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In the Verdi vs Wagner war, there is only one good guy

Early in the summer, the Bavarian State Opera staged an open-air fight between the two musical bi-centenarians. It had the makings of a good bout until the Germans, in typical 21st century fashion (Syria? We’re on both sides), declared the result a draw.

That’s an outrageous fudge, and neither composer would have accepted it. On Sunday, at the Royal Opera House, the writer Philip Hensher and I will fight the issue to the death, with a live orchestra, two singers and Stephen Fry in the chair. You can follow us on social media, and watch the live stream on the Guardian and the Intelligence Squared sites. It’s Verdi vs Wagner, with no room for neutrals.

As a taster, I’ve written a little column for the JC today about one area where Verdi wins hands down –  plain humanity. Click here to read it.



verdi vs      spiegel wagner


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  1. with the exception of Michael Finnissy, Wagner has been more favoured over Verdi from composers of a modernist persuasion.

    • There is an argument (presented in Scott Messing’s excellent book on Neoclassicism in Music) which maintains that modernism, at least in Central Europe grew out of the volte-face on Wagner expressed first by Nietzsche then Thomas Mann, which influenced the thought of Ferruccio Busoni. Busoni developed the concept of the Junge Klassizität prior to WW1, which would come to be very influential on some post-WW1 composers who developed their own form of strongly non-Wagnerian objectivity and classicism. At least at this stage in history, modernism was very detached from Wagnerian tendencies.

  2. David Boxwell says:

    Waltraud Meier said in the documentary film “I Follow a Voice Within Me” that compared to Wagner, all other opera composers she’s performed (including Verdi) seem somewhat one-dimensional. And she would like a second life to continue to probe the depths of Wagner, because one hasn’t been enough for her.

    • I would not want to put words into the mouth of Waltraud Meier, but she may have felt that to be a great Verdi singer you can succeed with just a great voice but, although a great voice helps, to be a great Wagner singer it is more important to be an intelligent, inquisitive actor. Luckily for us, Waltraud Meier is simply great in every department.

      • Yes Addison says:

        Waltraud Meier is one of the greatest talents to grace the opera stage in my lifetime. I have seen an Isolde that was a shattering experience I will not forget if I live to be 100, and who, in the last 25 years, is worth standing in her shadow as Kundry, Ortrud, Marie? But her Amneris and Eboli were distinguished only by her stage presence. When heard on audio recordings, they sink to the bottom of the standings. She simply could not sing the first solo of Eboli. So it is good that she preferred Wagner and wants another lifetime to explore his music. In a second lifetime, her reputation would not suffer from avoidance of Verdi altogether.

        Which composer is greater? Well, it’s enough for me that they and Mozart are the faces of Mount Rushmore; no one else did enough or was great enough to be the fourth. And I’ve gone through periods in my life of listening obsessively to the works of one or the other. There are times, when I’m hearing the very greatest of one or the other, the quartet within Act IV of Don Carlos or a great Immolation Scene, that I think this is as good as it gets.

        But, forced to choose? Then Verdi. He wrote beautiful music but he had the greater theatrical talent. He gave us human beings. Wagner did that in Meistersinger with Sachs and Eva, so he *could* do it; I wish he had done it more often. I never particularly *care* about Tannhaeuser, Elsa, Tristan, Siegfried. Breathtaking music is all around them, yes, and often fascinating philosophical questions crop up from their circumstances and milieux, but are they ever flesh-and-blood people to me? No. I always feel the Verdi characters are, even when a Verdi opera is performed even adequately. His fathers and daughters, his jealous husbands, his unhappy rulers, his dispossessed nobles and enslaved princesses…they’re as real to me as the elements. The words may be “good enough” or they may be superb (Boito’s), but the music, in the words of Riccardo Muti, gives you their souls.

        So, in the theoretical overloaded rowboat, I would throw over my recordings of the ten canonical Wagner operas (hard as it would be to part with Meistersinger and Parsifal especially) to keep the 15 or so of Verdi’s 28 that have some claim to greatness. If all Verdi had left were Rigoletto, Traviata, Ballo, Forza, the revised Boccanegra, Don Carlos, Aida, Otello, Falstaff, and the Requiem Mass, it would still be as great a top ten as any composer could boast, for me.

