A Late-January Date Links The Lives of Mozart And Verdi

Jan 25, 2019

This Sunday's Musica Sacra features Mozart’s Solemn Vespers of the Confessor and Verdi’s Requiem. These two composers died 100 years apart, bound by music and a date: January 27. 

I don’t why I’ve always felt that several composers or important works were born or died on this late-January date.

I count two so far, peripherally three, and those events in the very early 20th century collided. One shoved the other off the front pages, depending upon where you lived.

We’ll start on the periphery, the only time I’m sure this august lady was so placed. Queen Vitoria died at her retreat at Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight, on Jan. 22, 1901. The “Granny of Europe” on whose empire “the sun never set” was 82.

Near that date, Giuseppe Verdi suffered a stroke in his suite at the Grand Hotel in Milan. The 88-year-old composer of Aida, La Traviata, Rigoletto, Otello and 20 other operas, which form the heart of the repertoire, had moved into the city from his suburban estate at Sant’Agata. Friends were concerned about the old man’s isolation in the country. 

In his final years, Verdi supervised the building of the Casa di Riposo, the residence for indigent musicians he was financing in Milan, and wrote a bit of sacred music. He continued to receive visitors from all over the world.

The stroke silenced Verdi. He hung on until the afternoon of January 27.

Queen Victoria’s death had already been all over black-bordered newspapers wherever people could read. It’s possible that her death was the last bit of news Verdi comprehended.

How he might have reacted is anyone’s guess. Her Majesty was a fan and often commanded performances of La Traviata or Aida at Windsor. (When you’re the Queen, the opera comes to you.)

There are photographs of the streets around Verdi’s final residence in Milan. Large signs can be seen advising, ZITTO! IL MAESTRO DORME! ZITTO! IL MAESTRO RIPOSO! Quiet! The Maestro is resting! Quiet! The Maestro is asleep!

Everyone in Milan (at least) knew “Il Maestro’s” identity. Straw was placed on the cobbled streets to quiet the horse’s hooves. I find this a lot more moving than the mile-long cortege that took Her Majesty to her final rest. (Begging your pardon, Ma’am).

Victoria and Verdi had their funerals on the same day, Feb. 2, 1901. Now Queen Victoria has her own nifty show on PBS.

Verdi’s cortege passed La Scala, where the combined choirs of the opera house and the Milan Conservatory sang the great chorus Va, Pensiero from Nabucco. Arturo Toscanini conducted. State ministers, composers, artists, teachers, musicians and lay people made up the procession. The composer himself asked for "one candle ad one priest only."

He didn’t get his wish. Verdi was buried in Milan’s Cimitero Monumentale until his tomb in the Casa di Riposo could be prepared. There he lays today, alongside his wife Giuseppina, in the chapel of the institution he financed to house and protect poor musicians.

Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart was born in Salzburg on Jan. 27, 1756. He was the seventh child of Leopold and Anna Maria Mozart. Of these seven pregnancies, the Mozarts had two surviving children. Their daughter Maria Anna was 6 years old when her brother Wolfgang was born.

The story of how Leopold dragged Wolfgang all over Europe to perform and dazzle the crown heads of the continent is borderline child abuse.

Musica Sacra this weekend features Mozart’s Solemn Vespers of the Confessor, composed in 1780. Mozart was in that year miserable in the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg. That was as high as one could go in that lovely city – not good enough for someone who, as a child, had sat on the Pope’s lap and been petted by the Empress of Austria.

By 1782, Mozart had told the Archbishops’ household where they could all go, as he left for Vienna. And fame.