Sara Smollett
April 12, 1998
Romantic Music

Verdi's Otello

Like many other composers, Giuseppe Verdi shared Berlioz's interest in Shakespeare. His operas included an early setting of Macbeth (first performed in 1847), Otello (1887), and Falstaff which was based on The Merry Wives of Windsor and King Henry IV (1893). Verdi's first Shakespearean opera was not as mature and developed as his later two works. Like Berlioz, he was also accused of not understanding Shakespeare. In response to such accusations, he wrote: ``It may be that I have not done justice to Macbeth, but to say that I do not know, understand and feel Shachespeare (sic) -- no, by God, no! He is one of my favourite poets. I have had him in my hands from my earliest youth, and I read and reread him continually'' (Budder, Vol. 1, 267, from letter to Leôn Escudier, translated by L.A. Sheppard). His Otello was a huge success that took almost a decade to complete. It is, as his hastily scribbled inscription proclaims, a tribute to himself, the librettist Arrigo Boito, and Shakespeare himself.

The history of the collaboration between the two geniuses Verdi and Boito should not be overlooked or dismissed as irrelevant to the masterpiece. Verdi was long aware of Boito who was a composer known mainly for his librettos and reviews. In response to his Mefistofele in 1868, Verdi wrote: ``Boito has written an opera which does not lack a number of merits and equally is not free from many faults'' (Budder, Vol. 3, 296). He was clearly a young man for Verdi to keep an eye on. The two had many differences in background and musical ideas. (``[Boito] considered it his mission to open up Italian musical life to all those ultramontane influences which Verdi believed to be so harmful to it'' (Budder, 298).) Giulio Ricordi, a music critic, was responsible for skillfully forcing the two together despite these differences. Although Verdi was personally offended by Boito's remark that ``Perhaps the man is already born who will raise up [music] in all its chaste purity above that altar now befouled like the walls of a brothel.'' (Budder, 298), Ricordi was diligent in attempting a reconciliation. He attempted to have them collaborate on Nerone and Amleto. Verdi responded that he was presently too busy to work on either project, but that he was very impressed with the libretto of Amleto. Ricordi saw that the key to getting the two men to work together was Shakespeare.

Giulio Ricordi wrote to Giuseppe Adami, one of Puccini's librettists:

The idea of the opera arose during a dinner among friends, when I chanced to turn the conversation on Shakespeare and Boito. At the mention of Othello I saw Verdi look sharply at me, with suspicion but with interest. . . . Next day when on my advice Faccio brought Boito to Verdi's hotel with the scheme of the libretto already outlined, the composer, having examined it and found it excellent, had no wish to compromise himself. He said, ``Now put it into verse. It will come in handy for yourself . . . for me . . . for someone else.''

Ricordi encouraged Boito to finish the libretto. The possibility of Verdi setting an opera for Othello was the subject of great speculation in Italy. Othello was a play simply waiting to be made into an opera. As George Bernard Shaw said, it was a play written in the style of contemporary Italian opera. After a discussion of Rossini's setting of the play, Verdi finally agreed to work with Boito's librettos.

The two exchanged numerous details going over different drafts of the libretto, cutting out parts of Shakespeare's play (primarily the entire first act), lengthening lines, discussing use of characters like the inclusion of women in the drinking scene, introducing new material such as Iago's ``Credo,'' and deciding on a title for the opera. (Verdi had originally wanted to call the opera Iago but finally decided to directly challenge Rosinni's opera. In a letter to Boito in 1886, Verdi wrote: ``It's true that [Iago] is the demon who sets everything in motion: but it is Othello who acts: he loves, is jealous, kills and is killed. For my part I would find it hypocritical not to call it Otello'' (Budder, 319).) They developed great respect for one another. Ricordi encouraged the two to continue and prompted them to their work. When the journalist Marco Cafiero asked Boito if he would have liked to set Othello to music himself and the response, ``I never thought that Othello would make a good opera, but now that I have begun to write the libretto I regret not being able to set it myself.'' (Budder, 315) was printed, friction arose between Boito and Verdi. Once again, it was Ricordi who calmed Verdi. Finally in 1886 the libretto was finished and set to music. A year later it would be performed.

Otello begins with a chord in the dominant eleventh with a loud proclamation of introduction including much percussion. The setting is Cyprus in the late fifteenth century. It is a stormy night at sea. There are two bass drums, one for the storming thunder, a gong, and suspended cymbals. There is a buzzing or humming quality to the music that turns into fluttering notes. A trumpet sounds and the chorus enters to see a ship and hear a canon. The background builds in intensity with ascending notes pushing it along. Drums sound the thunder of the night and the introduction of a cast of characters. Already there is something eerily discontented in the woodwinds. There is a change from E flat to a powerful E major mode, quavering in the strings, and horns. Finally, a theme is defined in A minor. The same simple notes are repeated and ascend. Worry mounts and tension is heard in the chorus as they see that the ship is in danger. Otello returns victorious and proclaims of their success in battle. The chorus responds joyously and the music conveys the appropriate corresponding pride. There is a ``calm that succeeds the storm.'' The opening material is varied in a transitional passage, and then Iago reveals his feelings about the Moor (Otello) to his friend Roderigo in what is an almost dance-like movement. This is the first introduction of a scheming theme.

