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Life and Operas of Verdi

Life and Operas of Verdi

Professor Robert Greenberg Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances

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Life and Operas of Verdi

Life and Operas of Verdi

Professor Robert Greenberg Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
Course No.  790
Course No.  790
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Course Overview

About This Course

32 lectures  |  45 minutes per lecture

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

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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
Oberto, 1839
Un giorno di regno, 1840
Nabucco, 1842
I Lombardi, 1843
Ernani, 1844
I due foscari, 1844
Macbeth, 1847
I masnadieri, 1847
Luisa Miller, 1849
Rigoletto, 1851
Il trovatore, 1853
La traviata, 1853
Les Vêpres siciliennes, 1855
Un ballo in maschera, 1859
La forza del destino, 1862
Don Carlo, 1867
Aida, 1871
Requiem Mass, 1874
Otello, 1887
Falstaff, 1893

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32 Lectures
  • 1
    La bell'Italia
    Verdi, like opera itself 200 years before him, was Italian-born. He came into a candlelit world, and died during the era of electricity. Despite all the changes he saw and made, his works never abandoned opera's roots as a popular entertainment or its devotion to sprezzatura, "the art of effortless mastery." x
  • 2
    Beginnings
    Verdi was a gifted student; wealthy citizens in his home region near Parma sent him to the Milan Conservatory. But the 18-year-old Verdi was deemed too old for admission, and so had to find another way to start his musical career. x
  • 3
    Oberto
    Embroiled in a bitter factional feud in his adopted hometown and stricken by the tragic loss of his two young children, Verdi nonetheless successfully transplanted himself to Milan and scored a modest success in November 1839 with the premiere of his first opera at La Scala. x
  • 4
    Nabucco
    His first wife's death and his second opera's disastrous premiere almost killed Verdi's young career. Yet a year later, in 1842, he bounced back both commercially and artistically with Nabucco, a biblical tale of liberation and unity that stirred Italians deeply. x
  • 5
    Nabucco, Conclusion and Risorgimento
    Verdi cannot be understood apart from the Italian Risorgimento; nor can it be understood apart from him, for his music was its soul and voice. The third-act duet between King Nabucco and his daughter Abigaille is a window on this remarkable cross-influence between an artist and a nation being born. x
  • 6
    I Lombardi
    The premiere of Nabucco would prove a turning point in Verdi's personal as well as professional life, for it was then that he met the singer and actress Giuseppina Strepponi, his future wife. La Scala gave him a contract whose first fruit was I Lombardi alla prima crociata (The Lombards at the First Crusade). x
  • 7
    I Lombardi, Conclusion and Ernani
    With the 1842 premiere of I Lombardi, Verdi began a decade of fiercely hard work, showing himself a master of the business side of the opera game. I Lombardi, Ernani, and other operas of this period such as I due foscari would drive Italian audiences wild and the Austrian censors up the wall. x
  • 8
    Macbeth
    In 1846, Verdi expanded his range still further with Macbeth, reaching for extreme Romantic effects that were a departure from the norms of Italian opera. Music and voices, he had decided, must above all express the truth of the characters and their inner worlds. x
  • 9
    I masnadieri
    In 1847, Verdi spent time in London, supervising a production of I masnadieri (The Robbers). In 1848, after revolutions broke out against regimes across Europe, an elated Verdi returned to Milan, newly liberated from the Austrians, only to see his hopes for an "Austria-free" Italy dashed. x
  • 10
    Luisa Miller and Rigoletto
    Luisa Miller is a tale of ordinary people crushed by absolutist government, and another step on Verdi's journey away from the bel canto tradition. Rigoletto, with its libretto by Francesco Piave, comes from a play by Victor Hugo. x
  • 11
    Rigoletto, Act I continued
    The first act in this lurid tale of wickedness, innocence, and a terrible curse blends music and drama in a way wholly new to Italian opera. In Rigoletto, the hunchbacked jester of the Duke of Mantua, Verdi and Piave have given us one of the great characters of the opera stage. x
  • 12
    Rigoletto, Acts I, II and III
    The Duke's aria "La donna e mobile" ("Woman is fickle") is one of the most famous in all opera. It speaks volumes about the shallow, Don-Juanish Duke, and is so tuneful that Verdi, while writing it, took elaborate steps to keep it secret lest its impact at the premiere be lessened. x
  • 13
    Rigoletto, Act III continued
    Rigoletto includes some of the most stunning ensemble and orchestral writing since Mozart. The atmospherics (literally!) are extraordinary too, as Verdi uses the orchestra and a wordless chorus to suggest a coming storm as a metaphor for doom. x
  • 14
    Rigoletto, Conclusion and Il trovatore
    How could Verdi top Rigoletto, one of the most memorable characters in all opera? In 1852, less than two years after Rigoletto's premiere, Verdi wrote not one but two more immortal operas, each musically brilliant, dramatically innovative, and beloved to this day. x
  • 15
    Il trovatore, Conclusion and La traviata
