Giuseppe Verdi: torniamo all’antico

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At the end of 1870, following the death of Saverio Mercadante, the Minister of Public Education Cesare Correnti offered the direction of the Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella in Naples to Verdi. Immersed in the creation of Aida, the celebrated composer declined and, in a letter to Francesco Florimo, an intimate friend of Bellini and later archivist and librarian of the conservatoire, refers to the place of tradition in the formation of young musicians.

This letter closes with the famous sentence: “Torniamo all’antico: sarà un progresso.” On the basis of this letter a commission was appointed to reform musical instruction at all the Italian conservatories. Verdi unwillingly accepted the presidency of the commission.

Genoa, January 4, 1871

Dear Florimo,

If there was anything that could flatter my self love, it would be this invitation to become Director of the Conservatory in Naples, as sent to me through you by the Maestri of the Conservatory and other musicians of your city. It is very painful for me not to be able to answer this demonstration of confidence as I should like to; but with my occupations, my habits, my love of independent life, it would be impossible for me to undertake such a serious commitment. You may say: “And what about art?” —Of course; but I have done my best, and if I am to be able to go on doing something from time to time, I must be free of all other obligations. Otherwise you can imagine how very proud I should be to occupy the place held by founders of a school such as Alessandro Scarlatti and then Durante and Leo. It would have been an honor for me to instruct the students in the serious, severe, and so clear teachings of those first fathers. I would have wished to put, so to speak, one foot in the past and the other in the present and future (for I am not afraid of the music of the future); I would have told the young pupils: “Practise the Fugue constantly and persistently until you are weary of it and your hands are supple and strong enough to bend the note to your will. Thus you will learn to compose with confidence, how to arrange the parts well, and to modulate without affectation. Study Palestrina and some few of his contemporaries. Then skip everybody up to Marcello, and pay particular attention to the recitatives. — Attend but few performances of modern Opera, and don’t be fascinated by the many harmonic and instrumental beauties, nor by the chord of the diminished seventh, block and refuge for all of us who can’t write four measures without half a dozen sevenths.”

When they are done with these studies, combined with a broad literary culture, I would finally say to these young students: “Now lay your hands upon your hearts; write and (admitting an artistic criteria) you will be composers. In any case, you will not swell the legion of imitators and sick people of our time who seek and seek (although they may do good things sometimes), but never really find.” For the teaching of singing I would have wished the ancient studies too, combined with modern declamation. 

To put into practice these few maxims, which are apparently easy, it would be necessary to supervise the instruction so closely that twelve months a year would be almost too little. Me, having a house, interests, wealth… everything, everything here —tell me yourself: How could I do it? 

Therefore, my dear Florimo, would you like to be the interpreter of my great sorrow among your colleagues and the many musicians of your beautiful Naples, if I cannot accept this invitation so honorable for me. I hope you find a man who is above all learned and severe in the studies. Licenses and counterpoint errors can be admitted and are sometimes beautiful in the theater: not in the Conservatory. Let’s go back to the ancient times: it will be a progress. 

Goodbye, goodbye. Believe me always yours.

The introductory text was taken from Verdi, the man in his letters; Werfel, Stefan, Downes; New York; 1942. The letter was translated from I copialettere di Giuseppe Verdi; Cesari, Luzio; Milan, 1913.