Embalming fluid – the only cure for presidential fever*
Forced retirement is now imposed on much of the world, I thought it of interest to comment on the retirement of four great figures, three of whom are not usually thought of as ever being retired. The fourth is a strange case of premature retirement.
The cessation of work most relevant to our current state of semi-house arrest is that of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). We know so little about him that wild speculation has followed his ghost. The claim that someone else wrote the plays and poetry was best encapsulated by Mark Twain. “If Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare’s plays, some other guy named Shakespeare did.”
He, or some other guy with the same name, seems to have left London in 1609 to escape a plague – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Playhouses were routinely closed during the span of the epidemic – 1603 to 1610. He did return to London, but there are no plays solely attributable to him from 1610 until his death at age 52 in 1616. His death seems to have been sudden and unexpected. His best known writing after retirement are in his will and on his tombstone. He left his wife “my second best bed” and had his headstone inscribed: “Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear, / To dig the dust enclosed here. / Blessed be the man that spares these stones, / And cursed be he that moves my bones.” I’ve used the modern spelling of the blessing/curse. It worked because his mortal remains are still there. Nevertheless, not the most successful of retirements.
A more spectacular example of early retirement was that of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). After his move to Philadelphia from Boston he got rich as a printer and a writer, allowing him to retire in 1747. He then had enough leisure time to pursue other interests. So prodigious were these interests that one can get writer’s cramps from just listing them. Here are just a few. He invented the lightening rod, the Franklin stove, bifocal glasses, and the glass harmonica. Opera’s most famous mad scene is in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. The composer wrote it with a glass harmonica accompaniment. It’s usually done with a flute, but recently several companies including The Met have gone back to the glass harmonica as originally intended. The young American soprano Nadine Sierra and and an unnamed harmonica player performed the scene at Venice’s La Fenice. As she’s going bonkers Sierra both sings and mimes playing the glass harmonica.
When he was not inventing stuff, Franklin founded America’s first hospital, the American Philosophical Society, and the University of Pennsylvania. He was America’s first authority on chess. He also organized the future country’s first fire department and started the first public library. So protean were his gifts and accomplishments that he stands comparison with Leonardo, but Franklin unlike the Italian master usually finished what he started. And then there’s the founding of The United States of America and the $100 bill – but you know all about that.
The most enigmatic early retirement, and I mean really early, was that of Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868). Born on February 29th, a date that occurs a little bit more than every four years (1800 was not a leap year, nor were 1700 and 1900) he was rarer than his birthday, a success from the start. He literally grew up in the opera house. His father was a musician and his mother a singer.
He is the only composer to write multiple great operas before he was 25. Nobody else could do it – not Mozart, Wagner, or Verdi. His 40 or so operas all written in the 20 years from age 17 to 37 include some of the genre’s greatest works; and then he retired. Why is the cause of endless speculation. Over the remaining four decades of his life he devoted himself to food, wine, soirées, wit, and an occasional non-operatic composition.When the tenor Gilbert Duprez (the first of his kind to hit high C from the chest) asked to be received by Rossini, he was told to come upstairs but only if he left his high C below. Rossini hated this new style of singing.
The Stabat Mater, Petite messe solennelle, and the Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of old age – 150 vocal, chamber and solo piano pieces published after his death) are the products of his retirement years. Even though his last opera, Guillaume Tell, is universally regarded as a masterpiece, he could not be induced to write another. His will funded a home in Paris for retired opera singers.
In the operatic canon, I would rank Rossini second only to Verdi (see below). Verdi, whose austere temperament was more like that of a Roman of the Republic rather than a 19th century Italian, had two artistic heroes – Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) the author of the greatest Italian novel of the 19th century (I promessi sposi). Manzoni, a Lombard wrote in Florentine and finalized that dialect as Italian, finishing the process started by Dante. Verdi’s other hero was Rossini.
When Rossini died Verdi came up with the wildly impractical idea of writing a requiem mass for the late composer to be written by him and 12 other composers. The project failed. When Manzoni died five years later Verdi decided to assign the task of writing a commemorative solely to himself – The result was the Manzoni Mass, now called the Verdi Requiem.
If the facts of Giuseppe Verdi’s life (1813-1901) were not so well known, scholars with time on their hands would say someone else had written his operas. He was born in an obscure hamlet (Le Roncole) in the province of Parma. His father was a tavern keeper and his mother a spinner. He was informally adopted when he was 10 by the richest man in neighboring Busseto – Antonio Barezzi. Barezzi was such a supporter that he paid for private musical lessons in Milan after Verdi had been rejected by the city’s conservatory. Its now the Verdi Conservatory. The name was changed while the composer was still alive. He hated the name change. He was so angry about the rejection that he kept the letter informing him of this action all his life. It still exists. On it he wrote, “I was rejected.” Verdi also married Barezzi’s daughter. Alas, she and their two children died over a two year span.
After a rocky start, Verdi dominated Italian opera for more than half a century. His first opera (Oberto) was performed at La Scala in 1839, his last (Falstaff) at the same theater in 1893. His operas made him a very rich man. After writing Aida for the opening of the Cairo Opera House in 1871 he retired. He had earlier bought a large estate in Sant’Agata just outside of Busseto. He lived there with his second wife Giusepina, a retired opera singer. He gradually acquired more land as the royalties from his operas continued to increase. He built a hospital and school for his tenant farmers. He spent most of his time supervising the farmland and buildings accompanied by his workers and dogs. He was a tough, but fair boss.
