Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boito: return to the past

Leer en español

In October 1887, Arrigo Boito, librettist, composer and by then Verdi’s close friend and collaborator, wrote to the Maestro asking him for a list of old Italian composers whose study could help correct the deviated course in which the young music students were at the end of the 19th century.

Cernobbio, Villa d’Este
Lake Como
4 October [1887]

Dear Maestro,

First of all I thank you for the beautiful and intellectually stimulating days I spent at Sant’ Agata. Then I must ask you a favor; and do not scold me for having accepted yet another assignment —it will be the last. The minister of education wants to confer with me about the music institutions of the Kingdom. We know that currently in Italy music is studied badly, the minister’s invitation is a good opportunity to try to orient properly the study of music in our state schools, and therefore I have ceded to the wish of the man in charge of them. This means a trip to Rome and a couple of days spent there (perhaps not in vain), after which I will return to my work. I do not mean to advise the minister to reform the statutes of the music schools, or even to make their various constitutions uniform. These questions are as huge as they are futile and difficult. Let them keep the statutes they have, since good or bad students are not produced by statutes. The student’s natural talent draws supreme from good studies and can be misdirected by bad studies. The point is this: the direction of those studies.

This is an opportunity to put into practice that advice that you were able to sum up in four words, with clarity and wisdom and truly age old concision: Return to the past.

So let us return to the past, but let us also make our schools return there. Unless they are made to do it, they never will. In the state syllabuses of the middle and high schools it is compulsory to study Virgil, Horace, Lucretius, Cicero. So I believe that in our conservatories it too should be compulsory to study Palestrina and the other Italian master musicians of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. That is the right path, that is what must be studied in the schools and in vocal training. The art of singing must be uplifted, it must be steeped in the full sound that is in the writing of Palestrina. Make young students who, still in the cradle, prattle abstruse nonsense, make them bathe in that stream, be washed in that purity. Composers would have a change of heart. Singers would also benefit. Composers and singers, this is were the rot lies in today’s studies, and this is what should be remedied. We have the instrumentalists, they develop on their own. Good, cultivated pianists abound. Naples has produced excellent ones in these past years, Milan as well. Bologna continues to turn out good string players, and Naples good brass. But it is the study of composition that is sunk into putrescence. Young composition students are full of conceit and ignorance.

They must be educated through the great music of Italy’s great centuries. When they are educated they will be less vainglorious and will see their art more clearly. They must also be compelled to study a bit of history from texts written simply and well, so as to learn at the same time the great struggles of mankind and the beautiful style of the language. They must be compelled to study a bit of prosody and declamation so as to learn to stress dialogue naturally, as Truth demands, for music is nothing other than the sound of feeling and of passion. I learned all these things from you, who have put them into practice. You must tell me yourself if I have learned them well. I too would like to be able to put them into practice in my own work, and to suggest them to those in charge of education in order to offer students the possibility of studying well.

Now here is the favor I would ask of you:

Please give me a brief list, a list of six names, no more: six names of masters you believe most suited to be studied by the young.

These six names, beginning with Palestrina, should represent the six most radiant points of the vocal art of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I would like this favor from you because I trust your judgement as I trust no one else’s. No one better than you can compile this list, which will serve as a program of study.

The letter ends without closing or signature, perhaps through Boito’s distraction or perhaps because a closing page is missing. Boito was, as usual in September, visiting his friend Donna Vittoria Cima, at Lake Como.

Sant’Agata, 5 October 1887

Dear Boito,

If you promise to give me neither the credit nor the blame for it, I will send you some names, the first that come to my mind. They are more than six, but there are so many good ones in that period that there is no knowing which to choose.


Early 1600s


Early 1700s


Palestrina * (in primis et ante omnia)
Luca Marenzio (a most pure writer)
Allegri (of the Miserere)

and many other good composers of that century, except Monteverdi, who arranged the voices badly.

Carissimi *

Scarlatti Alessandro * (who has harmonic treasures as well)
Marcello *

Pergolesi *

Piccini * (the first, I believe, who wrote Quintets and Sextets, etc. Composer of the first true opera-buffa: “Cecchina”).

If you really do want only six, I believe the preferable ones are those marked with *

Later on we have:

Guglielmi Pietro, etc. etc.; then
Cherubini, etc.

I wish you success; if you do succeed you will have performed a sacred task; because (I do not speak of schools, which can all be good) the young study obliquely, or rather they are off the road; and if music is, and it is, as you defined it, it is really necessary to know a bit of prosody and declamation, and to have sufficient culture to understand what must be understood. When you understand well what you have to set to music,1 and you have to sculpt a character or depict an emotion, it is less easy to let yourself be misled by eccentricities and extravagances of any kind, vocal or instrumental.

Give me news of yourself and of what you have done and achieved.In haste, I shake your hands and greet you for Peppina.

G. Verdi

Encouraged by Verdi’s letter, Boito went to Rome in October, and on his return he sent a brief report to the composer.

Villa d’Este
31 October [1887]

Dear Maestro,

Here is what happened. The teaching texts (sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth centuries) were approved unanimously by the heads of the leading conservatories of the Kingdom. We will see what happens next. After this voting I parted from Rome leaving those gentlemen to come to an agreement to harmonize their statutes (there are no two that resemble each other) and their rules. Obviously, as you wished, I did not make use of your letter, although I had it with me in my pocket, and I was tempted more than once to exploit it. In a few days’ time I will be in Nervi, and if you are in Genoa I will come, as usual, to Palazzo Doria and spend an hour with you.

Affectionate greetings to you and to Signora Giuseppina.

A. Boito

Text excerpted and translated from The Verdi-Boito Correspondence; Weaver, Conati, Medici; Chicago; 1994; and from I copialettere di Giuseppe Verdi; Cesari, Luzio; Milan, 1913.

1 Translator’s note: as can be read in I coppialettere, Verdi uses the word musicare. To music, as a verb.