Verdi and Wagner


Giuseppe Verdi

Is it early to be talking about the 2013 bicentennial of Giuseppe Verdi & Richard Wagner? Not when papers to be presented at conferences next year are already being proposed.

Both composers were born in 1813.

Let’s get to the most provocative –and superficial—question right away.   Between Richard Wagner & Giuseppe Verdi, who is more important?

Each composer was involved with politics.  Verdi? his influence is remembered mostly with nostalgia, part of the mythology of Italian unification.

Wagner’s politics were riskier, considering his lengthy period of exile.

If it’s simply a popularity contest –answering the question of which composer is performed more often—I think it’s a slam-dunk for Italian Giuseppe Verdi.  According to the most recent list of operas ranked by popularity Verdi was among the most popular, whereas Wagner was not.  An older version from about a decade ago cited four operas in the top 20 from each of Verdi (La Traviata, Il Trovatore—to be presented by the Canadian Opera Company next season—Rigoletto and Aida), Puccini (La boheme, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, and Turandot) and Mozart (The Magic Flute, Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte).

Why would popularity matter?  In the cinematic world critics have heaped contempt upon films whose only claim to importance is their box office success.  Avatar was ignored at Oscar time.  Why would popularity matter?  Perhaps because it’s an objective yardstick in a realm otherwise dominated by subjective speculation.  Critics have largely persuaded us that commercial success is a kind of liability, perhaps because that would mean the task of identifying quality does not require a PhD or esoteric knowledge.  If popularity matters, then critics would have a difficult time justifying their roles as arbiters of taste.

Perhaps that’s one reason why most academics would be more likely to observe the bicentennial of Wagner rather than Verdi.  Why?  I suppose I could take a poll (ha: speaking of popularity).

Wagner’s impact isn’t limited to opera.  But even if we were only speaking of opera, I wonder if it would change your perspective if we consider that the two most popular composers of the first half of the 20th century were profoundly influenced by Wagner.

The first is likely someone you’d anticipate, namely Richard Strauss.  The Wagnerian influence is most obvious in early operas such as Elektra and Salome (to be presented next season by the Canadian Opera Company), each ending with something resembling a Liebestod.

The second?  Giacomo Puccini.  While Boheme employs recurring tunes that don’t really change much throughout the opera, Butterfly, Tosca and Turandot are more Wagnerian.

And that’s just the beginning:


Richard Wagner

  • If you’re a drama scholar you’re reading Wagner’s theories, particularly if you care about opera.
  • If you’re a film music scholar Wagner is one of the important influences, while Verdi is almost irrelevant.
  • The Symbolist movement in poetry & theatre saw Wagner—alongside Poe & Baudelaire—as key influences.
  • I was watching the daughter of a friend playing a computer game today, noticing that the dramaturgy of the game was completely Wagnerian.  The music aimed for a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, or unified effect (the music being almost as eloquent to tell you when to be afraid or to breathe a sigh of relief as the visuals).
  • at one time i heard that Richard Wagner was the third most cited topic of anyone in history, after Napoleon & Jesus Christ.  True or false? i don’t know, but this kind of reputation makes Wagner important as a cultural phenomenon

So I will be interested to watch developments in the coming year.  I will post from time to time about one or the other, or sometimes both, and invite others to comment, whether in agreement or not, about how Wagner & Verdi matter.

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