Though seemingly retired from composition, he took his requiem mass on tour and made a lot of money conducting it. It was at the Comédie-Française the same time Bizet’s Carmen was having its unsuccessful premiere there.
Beginning in 1881 Giulio Ricordi (Verdi’ publisher), Giusepina, and Arrigo Boito began a long campaign to get Verdi back to composition. Boito, a musician, librettist, and public intellectual was to write a libretto based on Othello. Though Verdi spoke no English he was a lifelong admirer of Shakespeare. He had previously set Macbeth to music. It took the Met more than a century to mount the opera; it has frequently been staged there since its 1959 house premiere (111 times as of last year) and is universally regarded as a masterpiece.
Verdi and Boito in their letters referred to the opera undergoing construction as the ‘chocolate project’. Until very recently Otello has been portrayed as a black man. Political correctness has abolished the blackened face. The opera suffers from this concession to wokeness. Otello is an outsider, the libretto specifically describes him as a black man. Boito’s libretto omits the plays first act set in Venice and hence Brabantio’s fury at his daughter’s elopement with Othello as well has his warning that if she betrayed me (Brabantio) she may well betray you (Othello). The powers that be at the world’s opera houses have no problem with a black person portraying a white; it’s the other way around that’s verboten. Otello’s blackness in a white world helps explain his insecurity and the ease with which Iago convinces him that Desdemona is unfaithful. The opera suffers when Otello is white.
After six years of coaxing, Verdi likely enjoyed the attention, the opera was completed. In 1887 Otello was staged to great acclaim at La Scala. Boito’s libretto is one of the best in all opera and Verdi’s setting is thought by many, including me, as the greatest of all tragic operas.
George Bernard Shaw was a music critic at the time; he wrote under the nom de plume of Corno di Bassetto. He refused to go to the premiere of Verdi’s new opera saying he didn’t wish to be part of a grand old an demonstration. He was an ardent Wagnerian at the time; later in life he repented. He reviewed the opera from the score and declared that it wasn’t as if Verdi had written an opera in the style of Shakespeare, rather Shakespeare had written a play in the style of an Italian opera. Shaw was always entertaining if rarely wise.
Following the triumph of Otello, Verdi was sure that he was now finally retired. Nearing 80 he was induced by the same triumvirate to do another Shakespeare opera, a comedy based on The Merry Wives of Windsor. Boito produced another masterful libretto, Falstaff. In addition to The Merry Wives, he took scenes from both parts of Henry IV. Of his 27 previous operas, only one had been a comedy and it was such a fiasco that Verdi who had just lost his entire family almost gave up composition.
He set to work complaining that he could only work four hours a day compared to the 12 hours that had been his typical pace when he was younger. He also decided to write this opera for himself. His previous dictum had been that the only critic who counted was the box office. The theater was meant to be be full, he declared. Advice that should be considered anew.
Falstaff was premiered at La Scala in 1893. Everyone knew this was really the end of Verdi’s operas. It was a huge success. But something was off. The opera moves at such a pace that its initial audiences were left breathless and confused. Verdi’s music has the energy of a 25 year old combined with the wisdom of old age. Toscanini who was already a famous conductor returned to the orchestra playing the cello at the world premiere.
As interest in Falstaff waned Toscanini kept the opera alive by programming it at La Scala and The Met when he was the chief conductor at both houses. He thought it was Verdi’s greatest opera. Interest gradually revived and today is is part of the standard operatic repertory. The critic Richard Osborne wrote, “Falstaff is comedy’s musical apogee: the finest opera, inspired by the finest dramatist, by the finest opera composer the world has known”. Not bad for a retired guy.
The last years of Verdi’s life were spent overseeing the construction of a home for retired opera singers. He called it his best opera. An Italian pun as opera also means work in that language. He called it the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti (Rest Home for Musicians), but everyone one calls it the Casa Verdi. He left the home all of his future royalties. They lasted until 1951. Both he and Giusepina are buried there.
“Predictions are difficult, especially when they concern the future,” said Yogi Berra. Yogi, as always was on target especially when it came to the COVID-19 epidemic. We were told to flatten the curve so as to protect our hospitals from being overwhelmed. We did this so successfully that doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel are now forced into early retirement because hospitals and clinics are almost empty. Mice and men and all that goes with it.
I’ll conclude with a happy example of retirement. Rossini’s The Barber of Seville written when he was 23; it is his 15th and most popular opera. Dr Bartolo, a medical doctor, is the work’s main comic foil. He isn’t specified as retired, but there’s no evidence that he practices or does anything except chase after a much younger woman. His wonderful patter song describes what an important doctor is he is. The great basso buffo of the last century, Fernando Corena is the singer. A un dottor della mia sorte
*A footnote. Politicians can’t retire as the minimum age of eligibility for election as US president has been raised to 70. And every office holder from dog catcher to senator see a president when he looks in the mirror.