    While the public swooned with joy over Il trovatore's January 1853 premiere, some of Verdi's critics complained that its "vulgarity" had put an end to bel canto opera. Oddly enough, they were quite close to the mark. x
  • 16
    Un ballo in maschera
    Verdi created this opera with remarkable speed, but then had to fight a titanic public battle with the censors in Naples and settle a number of lawsuits before it could be staged to his liking—in Rome. x
  • 17
    Un ballo in maschera, Conclusion
    In Act III, Verdi shamelessly pulls out every melodramatic stop but somehow makes it all work: a sure sign of his genius. By now middle-aged, he also tried to retire from both politics and opera, but happily would succeed only in quitting the former. x
  • 18
    La forza del destino
    Written for the court of the Russian czar and premiered at St. Petersburg in 1862, this tale of star-crossed young lovers featured a "destiny" theme that stands as a musical landmark in Verdi's score. x
  • 19
    Don Carlo
    Verdi spent nearly a year composing Don Carlo, based on a drama by Friedrich von Schiller, for the Paris Opéra. The work caused some critics to make wrong, maddening, and yet not entirely unreasonable comparisons between Verdi and Wagner. x
  • 20
    Don Carlo, Conclusion
    Verdi hated autocracy, yet Act IV of Don Carlo pulls back the curtain of power to show the arch-autocrat Philip II of Spain in his humanity as a lonely man afraid of aging and betrayal. Princess Eboli's aria "O don fatal" in this act contains one of the greatest passages ever written for mezzo-soprano. x
  • 21
    Aida
    Set in ancient Egypt and commissioned by the Ottoman governor of that country to mark the completion of the Suez Canal, Aida is famous for spectacle, though its core is a tale of private love and loss. The opera's "first premiere," which Verdi himself did not conduct, was in Cairo.   x
  • 22
    Aida, Conclusion
    Taking Aida's 1872 Milan premiere to be his most important ever, Verdi forced changes on La Scala that are now the rule for opera houses everywhere. It was all to good effect, for Aida is the benchmark operatic spectacle and remains Verdi's most popular work. x
  • 23
    The Requiem
    The 1873 death of the great author Alessandro Manzoni—the virtual inventor of modern standard Italian—spurred Verdi to score a Requiem Mass in Manzoni's honor. The result is a work that is unique in this often-tried genre. x
  • 24
    The Requiem, Conclusion
    Verdi's seven-movement Requiem expresses an awesome range of emotions. We focus on its huge, 38-minute Dies irae (Day of Wrath) section and its closing Libera me. Along with Beethoven's Missa solemnis (1822) and Brahms's German Requiem (1869), Verdi's Requiem is the greatest work of religious music written between 1800 and 1900. x
  • 25
    Otello
    This was the product of a conspiracy to get Verdi—by now the most famous living Italian—to compose again. The key was librettist Arrigo Boito, whose partnership with Verdi would become one of the finest in musical history. x
  • 26
    Otello, Conclusion; Falstaff
    Otello was an event of national importance when it premiered in 1887, and many thought it was Verdi's swan song. Desdemona's "Willow Song" scene makes a window onto this masterwork on the tragic side of the Shakespearean range. x
  • 27
    Falstaff, Act I, Sc. 1
    Verdi had total control over Falstaff and crafted the whole production with great care and gusto. This was not only the summation of his life's work (and only his second comic opera), but broke new ground both dramatically and musically. x
  • 28
    Falstaff, Act I, Sc. 1, Conclusion; Sc. 2
    Verdi knew how crucial timing is to comedy, so he avoided arias in favor of a profusion of fluid melodic lines that overlap, spin off, and turn into something else entirely. The overall effect is remarkable. x
  • 29
    Falstaff, Act I, Sc. 2, Conclusion; Act II, Sc. 1
    The second scene of Act I features an amazing group-sing that combines men's and women's ensembles, each singing in a different meter. Act II begins with an explosive orchestral passage from which Verdi develops most of the scene's melodic material. x
  • 30
    Falstaff, Act II, Sc. 1, Conclusion; Sc. 2
    Verdi's "inner eye" for action on stage is almost as extraordinary as his inner ear for music. There is comic genius in the way he and Boito bring to life the antics of Falstaff, Ford, and the quick-witted "Merry Wives of Windsor." x
  • 31
    Falstaff, Act II, Sc. 2 continued
    Verdi's score matches the characters and their actions brilliantly: Falstaff's ostensibly seductive "love song" sounds comically dated, while later, fast-moving, overlapping vocal lines accompany complex slapstick action. x
  • 32
    Falstaff, Act II, Conclusion; Act III
    In 1900, a friend asked the 87-year-old Verdi which of his creations was his favorite. Verdi's response was extraordinary, and it tells us much about the man and where his priorities lay near the end of his life. x

Lecture Titles

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Robert Greenberg
Ph.D. Robert Greenberg
San Francisco Performances

Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. A graduate of Princeton University, Professor Greenberg holds a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California, Berkeley. He has seen his compositions—which include more than 45 works for a wide variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles—performed all over the world, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, England, Ireland, Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands.

