Life and Operas of Verdi

Course No. 790
Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
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Course Overview

The Italians have a word for the sense of dazzling beauty produced by effortless mastery: "sprezzatura." Perhaps no cultural form associated with Italy is as steeped in the love of sprezzatura as opera, a genre the Italians invented. And no artist working in opera has embodied the ideal of sprezzatura as magnificently as that gruff, self-described "farmer" from the Po Valley and composer of 28 operas, Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901).

Opera's Best-Loved Composer

Verdi is still the most popular composer in the 400-year-old history of opera. His operas are produced more than any other composer's, and one (admittedly unverifiable) source claims that his La traviata (1853) has been staged live somewhere around the world every evening for the past 100 years.

What are the treasures of creativity that account for this popularity? With Professor Robert Greenberg, you unpack them in depth and detail in this 32-lecture series.

You explore both famous and not-so-famous Verdi operas, as well as his Requiem Mass of 1874, his one great concert work; his early songs; and his very last composition, the Stabat Mater.

You trace his development from a more or less conventional composer of operas in the traditional Italian bel canto ("beautifully sung") style to a creator of truly innovative musical dramas in which the power of music to intensify and explore human emotion is exploited to the fullest degree.

"Verdi was a great dramatist and a great melodist at the same time, whose artistic evolution never ceased across the 50-year span of his career," says Professor Greenberg.

Enjoy a Mix of Biography and Musical Excerpts

The course structure is chronological, allowing you to follow easily the developing patterns in Verdi's work. Combining biography with a variety of musical excerpts, Professor Greenberg presents a memorable mixture of "sights to see and things to think about along the way."

To give a few examples:

  • Entertaining anecdotes, including how Verdi first realized Nabucco was a hit, or his response to a dissatisfied operagoer who asked him for a ticket refund—he saw Aida twice and did not like it either time
  • Enlightening musical analyses, such as Professor Greenberg's line-by-line examination of the breathtaking "quartet" sequence in Act III of Rigoletto—a musical achievement on a par with Mozart at the top of his operatic game, and an exploration of the massive, 38-minute "Dies irae" movement of the Requiem
  • The story behind how Verdi became a larger-than-life, iconic hero of Italian nationalism
  • An explanation of how Verdi worked out his complex creations in dealings with everyone from amazingly gifted librettists (such as Arrigo Boito) to maddening censors
  • Descriptions of key personal associations with lovers and spouses to business partners and politicians.
A Brief Biography

You trace Verdi's long life beginning at his birth in 1813 in the small village of Le Roncole in French-dominated northern Italy (then the Duchy of Parma), where his parents kept a tavern frequented by itinerant musicians.

Verdi's parents sent him to the nearby town of Busseto to study music with Ferdinando Provesi, a cofounder of the Busseto Philharmonic Society. Verdi learned the art of composition by writing hundreds of pieces, which were then performed by the Busseto Orchestra.

The other cofounder, Antonio Barezzi, took the young Verdi under his wing and later financed his compositional studies under Vincenzo Lavigna in Milan, after the Milan Conservatory had rejected his application on the grounds that he was too old and showed little musical promise.

In 1836, Verdi became master of music of the city of Busseto. His first opera, Oberto, was performed at the famous La Scala Opera House in Milan in 1839.

His next opera, Un giorno di regno (King for a Day), was a total flop, and Verdi never forgot the humiliation. From then on, he never had any regard for public opinion, good or bad.

Verdi's first masterpiece was Macbeth, premiered in 1847. This opera marked a watershed in Verdi's compositional development. In it, we begin to see Verdi depart from the traditional Italian bel canto opera, which focused on melodic and vocal beauty, often at the expense of dramatic integrity.

In the 1860s, Verdi began to slow down his prodigious output of operas. Between 1839 and 1859, he had composed 23 operas; between 1862 and 1893, he composed five operas and the Requiem.

When Verdi died in January 1901, 200,000 mourners came to see off to eternity the man who had, by the time of his death, become united Italy's most famous citizen.

The Primacy of Opera

A premise of the course—laid out by Professor Greenberg in his first lecture—is that opera cannot be understood as just one more musical genre among others in Western history.

On the contrary, states Dr. Greenberg, opera, Verdi's medium par excellence, is primary and central; the most important musical invention of the last half-millennium.

Opera was born out of the Italian Renaissance desire to recover and reproduce the dramatic art of the "ancients" by setting entire stage plays to music. What the Renaissance called "works in music" or opera in musica, we have shortened to simply "opera." As a genre, opera made the voice and feelings of the individual central to art as never before.

The implication of opera's primal and central character, argues Professor Greenberg, could not be clearer: If you want to understand classical (or more properly concert) music, you must understand opera.

