Our book today is Frank Walker’s grand 1962 work The Man Verdi, in which three things happen in quick succession: he discerns that despite the mountain of primary documentation available, Verdi the actual human being (hence his book’s title) usually manages to elude his biographers, he tells us he has set his biography on a slightly different course from all the others in confident expectation of finally capturing that great composer’s essence in words, and then he, like everybody else, fails completely. In Gamito’s 1872 bust, Verdi is looking down – not in shame or in repose, but in an explicit act of evasion which Gamito was perceptive enough to preserve. Many full-dress biographies have appeared since Walker’s (that by Andrew Porter and Jane Phillips-Matz is by far the best, although it lacks the personal, erudite zeal of Walker’s prose), and all of them have likewise failed in biography’s main objective.
It will likely always feel that way, despite a plethora of facts.
Verdi was born in 1813 to poor nearly illiterate parents in Busseto in Romagna, but he was lucky enough to come under the tutelage of Antonio Barezzi, who saw his potential and trained him as best he could. Verdi went to Milan for three years of desperate poverty before returning to Busseto, where he married and had two children, became the local choir master, and settled into what could easily have been a lifetime of provincial obscurity. But during his stay in Milan he had been surrounded by the music of Donizetti and deeply impressed with the theater of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, so even in Busseto he was busily composing operas. The great houses in Milan showed only lukewarm interest in these early works, but the composer persevered and began to garner attention and commissions.
In 1838 his daughter died. In 1839 his son died. In 1840 his wife died. He wrote the expected lamentations in his letters, but he never missed his commission deadlines, and he continued to attract attention – including from the great Donizetti, who recognized a kindred genius in Verdi’s compositions.
Those compositions continued to flow from his pen, and Walker takes us scrupulously through the genesis, completion, and reception of each. The roll call seems positively unearthly (especially when coming from a composer who could make un-ironic reference to his “unimaginable laziness”): L Lombardi, I Due Foscari, Macbeth (like all the Romantics, Verdi worshipped Shakespeare), Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, Simon Bocanegra, The Masked Ball, Otello, Falstaff, Aida … each a thing of such awe-inspiring beauty that it hardly seems possible they were written for money. And yet, as Walker impassively points out, this was the man who could write to a friend, “Who knows that I might not wake up one morning a millionaire! What a lovely word, with a full, lovely meaning! And how empty, in comparison, are words like ‘fame’ ‘glory’ ‘talent’ etc!”
Walker’s long book is a jam-packed compendium of letters, a torrent of them from every single person who touched on Verdi’s life in any way. His second wife Giuseppina wrote stacks and stacks of letters, as did all the various performers, backers, producers, and theater officials with whom Verdi dealt during the decades of his professional life. It’s a herculean amount of work, and Walker does it all with such lively, gossipy energy that the pages fly by. Of course Verdi himself helps with this – like almost every other Romantic composer, he spent far more time writing first-rate letters than he did writing first-rate music (it was the Internet of the day, after all). Walker uses these letters with extremely good care, and their subjects range from the deepest matter of art to the razor-sharp offhand observations the maestro seems to have made as easily as breathing:
We in Italy imagine that the English don’t love music; this is a mistake. It is said that the English know nothing but how to pay for the pleasure of hearing great artists, but that they don’t understand now anything; this is a mistake that the French have spread about and that the Italians have adopted because it’s a French idea. I say that no man pays for things he doesn’t like and which don’t give him pleasure. The English have never hissed a masterpiece. They have never received with indifference a Barber of Seville, as Rome has, or a William Tell, as Paris has, and they have never hissed an Otello, as Naples did on its first appearance.
Care is needed in the handling of any correspondence, but as Walker makes clear, the Verdi correspondence is a minefield of mis-matched dates, faulty attributions, and elaborate forgeries. No previous Verdi scholar writing in English had tackled the mess with anything like Walker’s industry and intelligence, and yet more than once in the book, the man himself questions whether or not the task he’s set himself might not be impossible:
The biographer seeks the truth. How shall he find it?
He is generally working long after the events he is describing. Although he may not be able to remember what he was doing himself on the Tuesday of the previous week, he has to convince his readers that he knows that happened between certain people, say, one hundred years earlier.
(Writing about some early letters Verdi wrote in 1844 to various Milanese ladies, Walker says, “The letters are written on Bath paper, the fashionable stationery of the day, and employ, rather clumsily, the language of gallantry. They offer infinite possibilities of misinterpretation.” The last is a great line that seems to apply to most of Verdi’s correspondence, but the reader of this particular book need have no fear)
When Verdi died in 1901, nearly half a million mourners filled the streets of Milan. The coffin looked as small as a matchbox, floated along its route on a sea of murmuring humanity. It unfolded like a pageant, and it had a pageant’s unreality. The same an be said for this biography, for all biographies of Verdi, and the reason is fairly clear – in fact, it’s a reason shared in common with all Shakespeare biographies, which would have pleased Verdi a great deal: no life of the man can possibly equal the life his works take on inside our hearts. To listen to the glories of Verdi is to wander around inside a vast cathedral of passionate voice, the like of which no other opera composer (not even my beloved Donizetti) can match. Every true opera fan has had a warm summer afternoon in which they were brought to the most cathartic tears of their life by listening to Verdi.
No mere biography can compete with that. Praise to Frank Walker for trying so hard.