March 1, 2015

La Traviata and Verdi's "Mozart Moment"

We know that Giuseppe Verdi kept a bound copy of Beethoven's string quartets on his bedside table. Throughout his operas there are multiple traces of Beethoven's influence. My favorite is the furious orchestral passage that opens Act 3 of Falstaff, a bit of bluster reminiscent of the introduction to the final movement of the ninth symphony.
Mozart: casting his shadow in La Traviata? Yep.

When you think about it, Beethoven and Verdi do, at times, appear to share a certain musical approach characterized by forcefulness, extreme dynamic contrast and strongly rhythmic motives. But that doesn't mean that he ignored the other titan of Viennese Classicism, W. A. Mozart.

Why would he, after all? Mozart was the greatest master of opera the world had seen to date. But "Mozartian" moments are, perhaps, less obvious to observe in Verdi's works.

But there's a wonderful tribute to Mozart in La Traviata.

Consider Violetta's moment of introspection in the Act 1 finale, the famous aria "Ah, fors’è lui". In my opinion, Verdi make a conscious choice to model the solo on Pamina's aria "Ach, ich fuhl's" in The Magic Flute. See if you agree with me.

In terms of the text being set, the similarity is minimal, consisting of the overal mood of introspection. Both women are experiencing soliloquies in which they are considering new possibilities, but they're actually polar opposites. Pamina is considering the possibility that Tamino doesn't love her, leaving open the option of suicide. Violetta, on the other hand, is considering the possibility that Alfredo Germont might hold the key to a new life ruled by true love. One is looking at the final end, the other at a new beginning. In that sense, they really are related as two sides of the same coin.

It's in the music itself, however, that this alleged kinship becomes clear -- at least, to Your Humble Blogger.

A side-by-side comparison of the opening phrases of each aria will suffice. First, here's the Magic Flute excerpt:

And now, the correspoonding excerpt from "Ah, fors’è lui":

Here's what I see:

  • Virtually identical orchestral accompaniment both in rhythmic pattern and voicing of a minor triad in the home key, in root position.
  • Similar time signatures and tempos that sound identical in performance.
  • The vocal lines both enter on the second bar of the accompaniment pattern.
  • Both vocal lines outline a descent from the fifth scale-tone down to the first, or from sol to do. In Verdi's version, the first note is essentially an appoggiatura, and the descent is a broken chord. Pamina's descent is a scale.
  • Once having reached the tonic (the first tone of the scale), both vocal lines suddenly ascend with the leap of an octave. eventually cadencing on the fifth.
Whether these features are coincidence is debatable; that they are similar is not. Given that it's generally agreed that Verdi really did evoke Beethoven from time to time, I see no reason to doubt that Violetta's great scena opens with a deliberate homage to the man Verdi surely acknowledged as one of his musical heroes: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

1 comment:

  1. Is there any evidence outside of this that Verdi made use of or even acknowledged Mozart? I ask as a lover of both.