Each lecture contains one or more musical excerpts, personally chosen by Professor Greenberg to provide you with vivid, concise illustrations of Verdi's artistry. The musical interludes average about 12 minutes per 45-minute lecture. The dates below indicate the year of the premiere.

Works you'll hear in the lectures are excerpted from:

Sei romanze (Six Romances), nos. 1 and 3, 1838
Oberto, 1839
Un giorno di regno, 1840
Nabucco, 1842
I Lombardi, 1843
Ernani, 1844
I due foscari, 1844
Macbeth, 1847
I masnadieri, 1847
Luisa Miller, 1849
Rigoletto, 1851
Il trovatore, 1853
La traviata, 1853
Les Vêpres siciliennes, 1855
Un ballo in maschera, 1859
La forza del destino, 1862
Don Carlo, 1867
Aida, 1871
Requiem Mass, 1874
Otello, 1887
Falstaff, 1893

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32 lectures
 |  Average 45 minutes each
  • 1
    La bell'Italia
    Verdi, like opera itself 200 years before him, was Italian-born. He came into a candlelit world, and died during the era of electricity. Despite all the changes he saw and made, his works never abandoned opera's roots as a popular entertainment or its devotion to sprezzatura, "the art of effortless mastery." x
  • 2
    Beginnings
    Verdi was a gifted student; wealthy citizens in his home region near Parma sent him to the Milan Conservatory. But the 18-year-old Verdi was deemed too old for admission, and so had to find another way to start his musical career. x
  • 3
    Oberto
    Embroiled in a bitter factional feud in his adopted hometown and stricken by the tragic loss of his two young children, Verdi nonetheless successfully transplanted himself to Milan and scored a modest success in November 1839 with the premiere of his first opera at La Scala. x
  • 4
    Nabucco
    His first wife's death and his second opera's disastrous premiere almost killed Verdi's young career. Yet a year later, in 1842, he bounced back both commercially and artistically with Nabucco, a biblical tale of liberation and unity that stirred Italians deeply. x
  • 5
    Nabucco, Conclusion and Risorgimento
    Verdi cannot be understood apart from the Italian Risorgimento; nor can it be understood apart from him, for his music was its soul and voice. The third-act duet between King Nabucco and his daughter Abigaille is a window on this remarkable cross-influence between an artist and a nation being born. x
  • 6
    I Lombardi
    The premiere of Nabucco would prove a turning point in Verdi's personal as well as professional life, for it was then that he met the singer and actress Giuseppina Strepponi, his future wife. La Scala gave him a contract whose first fruit was I Lombardi alla prima crociata (The Lombards at the First Crusade). x
  • 7
    I Lombardi, Conclusion and Ernani
    With the 1842 premiere of I Lombardi, Verdi began a decade of fiercely hard work, showing himself a master of the business side of the opera game. I Lombardi, Ernani, and other operas of this period such as I due foscari would drive Italian audiences wild and the Austrian censors up the wall. x
  • 8
    Macbeth
    In 1846, Verdi expanded his range still further with Macbeth, reaching for extreme Romantic effects that were a departure from the norms of Italian opera. Music and voices, he had decided, must above all express the truth of the characters and their inner worlds. x
  • 9
    I masnadieri
    In 1847, Verdi spent time in London, supervising a production of I masnadieri (The Robbers). In 1848, after revolutions broke out against regimes across Europe, an elated Verdi returned to Milan, newly liberated from the Austrians, only to see his hopes for an "Austria-free" Italy dashed. x
  • 10
    Luisa Miller and Rigoletto
    Luisa Miller is a tale of ordinary people crushed by absolutist government, and another step on Verdi's journey away from the bel canto tradition. Rigoletto, with its libretto by Francesco Piave, comes from a play by Victor Hugo. x
  • 11
    Rigoletto, Act I continued
    The first act in this lurid tale of wickedness, innocence, and a terrible curse blends music and drama in a way wholly new to Italian opera. In Rigoletto, the hunchbacked jester of the Duke of Mantua, Verdi and Piave have given us one of the great characters of the opera stage. x
  • 12
    Rigoletto, Acts I, II and III
    The Duke's aria "La donna e mobile" ("Woman is fickle") is one of the most famous in all opera. It speaks volumes about the shallow, Don-Juanish Duke, and is so tuneful that Verdi, while writing it, took elaborate steps to keep it secret lest its impact at the premiere be lessened. x
  • 13
    Rigoletto, Act III continued
    Rigoletto includes some of the most stunning ensemble and orchestral writing since Mozart. The atmospherics (literally!) are extraordinary too, as Verdi uses the orchestra and a wordless chorus to suggest a coming storm as a metaphor for doom. x
  • 14
    Rigoletto, Conclusion and Il trovatore
    How could Verdi top Rigoletto, one of the most memorable characters in all opera? In 1852, less than two years after Rigoletto's premiere, Verdi wrote not one but two more immortal operas, each musically brilliant, dramatically innovative, and beloved to this day. x
