Updated: Aug 8, 2022
By Alkis Karmpaliotis, High School Student NYC
Founder of AppreciateOpera.org
The great debate. The eternal question: Verdi or Wagner?
The two composers are completely different, similar only in that they both composed primarily operas. Even Verdi's late works, which are often thought to be similar to Wagner's, are so inherently different in style and form from his German counterpart, that they are practically impossible to compare.
While we can all agree that Wagner is the ultimate giant of German opera, Giuseppe Verdi is one of many Italian men who composed primarily operas - Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini, to name a few - so what makes Verdi special?
The case for Verdi, although Verdi is far more performed than Wagner, is more difficult to make than that for Wagner. While Wagner has the grandiosity and the drama and the complex leitmotifs, Verdi is special purely in the beauty and simplicity of his music.
Verdi went through many phases in his career. His early phase included works such as Nabucco, Ernani, and Macbeth (the latter of which he considered his greatest work to date). During his middle phase, he composed, in less than three years, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata, three of the most commonly performed operas across the world.
His final phase was the most obscure, with operas such as Don Carlos, Aida, and Falstaff. Bizet complained that "Verdi is no longer Italian. He is following Wagner" after a performance of Don Carlos. Following Don Carlos and Aida, Verdi secretly worked on Otello - a project unlike anything ever produced in Italy - which was, like most of his other works, a success. Later, at 80 years of age, he composed his final opera, Falstaff.
Over the course of 50 years, Verdi went from the delicate Nabucco to the tumultuous Otello, and despite this dramatic evolution, his works never lost popularity. Verdi changed opera forever, breaking the bel canto tradition and bringing Italian opera to a completely different level. To fully understand the evolution of Verdi as a composer, listen to one of the great Soprano-Baritone duets of the early Verdi operas (Luisa Miller, Traviata, etc.) such as 'Ah, dite a la giovine', and then listen to the first 5 minutes of Otello (the recording with Del Monaco and Karajan is best). Notice the difference between the two periods!
Verdi brings so many emotions to his listeners. He has the powerful 'la maledizione!', 'amami alfredo!', and 'esultate!' moments, as well as the tender 'va pensiero' and 'parigi, o cara' moments. The case for Verdi is not that he was a 'nice guy' whereas Wagner was an ass - a case that many make. His genius lies in the gorgeousness of his music.
Fun Fact!: A prime example of Verdi at his best is in the overture to La Forza del Destino (best rendered with Riccardo Muti conducting). Interestingly, there is a superstition that the opera is cursed! This is because baritone Leonard Warren died during a performance at the Metropolitan Opera! This was enough to convince the great Pavarotti never to take up the role!
Fun Fact!: Verdi, like many other composers, was often pressured to include ballet music in his operas to please the Parisian opera audience. Examples are Act 2 of Traviata and Act 2 of Aida.
There is a reason why Appreciate Opera's guide for how to learn to appreciate opera has an entire section dedicated to Wagner alone. It takes time to appreciate his genius fully - but it's worth it.
Wagner, like Verdi, was born in 1813. Over the course of his lifetime, he wrote only 13 operas, 10 of which are performed regularly. He pioneered Gesamtkunstwerk - 'the complete work of art'.
Wagner wanted full control over his projects. He wrote his own libretti and even built a theater for his operas in the town of Bayreuth. The Bayreuth Festival still takes place every year, and stages works only by Wagner. Wagner's operas are known to bring immense, powerful emotion to the listener.
Take the most famous of them all: the Ring Cycle tetralogy (Der Ring des Nibelungen). Like all of his operas, it contains numerous leitmotifs: short themes which represent people, places, or objects in the plot. At the end of Die Walküre, when Wotan places Brünnhilde on a rock and surrounds her with magic flames as punishment for her disobedience, he declares that 'anyone who fears Wotan's spear shall not pass.' As he sings these words, the orchestra plays the leitmotif of Siegfried, the very man who will one day surpass the flames and wake Brünnhilde from her slumber. No character knows about Siegfried - he is not even born - and yet, Wagner tells us about him in the music. Furthermore, in the first act of Die Walküre, neither Siegmund nor Sieglinde ever find out that Wotan is their father, yet references to their unknown father are accompanied by the Wotan theme in the orchestra. Wagner essentially tells us, through music, who their father is, without either character knowing. These are prime examples of Wagner's method of using leitmotifs to introduce and develop characters.
Throughout the Ring Cycle, Wotan's spear has a theme - a theme that represents his power. Towards the end of Walküre, in Wotan's farewell to Brünnhilde, this theme is transformed, from a representation of Wotan's power to a representation of Wotan's love. The theme is moved from minor to major, demonstrating, in the words of Phillip Hensher, that 'Wotan's love lies in the breaking of his power'.
Aside from the Ring Cycle, a great example of the transformative power of Wagner's work is Tristan und Isolde. In fact, some consider the work to be too powerful. It is speculated that Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, a tenor who sang four performances of Tristan shortly before his death, was killed by the role! Additionally, two conductors collapsed while conducting the second act of Tristan, one in 1911, and another in 1968.
You can read Appreciate Opera's article about the famous 'Tristan chord' here! The chord takes us through the opera, representing Tristan's pain and unfulfilled desire, building and growing as the action continues. This haunting discord resolves only at the very end of the opera after Tristan and Isolde die. It all ends not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Wagner's works are different from other composers' because we discuss and analyze not only their music but their texts. We ponder Brunnhilde's actions, we wonder about Tannhauser's story, we cerebrate the Dutchman's eternal curse. Wagner's brilliance is in the Gesamtkunstwerk. The complete work of art.
To learn to appreciate Wagner fully, I urge you to go to the guide on this website and scroll down to the Wagner section. Listen to the overture to Tannhäuser with Karajan, listen to the great Solti recording of the Ring Cycle, listen to the Tristan recording with Kleiber and Margaret Price, and listen to as many more pieces as you can!
Fun Fact: Wagner ensured that his first three operas - Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi - would never be performed at Bayreuth because he believed them to be apprentice works! Will this rule survive, or will fans' curiosity as to how they will sound at Bayreuth get the best of them?
Fun Fact!: Wagner intended for his last opera, Parsifal to be performed only at Bayreuth! He also believed that there should not be any applause following the first act of the opera. Should the no-applause rule be enforced at opera houses today?
So who is superior? ... ... ...
Let me know in the comments section!
Here is a humorous video about this topic!:
Thank you for visiting Appreciate Opera,
Alkis Karmpaliotis, High School Student