In praise of Verdi, the musical mensch

By Norman Lebrecht, September 13, 2013
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When the proposal beeped in my inbox, the first thought that sprang to mind was of those medieval jousts when a prince ordered a rabbi to debate divine truth with a bishop, the loser to face exile or death.

Tickets to Intelligence Squared’s Verdi v Wagner debate this Sunday at the Royal Opera House sold out within minutes of release. It’s one of those rumbles in the jungle that no operagoer can resist. Everyone knows which side they support. As with Arsenal and Spurs, Tory and Labour, the neutral button has been disabled.

But where sport and politics yield winners in goals and votes, musical genius at this exalted level is above critical measurement. Each composer represents a summit in art — Wagner in German opera, Verdi in Italian. Each is unassailable in his domain. To compare them is to contrast apples with pears. What, then, is there to ague about?

The moral dimension, that’s what. Some weeks ago, on Radio 4’s The Moral Maze, I laid out the case against Richard Wagner, a man who did more than any in the 19th century to give antisemitism a gloss of cultural and philosophical respectability. In a nasty little tract titled Jewishess in Music, published under a pseudonym in 1850 and under his own name in 1869, Wagner set forth a seductive proposition.

Jews, he argued, could not write pure German, words or music; Jews should, therefore, be excluded from the arts. His was the first modern manifesto for cultural cleansing and its clarity was so refreshing amid the general turgidness of German prose that its underlying lie went almost unchallenged. Wagner dismissed Heinrich Heine, the least contrived of German poets, and Felix Mendelssohn, the most gifted child composer since Mozart, as wretched imitators. Impelled by malice, he wrote what most Germans wanted to read.

Wagner’s personal racism was conspicuously selective. He made exceptions for any individual Jew who added value to his Bayreuth enterprise — the rehearsal pianist Josef Rubinstein, the impresario Angelo Neumann, the choirmaster Heinrich Porges and the conductor Hermann Levi, a rabbi’s son who directed the premiere of Parsifal. None of these Jews was treated well, but then nor were others in the Wagner ménage.

An egotist of monstrous proportions, Wagner betrayed many of his friends and lovers, repaying kindness with outrageous abuse. Richard Wagner was not, by any measure, a nice man. He was, however, a composer of genius whose ugly views and anti-social conduct are excused to this day by admirers as a small price to pay for his deathless masterpieces. Genius, from the romantic perspective, lives by its own rules.

To which I would say: oh, yeah? Five months after Wagner’s birth in May 1813, a second star was born in the Italian village of Le Roncole. Twenty-nine years later, Giuseppe Verdi achieved tumultuous success with his third opera, Nabucco, whose chorus, Va, pensiero, became the enduring hymn of Italian liberation and national identity. We know the tune as the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.

What Verdi did, in the selfsame decade that Wagner was writing his tract against the Jews, was to depict the oppression of the Jewish people as an intolerable injustice, a rallying cause for all believers in liberty. Verdi announced himself in his breakthrough opera as a great humanitarian. In his next 40 operas, and in all of his relationships, private and professional, he was the very model of a musical mensch: honest, hard-working, transparent, charitable – and, despite all,
a genius.

Where other composers despised singers, Verdi built them a luxurious retirement home. Where Wagner pursued power, Verdi refused state honours. Where great musicians claimed to speak for music, Verdi let music speak for itself.

Verdi took an Italian tradition and elevated it to universal popularity. Wagner mastered the German tradition and aimed to make it exclusive for the German race. On Sunday, I shall speak for Verdi. Philip Hensher will speak for Wagner. Stephen Fry, an avowed Wagnerian, will chair. May the best man – Verdi – win.

Last updated: 3:12pm, September 13 2013