  • 15
    Il trovatore, Conclusion and La traviata
    While the public swooned with joy over Il trovatore's January 1853 premiere, some of Verdi's critics complained that its "vulgarity" had put an end to bel canto opera. Oddly enough, they were quite close to the mark. x
  • 16
    Un ballo in maschera
    Verdi created this opera with remarkable speed, but then had to fight a titanic public battle with the censors in Naples and settle a number of lawsuits before it could be staged to his liking—in Rome. x
  • 17
    Un ballo in maschera, Conclusion
    In Act III, Verdi shamelessly pulls out every melodramatic stop but somehow makes it all work: a sure sign of his genius. By now middle-aged, he also tried to retire from both politics and opera, but happily would succeed only in quitting the former. x
  • 18
    La forza del destino
    Written for the court of the Russian czar and premiered at St. Petersburg in 1862, this tale of star-crossed young lovers featured a "destiny" theme that stands as a musical landmark in Verdi's score. x
  • 19
    Don Carlo
    Verdi spent nearly a year composing Don Carlo, based on a drama by Friedrich von Schiller, for the Paris Opéra. The work caused some critics to make wrong, maddening, and yet not entirely unreasonable comparisons between Verdi and Wagner. x
  • 20
    Don Carlo, Conclusion
    Verdi hated autocracy, yet Act IV of Don Carlo pulls back the curtain of power to show the arch-autocrat Philip II of Spain in his humanity as a lonely man afraid of aging and betrayal. Princess Eboli's aria "O don fatal" in this act contains one of the greatest passages ever written for mezzo-soprano. x
  • 21
    Aida
    Set in ancient Egypt and commissioned by the Ottoman governor of that country to mark the completion of the Suez Canal, Aida is famous for spectacle, though its core is a tale of private love and loss. The opera's "first premiere," which Verdi himself did not conduct, was in Cairo.   x
  • 22
    Aida, Conclusion
    Taking Aida's 1872 Milan premiere to be his most important ever, Verdi forced changes on La Scala that are now the rule for opera houses everywhere. It was all to good effect, for Aida is the benchmark operatic spectacle and remains Verdi's most popular work. x
  • 23
    The Requiem
    The 1873 death of the great author Alessandro Manzoni—the virtual inventor of modern standard Italian—spurred Verdi to score a Requiem Mass in Manzoni's honor. The result is a work that is unique in this often-tried genre. x
  • 24
    The Requiem, Conclusion
    Verdi's seven-movement Requiem expresses an awesome range of emotions. We focus on its huge, 38-minute Dies irae (Day of Wrath) section and its closing Libera me. Along with Beethoven's Missa solemnis (1822) and Brahms's German Requiem (1869), Verdi's Requiem is the greatest work of religious music written between 1800 and 1900. x
  • 25
    Otello
    This was the product of a conspiracy to get Verdi—by now the most famous living Italian—to compose again. The key was librettist Arrigo Boito, whose partnership with Verdi would become one of the finest in musical history. x
  • 26
    Otello, Conclusion; Falstaff
    Otello was an event of national importance when it premiered in 1887, and many thought it was Verdi's swan song. Desdemona's "Willow Song" scene makes a window onto this masterwork on the tragic side of the Shakespearean range. x
  • 27
    Falstaff, Act I, Sc. 1
    Verdi had total control over Falstaff and crafted the whole production with great care and gusto. This was not only the summation of his life's work (and only his second comic opera), but broke new ground both dramatically and musically. x
  • 28
    Falstaff, Act I, Sc. 1, Conclusion; Sc. 2
    Verdi knew how crucial timing is to comedy, so he avoided arias in favor of a profusion of fluid melodic lines that overlap, spin off, and turn into something else entirely. The overall effect is remarkable. x
  • 29
    Falstaff, Act I, Sc. 2, Conclusion; Act II, Sc. 1
    The second scene of Act I features an amazing group-sing that combines men's and women's ensembles, each singing in a different meter. Act II begins with an explosive orchestral passage from which Verdi develops most of the scene's melodic material. x
  • 30
    Falstaff, Act II, Sc. 1, Conclusion; Sc. 2
    Verdi's "inner eye" for action on stage is almost as extraordinary as his inner ear for music. There is comic genius in the way he and Boito bring to life the antics of Falstaff, Ford, and the quick-witted "Merry Wives of Windsor." x
  • 31
    Falstaff, Act II, Sc. 2 continued
    Verdi's score matches the characters and their actions brilliantly: Falstaff's ostensibly seductive "love song" sounds comically dated, while later, fast-moving, overlapping vocal lines accompany complex slapstick action. x
  • 32
    Falstaff, Act II, Conclusion; Act III
    In 1900, a friend asked the 87-year-old Verdi which of his creations was his favorite. Verdi's response was extraordinary, and it tells us much about the man and where his priorities lay near the end of his life. x