He has served on the faculties of the University of California, Berkeley; California State University, Hayward; and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and has lectured for some of the most prestigious musical and arts organizations in the United States, including the San Francisco Symphony, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Van Cliburn Foundation, and the Chicago Symphony. For The Great Courses, he has recorded more than 500 lectures on a range of composers and classical music genres.

Professor Greenberg is a Steinway Artist. His many other honors include three Nicola de Lorenzo Composition Prizes and a Koussevitzky commission from the Library of Congress. He has been profiled in various major publications, including The Wall Street Journal; Inc. magazine; and the London Times.

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Reviews

Rated 4.7 out of 5 by 36 reviewers.
Rated 2 out of 5 by Promise and Pain I have given Robert Greenberg some of my most positive and enthusiastic reviews. In my view, he teaches music so beautifully and powerfully he's one of the best professors in the entire stable of faculty assembled by The Great Courses. But, for reasons I'll spell out below, I can only give this course a fair rating. First, the positives. I'm a huge fan of Verdi. I've seen and heard virtually all of these operas several times. They're remarkable, both musically and dramatically. Indeed, artistically, he is very high on my list. And I consider myself pretty discriminating. As I mentioned earlier, I like Greenberg's teaching of music very much. And, though there are very serious shortcomings, he does some good teaching here. The portions of the operas that are played in the course are quite good. Regardless of the course's shortcomings, it's always fine to hear segments of these wonderful operas. In my judgment, Greenberg made a fatal mistake when he decided to try to act out long portions of the words and narratives in the operas. I realize the problem he was trying to solve. Many listeners don't have the course guidebook in front of them. The ones that do don't need to listen to Greenberg act out the libretto. They can follow it as the music plays. Others can't. Yet, listening to him more often than not is a price students shouldn't have to pay. There are professors who teach for TGC who are masterful at singing and acting as part of their teaching . Professors Weil and Heffernan come to mind. Greenberg is terrible at this. I have tried to think of characters from 1960s cartoons whose voices sound like Greenberg's in his characterizations. Dudley Dooright comes to mind. Tweety and Sylvester do, too. The silly girlish voice he uses for many female roles is a sound I can't place among the cartoon characters, though it was utterly annoying. Other than the comic Falstaff and the music of the Requiem, Greenberg's attempts to act out the roles of the serious operas is nothing short of butchery. It's painful to the ear, so painful that I began about half way through the course to skip through it to the actual music and would encourage you to as well, if you buy this course. Beyond the pain of experiencing the "acting," this feature of the course is disadvantageous for another reason. The time Greenberg spends on the acting as well as the too-often flabby and often tangential biographical and historical material robs him of the time he should have spent on what he does so well - the exploration and analysis of the music itself. There's value in this course. But, oh, it could and should have been so much more. November 17, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Let the Fat Lady Sing! In sixty years I have attended one opera (under coercion): too long, too implausible, too stiff. In the past week I've watched recordings of two Verdi operas and enjoyed them both. I pursue Great Courses precisely because they open new ideas for me in a meaningful way. No one's better at it than Dr. Greenburg. For what it's worth, I enjoy his often irreverent style, including the voices and jokes. September 2, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Wow. I just finished the Verdi series. Wow. Justice was done. June 29, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Very good, could have been a little better The course title is an accurate one, because Greenberg goes into the life of Verdi as much as if not more than the operas themselves. He starts with a great first lecture which paints a broad picture of Italian culture and language, delving into the art, food, history, movies, and women. He does touch upon how the sound and rhythm of the Italian language shapes his operas. The first lecture is great for those interested more in Italian culture than opera. He then proceeds chronologically through Verdi’s compositional career, pausing often to go into his life events and politics of Italy. He describes how the early period includes Nabucco, and his middle period consists of Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata, and late period of Aida, Otello, and Falstaff. He does also discuss several other works, and has great taste in his music selections. I really love and still play his selections from Il Trovatore and La Traviata. Therein lies the greatest fault in my eyes, which is the scandalously short amount of time devoted to these 2 operas in particular. He spends much of the (less than) 2 lectures devoted to these 2 masterworks talking about other topics such as politics or his life with his singer wife. Another opera which was robbed was Un Ballo in Maschera, which also had most of its 2 lectures stray away from the music. I understand he can only give in-depth treatment to 2 operas (Rigoletto and Falstaff), but I feel he could have cut back on the politics or history enough to give each of these 3 operas a full lecture to itself. He could have cut back on the many more obscure works if they were at the expense of the big ones. He does refer the listener to his opera course for more on Otello and La Traviata than is covered here. The professor clearly loves to play historian or political historian and is able to skillfully illuminate their influence on Verdi’s music. Verdi dominated the Italian opera scene from 1850-1890, and was revered as a legend in his own time. The course does a great job of illuminating his personality, and is ample motivation to seek out recordings and performances of Verdi. January 14, 2013
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