During the week in which the classical music world marks the 200th birthday of Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, here are some tidbits of Verdi trivia from your friends at Classical MPR:
Verdi appreciated the traditional cuisine of the Parma region where he was born. Here's a letter of his, describing the right way to cook "spalla," or cured pork shoulder maybe what we'd call a picnic ham:
"Together with this letter, you will receive a package by train which contains two San Secondo pork shoulders, one for you and for the entire Ricordi family, Pick the one you like and remember these instructions:
First, put it in lukewarm water for two hours to get rid of the salt.
Then, put it in cold water and start heating it up slowly for three hours-and-a-half or four depending on how large it is. To check if it's done, use a toothpick to make a hole. If it's easy to make, it means it's cooked.
Last, let it sit in its own broth, then serve it.
Be careful when it's cooking to not let it get either too soft or too hard. "
Verdi's best "bad" review:
Just as Verdi was finishing up his opera, Il Trovatore, a famous critic stopped by. Verdi sat at the piano and played some of the music for him.
"What do you think?" Verdi asked.
"That's terrible," the critic replied
"Well, what about this?" Verdi asked as he played another excerpt.
"That's even worse!" came the response.
"All right, just one more..." At which point Verdi played the now-famous "Anvil Chorus."
"Oh, my goodness! Absolutely horrible!" the critic cried as he covered his ears.
Verdi was quite pleased. He got up from the piano and thanked the critic, saying ,"I've been writing an opera for the common people of Italy. If you hate it, that means the whole world will love it!"
Verdi was right!
By the time he was 57 years old, Verdi was so popular throughout the world that fans could address a letter to, "Maestro Verdi, Italy," and it would be delivered to him.
About that same time, the king of Egypt commissioned a new opera from Verdi. It became Aida, Verdi's most beloved opera ever. It was filled with memorable, passionate melodies, and was a captivating spectacle featuring full orchestra, solo singers, a huge choir, ballet, an elaborate set, and, in some cases, elephants! Aida is the most frequently performed opera today; this season there are 23 performances scheduled in places from Houston to Paris to Naples to Munich.
There were various attempts to bestow a royal position upon Verdi as he became more famous. Verdi, however, remained simple; he wanted to be a common man. "Musician I was born, and musician I remain," he said.
Not sure if this is too "inside baseball," but I still remember being absolutely riveted by La Traviata the first time I saw it the partying, the impossible situation, the tragedy . . . and I was even able to hum a few tunes afterwards, which made me feel SO musically gifted. Later when I actually played the opera, I was a bit shocked. The music is so straightforward, repetitive and easy that for me as a professional player, it was kind of boring. And then I realized, "Aha! That's where Verdi's genius lies!" not in boring musicians to tears, but in telling a story through music so skillfully we feel taken over by it and pretty smart because those tunes almost like a good jingle are catchy. I still love hearing Verdi. My fave of all is "Addio del passato..." from La Traviata, especially that she reads the letter, then sings...AH!!!!
Maybe the best April Fool's joke ever?
"Prepare for the surprise of your life." I imagine that's what Giuseppe Verdi was thinking when he sent out an invitation to his friends on April 1, 1873 and I imagine the invite said something along the lines of, "Come and hear some new music, dear friends...But be prepared for something...different."
When these friends made it to a hotel ballroom they did not, as they expected, see a soprano and a tenor wearing costumes and singing arias; instead, they saw four chairs and four music stands.
It was maybe the best April Fool's Joke ever but it wasn't a joke. Verdi spent some unexpected free time writing his one and only string quartet.
There are lots of great recordings of this piece. A fairly recent one is by Quartetto di Cremona on their album Italian Journey (Klanglogo 1400).
This story circulated around the students at the school I attended. There's no reason to think of it as apocryphal.
A musicologist who specialized in Wagner was giving a lecture comparing the way two of the most famous opera composers of the 19th century treated the orchestra. He went on and on about the glories of Wagner's use of the full orchestra as a complete palette of color and sounds that was fully integrated into the framework of each opera. And almost as an afterthought he said "...and Verdi, well, he treated the orchestra like a big guitar." From out of the back of the room an anonymous student shouted out, "but what a guitar!!"
And so it is. Don't mess with Verdi.
One of my aunts always used to say, "When God closes a door, he opens a window." Just another way of saying that even the darkest cloud has a silver lining. In the case of Giuseppe Verdi, the cloud was a postponement of rehearsals for the Naples premieres of Don Carlos and Aida. His soprano was sick. What are ya gonna do? So Verdi was at loose ends for a couple of weeks, bored bored bored. And so he started noodling around with a string quartet ... which would turn out to be his one and only purely instrumental work.
Giuseppe Verdi thought the greatest book ever written was Alessadro Manzoni's I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed). Sure, Dante wrote a nifty guidebook to the Infernal regions, and Shakespeare managed a catchy line or two, but Manzoni was Verdi's literary idol. He discovered I Promessi Sposi at age 16 and was intoxicated by it ever after.
The book was an Italian classic, written when Italy wasn't run by Italians, but by a series of occupiers du jour. And it had everything: comedy, tragedy, an innocent couple in love but forced apart, a beastly aristocrat doing the damage, a repentant villain, and a saintly real-life archbishop whose wisdom and patience help bring about the proper rewards and punishments.
When Manzoni died in 1873, Verdi decided this essential man of Italian letters required a deathless memorial. And so Verdi composed, for Alessandro Manzoni, his theatrical blockbuster doubling as a mass for the dead, the Requiem.