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Verdi's ballet music


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#1 Ed Waffle

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Posted 10 March 2002 - 06:47 PM

Giuseppi Verdi was a brilliant and creative musician and a man of the theater with an almost infallible sense of what worked dramatically. So when Verdi insisted that the ballet he composed for his penultimate opera “Otello” not be included in the printed score of the opera because “artistically speaking, it is a monstrosity” since it derailed the action, it makes sense.

The ballet music for “Otello” is the last work that Verdi wrote for the stage. It was composed in 1894 when he was 81 years old—he was revising the opera for production at Paris. Since the conventions of the Paris Opera included a third act ballet, he wrote one. Listening to the opera and following the libretto, there really is no place for a ballet in Act III. It is the act in which Desdemona’s fate is sealed, Otello is turned against Cassio and Iago triumphs. Stopping everything for a ballet made up of the national dances of the residents of Cyprus—Arab, Venetian, Greek, Turkish—would make it necessary to reestablish the momentum of the tragedy.

At the same time, Verdi did not stint in the composition of the ballet. He was a great respecter of conventions of the theater when they worked and knew what the Parisians expected. His librettist, Arigo Boito and his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, tried to help. Ricordi sent him a volume of Greek songs, which he found useless. He also sent songs by Bizet and other composers considered experts in music from the exotic East. Verdi continued to look for examples and wrote Ricordi “Something Turkish! Something Cypro-Greek! Something Venetian!...Help me find something.” He had wondered in a letter if it would be better not to have a ballet at all (impossible) or to have a different composer write it (inconceivable). Apparently while tossing the red herrings in the direction of his long-suffering publisher, he was hard at work.

That Verdi took pride in the music itself, if not in the its position in the drama, is shown by his letter to Ricordi after he had (to everyone’s surprise) finished it. “This very day I am sending, special delivery, the package with the ballet for the Paris “Otello”. Your doctors of music could find nothing for me.... but I found a Greek song of 5000 B.C.! If the world didn’t exist then, it is the world’s tough luck! Then I found a Muranese, composed 2000 years ago for a war between Venice and Murano, which the Muranese won. No matter if Venice didn’t yet exist, with this find I composed my fine ballet, imagining how it must be performed and I have drafted the outline which you will find attached to the score.”

The ballet is made of seven different sections: Untitled; Arabian Song; Invocation of Allah; Greek Song; Dance; The People of Murano; The Warrior's Song. Verdi wrote a detailed scenario for each section and expected the choreographer in Paris to follow it closely. It was to run exactly five minutes and fifty-nine seconds. Part of it is based on and quotes from a symphonic work by Felecian David—I not only haven’t heard the symphony, I haven’t heard of its composer.

Other ballet music from Verdi’s operas for Paris has had a longer shelf life. “The Four Seasons”, from “Les Vespres Sicilliennes” choreographed by Jerome Robins, is in the repertory of the NYCB. The Ballabile from “Macbeth” is a striking piece of music that can be programmed on its own. Also, since it involves the three witches, it can be used in the opera without hurting it dramatically, although it generally is not.

#2 rg

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Posted 10 March 2002 - 08:52 PM

balanchine's 'ballo dello della regina' uses the ballet music from "don carlos"
robbins' 'four seasons' includes interpolations from 'trovatore' and "jerusalem"
macmillan's "four seasons" was around some time back (a tape of a canadian dance comp. includes errol pickford dancing a solo from that ballet's fall section).
THE VERDI BALLETS by Knud Arne Jurgensen includes substative chapters on all the ballet music, from 'jerusalem' thru 'othello' including a finely detailed entry on the original hansen choreography for 'aida'.
(incidentally i was amused to read a review in a recent TLS of a new book on verdi that complained almost bitterly about the amount space given over in the book to the ballet music, which the reviewer called 'marginal' in a most dismissive way.)


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