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          I get what you mean when you say you have a hard time identifying with mythological characters like Tannhäuser or Siegfried whose experiences are indeed not exactly taken from everyday life or mirror those of “real people” but then you go on saying you can identify with “unhappy rulers, dispossessed nobles and enslaved princesses”…you must have had an extraordinarily interesting life! Which of the above are you, an unhappy king, a disposed noble, or an enslaved princess? Or all three?

  3. Wagner gives us thinly disguised Fascism, Verdi gives us sentimental slop. Which is the “winner”?

    • Fascism? Where? Can you give me a bar number?

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      Wagner held some fairly radical political and also the well known racist beliefs, but that doesn’t make him a “fascist”. One doesn’t necessarily have to be a racist to be a fascist, and being a racist doesn’t automatically make one a fascist either. Nor are there are any fascist views reflected in his work, neither openly nor thinly disguised.
      The reason Verdi is a highly regarded composer is that many feel he gives his characters way more depth than just “sentimental slop”. But, of course, one has to be able to hear that in order to appreciate it.
      So who “wins”? I don’t know. I don’t care because I think these comparisons are silly. But you “lose” because you can’t appreciate either composer.

      • Gonout Backson says:

        Who wins? We do, to have both of them. Enough of this “the town is too small for both of us” aesthetics. Use the wagnerian “süsses Wörtlein UND”: Wagner AND Verdi, Toscanini AND Furtwängler, Callas AND Tebaldi, Horowitz AND Richter…

    • Verdi was a ‘mensch’ and a patriot . . a true winner

    • That today, in the XXI century, there’s a person that thinks that Wagner gives us fascism, means that we have to pursue harder than ever our fight agains iliteracy. Sorry guys, Verdi was a fine opera composer; Wagner was much more that that, and any attempt to minimise his figure or his historical importance in the light of his controversial personality is condemned to failure.

  4. What a completely pointless PR exercise !!

    • PR for what? for whom?

      • Very daring of you to ask these two questions! Three names will have sprung to the mind of most of your readers!

        In my view, although I love the operas of both composers, Wagner wins hands down. After a lifetime of hundreds of performances by both of them and a great deal of study, I feel I know all of Wagner’s and most of Verdi’s operas pretty well, but I I still learn something new every time I attend a Wagner opera: this is very rare when I go to Verdi, although I often enjoy the performances enormously.

        Put another way, I feel that however well the opera is performed and directed, Verdi’s music remains rooted in the 19th century (which is not necessarily a bad thing), whereas Wagner’s transcends the 19th, 20th and even the 21st century. There is an inner power and a complexity which remain vibrant and stubbornly alive. For example, I never care about Gilda or Desdemona, whereas Isolde and Brünnhilde remain endlessly fascinating.

        • Yes Addison says:

          Ha! Michael, I had not read your “I never care about…” comment before I wrote mine above, expressing just the opposite! (The operas in which Isolde and Brünnhilde appear are endlessly fascinating to me too, yes.)

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        Norman Lebrecht says:
        September 13, 2013 at 4:56 pm

        “PR for what? for whom?”

        Oh, come on, Norman! You yourself have gotten *a lot* of mileage out of the “Wagner was a really bad dude” thing. Which is totally fine, after all, it is your job to write about music. But you know best that these controversial subjects about which people still have strong feelings gain you and your writing more attention than, say, “a look at early baroque composers and their treatment of ornamentation”.

        There is one thing you have overlooked though: While Wagner wrote some nasty pamphlets, he never wrote any music actually reflecting the kind of world view that many associate with him now. The Ring is all about power and abuse of power, the whole thing ends in complete catastrophe, something Adolf and his buddies apparently kind of overlooked…

        Verdi on the other hand wrote some Catholic church music. As someone who knows his Jewish history very well, I am sure you know that next to the Nazis, the Catholic church is pretty much the worst thing that ever happened to the Jews after the Roman-Jewish wars. There is many centuries worth of Jewish persecution there. So can we hold that against Verdi? Despite the fact that he wrote the Requiem and the Four Sacred Pieces, it appears that he himself was more of an atheist though. So does writing those pieces make him an opportunist without a conscience?

        • David Boxwell says:

          “The Ring is all about power and abuse of power, the whole thing ends in complete catastrophe, something Adolf and his buddies apparently kind of overlooked. . .”

