The Italians have a word for the sense of dazzling beauty produced by effortless mastery: “sprezzatura.” Perhaps no cultural form associated with Italy is as steeped in the love of sprezzatura as opera, a genre the Italians invented. And no artist working in opera has embodied the ideal of sprezzatura as magnificently as that gruff, self-described “farmer” from the Po Valley and composer of 28 operas, Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901).
Opera’s Best-Loved Composer
Verdi is still the most popular composer in the 400-year-old history of opera. His operas are produced more than any other composer’s, and one (admittedly unverifiable) source claims that his La traviata (1853) has been staged live somewhere around the world every evening for the past 100 years.
What are the treasures of creativity that account for this popularity? With Professor Robert Greenberg, you unpack them in depth and detail in this 32-lecture series.
You explore both famous and not-so-famous Verdi operas, as well as his Requiem Mass of 1874, his one great concert work; his early songs; and his very last composition, the Stabat Mater.
You trace his development from a more or less conventional composer of operas in the traditional Italian bel canto (“beautifully sung”) style to a creator of truly innovative musical dramas in which the power of music to intensify and explore human emotion is exploited to the fullest degree.
“Verdi was a great dramatist and a great melodist at the same time, whose artistic evolution never ceased across the 50-year span of his career,” says Professor Greenberg.
Enjoy a Mix of Biography and Musical Excerpts
The course structure is chronological, allowing you to follow easily the developing patterns in Verdi’s work. Combining biography with a variety of musical excerpts, Professor Greenberg presents a memorable mixture of “sights to see and things to think about along the way.”
To give a few examples:
- Entertaining anecdotes, including how Verdi first realized Nabucco was a hit, or his response to a dissatisfied operagoer who asked him for a ticket refund—he saw Aida twice and did not like it either time
- Enlightening musical analyses, such as Professor Greenberg’s line-by-line examination of the breathtaking “quartet” sequence in Act III of Rigoletto—a musical achievement on a par with Mozart at the top of his operatic game, and an exploration of the massive, 38-minute “Dies irae” movement of the Requiem
- The story behind how Verdi became a larger-than-life, iconic hero of Italian nationalism
- An explanation of how Verdi worked out his complex creations in dealings with everyone from amazingly gifted librettists (such as Arrigo Boito) to maddening censors
- Descriptions of key personal associations with lovers and spouses to business partners and politicians.
A Brief Biography
You trace Verdi’s long life beginning at his birth in 1813 in the small village of Le Roncole in French-dominated northern Italy (then the Duchy of Parma), where his parents kept a tavern frequented by itinerant musicians.
Verdi’s parents sent him to the nearby town of Busseto to study music with Ferdinando Provesi, a cofounder of the Busseto Philharmonic Society. Verdi learned the art of composition by writing hundreds of pieces, which were then performed by the Busseto Orchestra.
The other cofounder, Antonio Barezzi, took the young Verdi under his wing and later financed his compositional studies under Vincenzo Lavigna in Milan, after the Milan Conservatory had rejected his application on the grounds that he was too old and showed little musical promise.
In 1836, Verdi became master of music of the city of Busseto. His first opera, Oberto, was performed at the famous La Scala Opera House in Milan in 1839.
His next opera, Un giorno di regno (King for a Day), was a total flop, and Verdi never forgot the humiliation. From then on, he never had any regard for public opinion, good or bad.
Verdi’s first masterpiece was Macbeth, premiered in 1847. This opera marked a watershed in Verdi’s compositional development. In it, we begin to see Verdi depart from the traditional Italian bel canto opera, which focused on melodic and vocal beauty, often at the expense of dramatic integrity.
In the 1860s, Verdi began to slow down his prodigious output of operas. Between 1839 and 1859, he had composed 23 operas; between 1862 and 1893, he composed five operas and the Requiem.
When Verdi died in January 1901, 200,000 mourners came to see off to eternity the man who had, by the time of his death, become united Italy’s most famous citizen.
The Primacy of Opera
A premise of the course—laid out by Professor Greenberg in his first lecture—is that opera cannot be understood as just one more musical genre among others in Western history.
On the contrary, states Dr. Greenberg, opera, Verdi’s medium par excellence, is primary and central; the most important musical invention of the last half-millennium.
Opera was born out of the Italian Renaissance desire to recover and reproduce the dramatic art of the “ancients” by setting entire stage plays to music. What the Renaissance called “works in music” or opera in musica, we have shortened to simply “opera.” As a genre, opera made the voice and feelings of the individual central to art as never before.
The implication of opera’s primal and central character, argues Professor Greenberg, could not be clearer: If you want to understand classical (or more properly concert) music, you must understand opera.
Each lecture contains one or more musical excerpts, personally chosen by Professor Greenberg to provide you with vivid, concise illustrations of Verdi’s artistry. The musical interludes average about 12 minutes per 45-minute lecture. The dates below indicate the year of the premiere.
Works you’ll hear in the lectures are excerpted from:
Sei romanze (Six Romances), nos. 1 and 3, 1838
Un giorno di regno, 1840
I Lombardi, 1843
I due foscari, 1844
I masnadieri, 1847
Luisa Miller, 1849
Il trovatore, 1853
La traviata, 1853
Les Vêpres siciliennes, 1855
Un ballo in maschera, 1859
La forza del destino, 1862
Don Carlo, 1867
Requiem Mass, 1874
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