Overture to La forza del destino

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            The nineteenth century was an opera-mad time.  With most composers giving it a shot, simply because, as Willie Sutton famously said, “That’s where the money is.”  And fame, too.  However many were composed, the operatic field was dominated by two artists who still are at the top of the repertoire:  Wagner and Verdi.  But that’s about all that these two luminaries had in common.  Their differences are legion.  It suffices to say that Wagner was not exactly a loyal, solid family man, whereas Verdi stuck with his wife and simple country home to the end of his long life.   Wagner was a cosmopolitan man of the world, and Verdi was the only major composer who was a dedicated farmer.  There’s more, but the important differences lay in the nature of their operas.

            Wagner’s operas and music dramas reflected his consuming interest in Nordic myth, a personal pursuit of unique poetic styles and techniques, and sophisticated operatic theories concerning the relationships in opera between all of its contributory arts.  Magic, myth, redemption through love, important orchestral participation, chromatic harmony, elaborate symbolic systems—it’s difficult, indeed, to posit a more personal, unique, and totally different approach to opera in all of its history.  Verdi, on the other hand, was a child of his Italian operatic tradition—to mention only his immediate predecessors:  Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti.  The music was simpler—carried by memorable melody--the structure straightforward, and the use of the orchestra was masterful, but strictly accompanimental.  The plots focused upon real human beings of the real world entwined in deep conflict over the eternal themes of love, jealousy, hate, and power.

            By the 1860s Verdi had conquered the world of Italian opera, and was rapidly gaining influence in opera houses all over Europe, even including the formidable Parisian opera establishment.  His rousing successes in the 1850s include works still central in the international operatic repertoire:  Rigoletto, Il trovatore, La traviata, and Un ballo in maschera.  After these masterpieces his rate of composition fell off somewhat, ending with the great works of his later years:  Aïda, Othello, and Falstaff.  In between there falls Don Carlos (1867) and La forza del destino (1862).

            La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny) was first performed in St. Petersburg, Russia, with several important productions following soon thereafter, including one in New York City in 1865.  Verdi often made revisions to his operas, for a variety of reasons, including censorship, specific demands based upon venue (notably Paris), specific singers’ abilities and preferences—all common during those times.  The 1869 revision of the opera included a new overture, which stands almost alone among overtures to Verdi operas as a concert favorite.  Its popularity stems from the powerful drama imbued in the music from the very first imposing notes in the brass.  There is a case to be made that the three chords are a rare example of a musical symbol in Verdi, in this instance, depicting the inevitable power of “fate,”—hence the title of the opera.  The plot of the opera is not untypical of the composer, being a thicket of doomed love, vicious wars, hidden identities, duels, vows to enter a monastery, and ethnic hatred, and, of course, tragic death at the end.

            The afore-mentioned octaves in the brass open the work with a steely powerful effect, followed by the famous, uneasy and ominous main theme in the basses: four little ascending notes that tell us much.   What follows is a well-wrought compendium of several of the main tunes from the opera, woven together somewhat like the tedious, complicated—almost risible plot.  But, the musical logic of Verdi’s best-known overture is superb, and a truer reflection of the dramatic power and melodic riches of one of Italy’s greatest composers could not be essayed.   Musical dark and light alternate, as the melodies from the opera intertwine, leading to the thundering conclusion that never fails to rouse.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan