Written by Elisabetta Povoledo
While working on “Otello” and “Falstaff,” his final two operas, composer Giuseppe Verdi tucked dozens of pages of musical drafts and sketches into folders, scribbling on their covers: “Burn these papers.”
Fortunately, his heirs never carried out those orders. But for years, scholars have complained that for all the access they had to them, those pages might as well have been lost. Locked as they were in a trunk kept at the composer’s home in Sant’Agata, in northern Italy, only select specialists were allowed to peruse them, mostly at the discretion of Verdi’s heirs.
Academics grumbled that requests to study the papers went unanswered. “It was intolerable that scholars couldn’t easily get their hands on the material,” said Sandro Cappelletto, editor of Studi Verdiani, the journal of the National Institute of Verdi Studies. “We had access to Rossini’s papers, Bellini’s papers. Why should 5,000 of Verdi’s papers remain unread?”
For Verdi aficionados, the trunk — made in Chicago by Marshall Field & Co. at the end of the 19th century — became a sort of holy grail. Rumors about its contents have been the stuff of legend.
But Tuesday, two years after the trunk was transferred by Italy’s Ministry of Culture from the Verdi villa to the state archive in the nearby city of Parma, at least some of those speculations will be laid to rest. Its contents are finally being made public.
Locked inside the trunk were drafts and sketches for 12 operas written over nearly half a century, from “Luisa Miller” to “Falstaff,” as well as for works like the Requiem and “Four Sacred Pieces.” They have been cataloged and digitized and will be made accessible to scholars. Alessandra Carlotta Pellegrini, a musicologist who examined the contents, described the experience as getting a firsthand look into “the workshop of the composer.”
The trunk contained more than 5,400 pages, around 600 of which are blank: a cornucopia of musical musings, stage directions, afterthoughts and reconsiderations, offering a glimpse into Verdi’s creative process at work “from the very first compositional gesture, where ideas are still fragmentary,” said Pellegrini, who became involved with the project when she was scientific director of the Verdi Institute.
There are hundreds of pages related to “Aida,” “Otello” and “Falstaff,” for example — works whose “genesis has never been completely examined,” Pellegrini said. The sketches are central to understanding Verdi’s compositional process, she added. Various versions of Iago’s famous “Credo” suggest that it was pondered “arduously,” she said, while “Falstaff” fans will be intrigued by drafts Verdi discarded, like the first version of the opera’s fugue finale.
One page, she said, included the scribblings of “an aged Verdi inscribing a passage from the Gospel.” Beyond music, she added, “there’s a life that emerges” from the papers, a lens into the composer’s humanity.
They also reflect the passage of time. In the sketches for “Luisa Miller,” which premiered in 1849, Verdi’s handwriting is the “very ordered” writing of a young man, Pellegrini said, but it becomes “much looser” in the sketches for “Falstaff,” which had its premiere 44 years later. Many of the pages, she added, are difficult to read: “They’re mostly working drafts and sketches,” not intended for posterity.
The varying quality of the paper — including porous, less valuable paper that Verdi probably used for initial drafts and more expensive sheets on which he jotted fuller musical sketches — could assist scholars in establishing a timeline of Verdi’s thoughts. “It’s an incredibly important” cache of documents, Cappelletto, the Studi Verdiani editor, said, which will be “essential for future critical editions.”
Verdi’s heirs, the Carrara Verdi family, are less enthusiastic about the trunk’s notoriety, and even less so about the removal from the villa by the Culture Ministry of another cache of documents — around 24,000, including letters and sundry papers — after experts determined that the family was not preserving them correctly. Those papers are now being held in sealed boxes at the state archive in Parma.
The Verdi villa was never widely open, but scholars complained that under the family’s stewardship, it was far too difficult to access documents — despite the fact that Verdi’s papers were declared of public interest in 2008, and as such had to be made publicly available. The Culture Ministry took the trunk from the villa in January 2017, partly in response to the complaints.
There is no substitute for original documents, said Fabrizio Della Seta, a professor of music at the University of Pavia in Cremona, who oversaw the critical edition of “La Traviata” 20 years ago. Access is “indispensable,” he said, and “must be guaranteed.”
Angiolo Carrara Verdi, one of the composer’s heirs and the Villa Verdi’s current caretaker, declined to be interviewed. Officials at the Culture Ministry who oversaw the transfer of the papers, as well as ministry officials at local archives, also declined to comment.
Francesco Izzo, general editor of the critical edition of Verdi’s works, noted that despite the myth surrounding the trunk, its contents hadn’t been a complete mystery. A number of musicologists and scholars have studied individual folders, and, in 2015, Classic Voice, an Italian music magazine that campaigned for access to the documents, published a summary of the contents.
“We already had a fairly clear sense of the contents of this trunk,” Izzo said. But, he added, “we can now build and improve our knowledge even further.”