. Another example within Otello is Otello’s entrance, which happens after some tossing and turning on the high seas, narrowly avoiding shipwreck. Well, they land, and he strides down the plank to the dock, immediately…”exul-TAAAAAAAtee” at FFF. Verdi chooses still chords with a clear trombone melody, they move from chord to chord with a crash of percussion, while Otello not so much sings as shouts a powerful melody with a dramatic leap of a minor sixth. The whole thing immediately conveys weight, power, authority, confidence, and victory. Otello is my favorite work of his I’ve listened to so far.
I’m lukewarm on Aida, and indeed conflicted about Verdi in general. He is obviously in complete command of his craft, and off-the-charts brilliant at writing Italian opera. Yet, I sometimes feel like the music relies too much on effects that simply complement and convey what the characters are doing without achieving any great expressive profundity–like wallpaper going with a room. Now, I am aware, that this, more or less is Italian opera, and it’s clear he is a strong master of it. Perhaps my quarrel is with Donizetti and the whole dammed shebang, from Monteverdi onward. Italians have always made the pop music of the European music world; that’s why every composer from Paris to Liverpool wanted to cop some of those delicious effects. But the symptom often persists in instrumental music–listen to Corelli’s trio sonatas and perhaps you will hear, as I did, a not terribly interesting musical product. And then listen to Purcell’s next to Corelli’s. Yes, Purcell’s have lumps, they don’t all work splendidly, but the amount of imagination and technical resources he puts to work just puts Corelli to shame!
My larger feeling towards Verdi is one of reverence. What judgement! What control of proportion and pacing! What technical mastery! What a warm heart. You can hear him, and you can hear the characters–like Mozart. And I am diligently taking note of every little device he is using, like a good little composer, so that I might too let fall the single brushstroke—utterly simple, utterly basic–that conveys the scene and character and unlocks the drama for the listener. If V-I-V-I-V-I-V-I is the clearest way to convey something, what use do we have for the word “simple”?