Verdi vs Wagner
Updated: Jul 26, 2020
Ah, the great debate. The eternal question. The heated conversation that takes place at every dinner table (that seats opera fans): Verdi or Wagner?
The two composers are completely different, similar only in that they both wrote primarily opera. Even Verdi's late works, which are often thought to be similar to Wagner's, are so inherently different in style and form, that they are practically impossible to compare. Still, it is always good to have spirited conversations about such topics! Below you will read the case for each composer, from the point-of-view of a die-hard fan of that composer.
I shall not declare a winner, for fear of being kidnapped by fans of the opposite side, but I will go into detail about what each composer has to offer.
*I believe that both composers are giants and geniuses, and while I do have personal opinions on this debate, my writing below is intended only to make the case for each composer as if I believed that that composer is superior. My personal views are completely irrelevant to this article*
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, Bellini, to name a few. - 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 Gesamtkunstwerk and the drama and the leitmotifs, what makes Verdi special is the simple beauty of his music, which is much like that of his Italian predecessors only on a far grander scale. Verdi went through many phases in his career, starting with the very popular Nabucco. Following the early phase that also included Ernani and Macbeth - the latter of which he considered his greatest work to date -, 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 strangest. Bizet even complained that "Verdi is no longer Italian. He is following Wagner." after a performance of Don Carlos. This was not true of course; Verdi was always Verdi! Following Don Carlos and Aida, Verdi secretly worked on Otello - a wild, unregulated adventure of a project! (unlike anything ever produced from Italy) - which was, like most of his other works, a success. Later, at 80 years of age, he composed his final opera, Falstaff. How strange it is that Verdi's career, which spanned over 50 years, started with Nabucco (it actually started with Oberto, a failure) and ended with Falstaff - what an evolution! - never lost the attention and admiration of his audiences! In many ways, Verdi contributed just as greatly, if not more greatly, to the evolution of opera in the 19th century as Wagner, because, in reality, he, in only 50 years, evolved as a composer more than opera had evolved as a genre in the last two centuries. He led the way, breaking the stubborn 'set-in-their-ways' Italian bel canto tradition (which, of course, was and is still beautiful on its own!), bringing Italian opera to extreme lengths.
Verdi brings so many emotions to his listeners. He has the 'la maledizione!' moments, the 'amami alfredo!' moments, and the 'Esultate!' moments; as well as the 'va pensiero' and the 'parigi, o cara' ones. He has everything. Literally everything. The genius of Verdi is not like Wagner's; it is simple. It does not take hours, and does not have leitmotifs and powerful mythological tales. It is in the music.
A prime example of Verdi at his best is in the overture to La Forza del Destino. Listen to it with Riccardo Muti conducting.
To better understand the evolution of Verdi as a composer, listen first to one of the great Soprano-Baritone duets of the early Verdi operas (Luisa Miller, Traviata, etc.) such as 'Ah, dite a la giovine' (La Traviata); or a soprano aria like 'Addio del pasato' from the same opera. Interestingly, the aforementioned aria is the only part La Traviata in which the word 'traviata' is uttered - and it is uttered by the 'traviata' herself! You must listen to none other than Maria Callas under Toscanini's baton, or, if you aren't a Callas-person, Renata Tebaldi.
After you have done so, listen to either Otello or Falstaff. Try listening to the first 5-6 minutes of Otello, with Mario del Monaco singing the title role and Herbert von Karajan conducting. See the difference between the two periods!
The case for Verdi is not that he was a 'nice guy' whereas Wagner was an ass - a case that many make. It is in that, while Verdi is sometimes considered 'easier', he, in individual pieces of varied length, can bring hours-worth of emotion to our hearts. Wagner, of course, can do so as well - but only after hours of music.
Fun Fact!: There is a superstition about La Forza del Destino that it is cursed! This is because, in 1960, at the Metropolitan Opera, baritone Leonard Warren died during a performance! This was enough to convince Pavarotti to never take up the role!
Fun Fact 2!: Verdi, like many other composers, was often forced to include ballet music in his operas to please the Parisians. Examples are Act 2 of Traviata and Act 2 of Aida. After Aida, Verdi was much freer in his work, enduring no pressure from opera-goers and patrons, which is why his final two operas are completely different than his previous ones in that, amongst other things, they include no ballet at all.
There is a reason why Appreciate Opera's guide for how to learn to appreciate the opera has an entire section dedicated to Wagner, twice the length of all the others: It takes time to fully appreciate his genius - but it's worth it.