          It’s also possible to argue that the Third Reich embraced Wagner for precisely this reason, especially after 1942, when as defeat became more and more certain, “Gotterdammerung” became the perfect expression of a “death wish” for annihilation and transfiguration. Which is why the 1942 Bayreuth recording of the opera (Elmendorff conducting, Set Svanholm as Siegfried) is so gruesomely fascinating.

  5. Evviva Verdi!

  6. Kenneth Conway says:

    Well, out of Wagner came Bruckner, Chausson, Wolf, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, Pelléas, and on and on. Case closed.

    • Gonout Backson says:

      You know, some would say they would have better stayed inside… Don’t shoot, not me, not me!

  7. Surely there is room for both composers like there is for cats and dogs. They are different and I would say it is pointless in comparing some political motive . Just because you like cats doesn’t mean dogs are inferior. Both have written wonderful music, and it shows to me a sign of a true musician who can appreciate all different types of music and different composers. There is nothing sentimental about Verdi’s Traviata or the Requiem. Fascism? I just go for what Wagner presents us with in his Ring, the characters of which are reincarnated into Parsifal. Enjoy what there is!!

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      Of course you can love both dogs and cats! And other animals, too. Some people love turtles. I know a guy who keeps tarantulas in a terrarium and he says he loves them…he takes them out and pets them…ewww. They totally suck at playing fetch though, he admits that.

      Still – cats are obviously much smarter than dogs, no doubt. They are also sneakier and meaner.
      So you are calling Verdi a dog?

  8. And I don’t mean Cats and Dogs have written wonderful music before one of you picks me up :)

  9. Seems my previous comments have been deleted for some reason, yet they were there just now?

  10. All I was saying is that surely there is room for Verdi and Wagner for different reasons, other tha fascism and slop, and a sign of a good and all rounded musician who can appreciate both. There is room for both cats and dogs in life. Having a preference for cats doesn’t make dogs inferior :)

  11. You, Norman. You are smart enough to know there is no ‘better Giant’. The German’s were right !

  12. Marvellous piece of writing,just marvellous.

  13. I’m looking forward to the sequel. The “Beatles vs Rolling Stones war”. Ticket sales for Wembley start shortly. PANEM ET CIRCENSES! Throw the Christians to the Lions. Thumbs up or down, it’s down for humanity either way. Have fun. Are you fit to go all the way to the penalty shooting?

  14. Theodore McGuiver says:

    I don’t think anyone would challenge the assertion that Verdi was a nicer man than Wagner, but – Otello compared with anything pre-Lohengrin aside – he’s not likely to win the Better Composer gong. Will the debate be podcast?

  15. Who “wins” depends on the criteria of course. In terms of who changed music for ever, RW wins. In terms of tunes people who rarely or never go to the opera whistle, it’s GV. In terms of whose music influenced later composers, until far into the 20th century, RW. Who wrote more wrenching dying ariosi, GV. Etc. I say: thank God we have the music of both. As for comparing who was the nicer guy personally, well it’s clearVerdi wins… but what has that go to do with music?

  16. I love Puccini!!!

  17. Verdi is more theatrical. Wagner is too redundant and prolix. In the Ring, for example, we need to hear the whole events that happened on the previous night on all operas.

    I think that Wagner composed to himself. It is about “me, me and me”. Verdi composed to Italy. Wagner was idiosyncratic. Verdi was democratic. Wagner demanded my love to him. Verdi didn’t demand anything from me. It was the crowd that demanded Verdi to keep it up.

    I am not mentioning Wagner’s antisemitism. If I boycott all the bigot composers, I would miss a lot of masterpieces. That’s the way it is.

    Those I think are the main differences. They were both great composers that did wonderful things to the music. Die Walkure or Don Carlo still amazes me.

    • A man that offers his Tristan to the world can only be considered as one of the greatest benefactors of Humanity. As for the purported prolixity of Wagner, we have to be thankful that he indulged in those redundancies, which led to more minutes of glorious music.

    • @Roberto: “Prolix” is, I believe, misapplied here. It’s not about needing “to hear the whole events that happened on the previous night on all operas.” It’s about the way the events described, repeatedly, change their musical shape (and as often as not their psychological underpinning) with each new narration. So one “needs to hear”, indeed.

    • Gonout Backson says:

      Don Carlos. Verdi never wrote an Italian opera named Don Carlo.