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Your professor

Robert Greenberg

About Your Professor

Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. A graduate of Princeton University, Professor Greenberg holds a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California, Berkeley. He has seen his compositions—which include more than 45 works for a wide variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles—performed all over the world, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles,...
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Reviews

Life and Operas of Verdi is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 68.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great musical portions This turned out to be one of best courses I have purchased from The Great Courses. Professor Greenfield was great and his enthusiasm helped make the lectures such as I could barely wait until I would have time to listen to the next. Because of this I later purchased his course on The Sympathy
Date published: 2019-10-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic The detailed and insightful elements shared in the course are put in a superb light by the passionate and energetic style of the lecturer. I loved it!
Date published: 2018-10-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative and entertaining I listened with great interest and learned many things I did not know. I was also induced to listen to and watch the recordings I own with new appreciation.
Date published: 2018-09-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An excellent course Possibly the best course I have listened to. Great material and an excellent presentation.
Date published: 2018-06-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Viva Verdi I wanted to know what makes the Verdi opera significantly superior in the opera world. Now I know. Great information enjoyably presented.
Date published: 2018-05-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Absoutely love those opera luctures! Several years ago I bought a different opera lecture by Professor Greenberg and liked it very much. Now, several years later, I bought another, also by the same Professor Greenberg, and love it as much as I did the previous lecture. He has just a bit of silliness in his presentation. I like the way he brings old events into current culture to put it into perspective, as though the activity was happening now. I bought the lectures on sale so that made it even better.
Date published: 2018-03-02
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Missed opportunities I have listened to a few of Prof. Greenberg's courses, and some I have enjoyed, particularly the course on Bach, the great piano works, and concerto and symphony. I think he does a good job with absolute and concert repertoire music. But I find the opera courses focus far too much on the libretti and not nearly enough on the music, specifically the musical tricks and techniques the composer uses to dramatize the story. This surprises me, given that Prof. Greenberg himself is promoted here as a composer himself, and that he is clearly understands a composer's thought process and decisions, challenges and innovations. For just one example, his presentation of Rigoletto is spread over several lectures, which in sum, take longer than it does to watch an actual performance of the opera. Why is this? It's because Prof. Greenberg spends an inordinate and unnecessary amount of time reading and acting out the libretto, and these are, frankly, painful and embarrassing. And I would suggest, unnecessary. I would have much preferred a short synopsis of each scene so that the listener can follow the story, but we don't need it read first in Italian (poorly pronounced) and then in English and with mock cartoonish voices. Why not offer a composer's insight into how the melodies, the orchestrations, the harmonies, the casting, etc - how the composer conceptualizes all of this and tells a story in sound? The storm scene in the last act of Rigoletto is an example of a lost opportunity. Prof. Greenberg reads and acts out all the parts in varying cartoon voices, ala Mel Blanc and then plays the scene. The storm scene lasts all of 3-4 minutes in performance, but because Greenberg reads all the parts, first in Italian, then in English, comments snarkily here and there, stops to tell a joke, etc... the discussion of the scene takes twice as long as it does to listen to the scene as Verdi describes it musically. If listeners want to know each and every single word of the libretto, they can obtain one and read it for themselves, I would think. How much more might the listener get out of these moments if Prof Greenberg had spent that same time describing how Verdi creates the storm itself? Tell us about those rumbling double-basses and cellos. Tell us about those flute arpeggios. Tell us about those heavy open fifths and thumping in the lower orchestra as the storm gathers in the distance. Tell us about that howling wind effect on those chromatic parallel thirds. Prof. Greenberg neglected to mention that Verdi uses an all-male chorus as an off-stage sound effect, to a chilling and hair-raising effect at the climax of the opera - that was an innovation, and it stands out, harrowing and startling when it occurs. But not so much as a single word about it from Prof. Greenberg. Instead we have to sit through his enactment of Maddalena, Gilda, Sparafucile - which he could have covered in a sentence or two to describe what's about to happen. It's not as if having heard him act all that out, the non-Italian listener is going to remember each line of dialogue as the action rushes past. This results in the listener learning how to listen to Rigoletto, perhaps, even word by word, but without gaining new knowledge or listening skills that can be transferred to the next opera. Going into Il Trovatore next, he describes briefly how Verdi must create a certain atmosphere (gypsy, exotic, strange) in order to set the scene. And he reads the text again. No discussion of how Verdi creates this exotic, gypsy, strange sound - the famous Anvil Chorus. What about that harmony? That orchestration? Those staccato grace notes? That modal based scale, the syncopations, and so on. So many opportunities fall by the wayside.
Date published: 2018-01-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Absolutely marvelous! Robert Greenberg at his best! I loved each recording
Date published: 2017-12-12
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