Tag Archive: Verdi

On Music and Language

Music’s love affair with language is an intense one – or rather, it ought to be. The old adages about the perfect marriage between music and text – “the words must serve the music,” “prima la musica, poi le parole,” etc. – reek of a certain outdated marital attitude. The relationship, at its best, has never been master-and-servant. It is a dynamic bond. The words and the music must put pressure on one another – they must be a little wary of one another,
and each recognize the other’s power, before they embrace.

On the Music of Giuseppe Verdi

Originally published in The Yale Review, 2013

The English composer Thomas Adès, in his book Full of Noises, confesses – after incisive appraisals of composers ranging from Mahler to Janáček to Britten – that Verdi ‘‘is very difficult for me.’’ At first, he seems merely dismissive: he mentions Verdi while discussing composers whose music just doesn’t work 99 percent of the time. But the 1 percent of Verdi’s music that does work evidently bothers him:

“For some reason this music [in this case Simon Boccanegra] won’t lie down and die . . . it still somehow has a kind of wriggling existence. . . . Everything about it is wrong. It could hardly be worse. Yet it has this strangely powerful effect if it’s done well. . . . I look at it in fascination, and I think: why is it that, despite everything, [Verdi] can make a single moment that is so incredibly strong? Because those moments are stronger than they would be if someone had planned it properly. These things suddenly leap out, like a knife out of the canvas.”