  18. Actually, the JC website isn’t responding at all. Must be temporarily down.

  19. ” I will fight the issue to the death “…Wagner would have admired that.
    But take care,we need you here.

  20. I recall a piece by Philip Henscher called, I think, The Day the Music Died, appearing in I think Granta in which he explained, sadly, that having attained a certain politico-philosophical-aesthetic awareness, he no longer could enjoy classical music. I wonder what happened?

    • I well remember that article in Granta, and it would indeed be interesting to know how he emerged from this affliction, whereby he was no longer able to feel any emotional connection with classical music as a result of witnessing an horrific accident while on holiday in France.

  21. I’m reminded of Roger Scruton’s comment that the fact that Wagner even at his best (even in Die Mesitersinger) doesn’t have the warmth and humanity of Verdi just shows that warmth and humanity aren’t everything! They’re both wonderful of course!

    • With due respect, that sounds to me a cheap remark (that of Scruton). I think some people is unable to separate the man and the artist, and think they’re judging the art when they’re actually judging the man. Die Meistersinger exudes warmth, humanity. It’s a truly moving work. And the music is first rate, far superior to anything Verdi wrote in his whole life, except perhaps Otello. It’s distressing to note that, while Wagner was working on Tristan, Verdi was working on Simon Boccanegra and Ballo in maschera. Definitely, the played in different leagues.

      • Yes Addison says:

        I’m not sure why that’s distressing. Whatever you think of them, you acknowledge, don’t you, that a lot of smart people consider Simon Boccanegra and Ballo in Maschera musical masterpieces that reward study and close analysis, right? It’s not as though you can say, “It’s distressing to note that while Wagner was working on Tristan, Verdi was working on Adriana Lecouvreur and Cavalleria Rusticana.”

        • Compared with Tristan, Simon and Ballo are nothing. History of music would have been essentially the same without a single note by Verdi. The same cannot be said of Wagner. In any case, I am happy that we got both of them.

          • Gonout Backson says:

            “History of music would have been essentially the same without a single note by Verdi.”

            I suppose you could say exactly the same thing about Mozart. I know personally some nice and clever people who consider Mozart completely useless. The only question being what is this whole art thing about : about “history of music (literature, painting, whatever)”, or about people listening (reading, watching) and feeling/thinking/being better afterwards.

            Funny and dangerous thing, “progress”.

  22. My personal Verdi vs Wagner war:
    Round 1: Playing Arias without the singing.
    Wagner: Liebestod: still fantastic music, nothing missing.
    Verdi: Rigoletto: Um-ta-ta Um-ta-ta …

    Round 2: Whistling in the morning in the shower
    Wagner: Liebestod: Astronomic water bill, huge Carbon footprint, neighbors dog starts howling.
    Verdi: Rigoletto: Saving water, good for the environment.

  23. Judith Lynn says:

    Go for it, Norman, and we want a good, clean fight!

  24. Sanford Rothenberg says:

    Perhaps the ultimate determining factor should be which music is more conducive to “twerking”.Other competitive disciplines could include anti-establishment libretti,and who had greater admiration for “Norma”.

  25. Imo, Verdi was a better Operatic composer, but Wagner was a greater Composer. There is no doubt about which one of the two was a better human being. Anyway, it is wonderful that we have music by both of them.

    • A sound, unruffled viewpoint. Wagner would have disagreed in one aspect: he didn’t compose operas, not after Lohengrin ;-).

      • According to him, perhaps, but it does not change my opinion at all. Whatever he wanted to call them, they are still operas, by virtually any definition.

  26. Verdi wrote barrel organ music. Wagner changed the course of musical language.

    • Gonout Backson says:

      Are you absolutely sure he changed it for the better?

    • Both of Alan’s statements are erroneous. In the first one, he grossly underestimated Verdi’s contribution. In the second, “opened new possibilities” would be more accurate than “changed the course”. And opening new possibilities is definitely very valuable.

  27. Over and above the well-known appropriation of Wagner by the Nazis, let’s not also forget that Mussolini was a huge fan of Verdi, right from his childhood, when he gave a speech commemorating the Italian composer, drawing attention to the social conditions in which he lived. He was also deeply fond of the music of Puccini and Mascagni, but disliked Wagner for the most part, saying ‘Palestrina and his school are more congenial to me’.

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