Wagner, like Verdi, was born in 1813. He, over the course of his lifetime, wrote only 13 operas, 10 of which are performed regularly. He was a master of Gesamtkunstwerk - 'complete work of art'. He believed that the closest Man had come to perfecting this artistic synthesis was in the works of Aeschylus. Wagner wrote his own libretti, unlike Verdi, and even built a theater for his operas in the little 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, and his genius is therefore best demonstrated through examples.
Take the most famous of them all: the Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen), a tetralogy. Like all of his operas, it contains numerous leitmotifs: little themes which represent people, places, or objects in the plot. At the end of Die Walküre, after Wotan places Brünnhilde on a rock and surrounds her by magic flames as punishment for her disobedience, he declares that 'anyone who fears Wotan's spear shall not be able to pass the flames'. As he sings these words, the orchestra plays Siegfried's leitmotif; the leitmotif of the man who will surpass the flames and wake Brünnhilde eighteen years from then. No one in the opera knows about him - he is not even born yet! - And yet, Wagner writes about him in the music. It is moments like these that bring such fascination - and such emotion! - to the listener. This is Wagner; not the unfair claim that he only writes 'ride of the valkyries'-style music, pantheons, and fanfares.
He is such a perfectionist and such a master of Gesamtkunstwerk that even in vague, slight references to Valhalla, or to Wotan, the Valhalla theme is heard. This happens especially in Die Walküre, where while neither Siegmund nor Sieglinde know that Wotan is their father, any references to this unknown father are accompanied by the Wotan/Valhalla theme in the orchestra! What chills it brings me to discuss such things!
Towards the end of Walküre, we hear some of the most famous and most powerful music of all time in Wotan's farewell to Brünnhilde. Throughout the Ring Cycle, Wotan's spear has a theme - a theme that also represents his power. This theme is transformed, from a representation of Wotan's power, to a representation of Wotan's love, in the most subtle of ways, building one of the most beautiful moments in all of opera, nay, in all of music. The theme is played in major, and reconstructed to demonstrate that 'Wotan's love lies in the breaking of his power' (Phillip Hensher).
At the end of Götterdämmerung, we hear music that covers every emotion, with highs and lows and loud moments and soft, in only a few minutes: the Immolation scene, as well as the final orchestral finale. As Brünnhilde sets the world aflame, including Valhalla, we hear the Valhalla theme in the brass, and at the same time that we hear the 'fire' theme in the strings. Then, as the Rhine washes down the flames, we finally end with the very music with which we began the tetralogy - the Rhine theme! What brilliance, what a cathartic moment! Wagner is as transformative as they say.
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 Tristan only four times and died, suddenly, shortly afterwards, was killed by the role (This is more about technical difficulty than about emotional power, though); Two conductors collapsed while conducting the second act of Tristan, one in 1911, and another in 1968. Talk about power! There is an article about the famous 'Tristan chord' on this website! This strange, yet fascinatingly haunting and beautiful discord resolves only at the very end of the opera, after Tristan and Isolde die. The chord takes us through the opera, representing Tristan's pain and unfulfilled desire, building and growing as the action continues. It all ends not with a bang, but with a whimper, to quote Eliot. - Unlike Verdi's operas, which end, albeit dramatically, with loud stomps.
Wagner is unique from other composers in that his stories - all constructed by the man himself - attract genuine interest on the part of the listener. We wonder what ultimately caused the deadly chain of events of the Ring Cycle; we wonder if Brünnhilde was right in her ultimate decision that made her, essentially, the heroine of the story; we wonder and ponder the decisions of Tannhäuser, Tristan, Hans Sachs! I could write ten articles on each of these characters alone, internally discussing their decisions and their effect on the plot.
To learn to fully appreciate Wagner, 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! Wagner's brilliance is not just in the music, but in the Gesamtkunstwerk. The complete work of art.
As for the argument that Verdi is performed more often, there is no reason to believe that that implies his superiority. Wagner's operas are long and difficult to stage, and Wagner is generally even more difficult to sing and perform than Verdi. Verdi's operas, particularly the 'Big Three', attract more audiences - those without opera experience, as well as those with - than Wagner's, for people are generally scared to approach him due to the presumed difficulty of his music. True opera-fans appreciate both composers, whereas inexperienced opera-goers attend Verdi and Puccini performances.
Unfortunately, this case will likely only be effective to someone who knows Wagner's work. One concession to be made is that in order to fully appreciate Wagner, one must first learn Verdi.
Fun Fact: Wagner said 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 2!: Wagner intended for his last opera, Parsifal to be performed only at Bayreuth, and for there to be no applause following the first act of the opera. The latter should certainly be enforced today!
So who is superior? ... ... ...
Let me know in the comments section.
Here is a wonderful humorous video about this topic!:
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