The music conveys the visual imagery of smoke turning into fire as an interlude shifts to the chorus singing ``Flame of rejoicing! . . . filling the heart with fiery joy.'' Voices climb, racing each other in ascending chromatic scales (which will contrast Iago's descending chromatics). Smoke billows from a bonfire, perhaps suggesting with a sardonic humor the cloak behind which schemers can lie, the veil behind which the truth resides. Verdi ingeniously composes notes that flicker like a fire, grow in intensity, and waver, fluttering like butterflies. He presents thematic material, single notes, mere sparks of ideas from E minor to G major to E major. The music sounds triumphant, before fading and ending with very separate notes; ``Flames of rejoicing rapidly blazing, rapidly dying fire of love!'' Semiquavers of high woodwind and arco and pizzicato violins conclude the section.

Iago then attempts to get Cassio drunk. Here Verdi has composed a catchy drinking song. Pizzicato violas and some violins and cellos create an instrumental transition to the comical song, which is underscored by notes from an Iago theme. The song is bright especially on chorus parts; the repeated refrain of ``beva con me!'' with its vigorous bass line weaving back and forth is a memorable introduction. Just as Shakespeare created many plays within plays, this is a song within a song. There is much laughter among the men and women, mainly as an effect of the alcohol, but also foreshadowing the results which will come from Iago's schemes. Cassio becomes increasingly intoxicated. The addition of more instruments in the orchestration (now including flute oboe, clarinet, and bassoon) symbolizes this transition, itself almost hiccupping in the lower register. According to plan, Cassio is then provoked, and descending violin notes and a trombone signalling militaristic tones sound the beginning of a fight. There is tension building in descending notes and the sound of clashing metal is cleverly portrayed. The music builds to a crescendo before alarm bells ring. Otello enters demanding an explanation. He turns to honest Iago, who we know will be anything but truthful. At the mention of ``honest Iago,'' there is a transition in the music which introduces the honesty motive.

As the scene empties, the music quiets, serving as a transition to a scene between Otello and Desdemona accompanied by soft solo strings. A second part of Otello emerges; he is no longer the heroic male, but rather the love (and later it will be seen that he is clearly a troubled lover). Desdemona tells him how proud she is, and a happy love theme is introduced. The two lovers are presently happy, the only time they will be seen as such in the opera. The depth of the oboe and clarinet struck me with an image of looking into a deep pool or well, searching to find the bottom. One can easily imagine the two staring into the depths of each other's eyes, perhaps even catching a glimpse of their own faces reflected. A new melody is introduced after a diminished fifth and the music shifts from F minor to D flat, the joy of the moment immortalized with flute tremolandos in an ecstasy of internal traffic. The sky is seen in the distance and the rising moon reflecting light from far away is in many ways analogous to Desdemona and Otello who have taken on their own cosmic importance. Their emotions build like a tide, one that will be as stormy as the night's sea through the opera's turmoil. This is their love scene and as the two prepare to kiss, the memorable kiss motive is introduced before the conclusion of the first act.

Act Two begins with a fully formed orchestral melody interspersed with recitative. The bass is ominous and there is a repetition of an Iago theme mixed with calmer music evoking happiness and memories of the kiss motive. Iago tells Cassio not to give up hope and there is a plotting theme, complete with the furtive downward crescendos that are noticeably pushing the piece and the action along. Iago is falsely charming as the music shifts to D minor and then F minor. The music grows darker and more forceful as he proclaims: ``I believe in a cruel God . . . I am evil because I am a man.'' This is Boito's clever addition -- a parody of the Credo that sets the tone. Iago is evil, and he is evil for evil's sake because he is human. He was created in the image of a cruel god, he believes that evil is his destiny, that virtue is a lie, and that man is merely a plaything of fate. Iago then plants doubts about Desdemona's faithfulness in Otello's mind. He questions Cassio's honesty. And yet he is also Otello's friend and warns of the green eyed monster, jealousy, the ``dark hydra, malignant, blind, it poisons itself with its own venom.'' As the mood shifts with the notes on the harp, Otello's hamartia, his fatal flaw, is made clear: he is insecure and jealous.

Desdemona reappears in the garden, surrounded by a chorus of women, children, and sailors offering flowers and gifts. The lighter song serves to release some of the tension created by the dialog between Otello and Iago. There is talk of fire (like that in the last act) and flowers, traditional symbols of love and growth. The children symbolize innocence and the voices sing in high angelic registers. ``Wherever you look brightness shines, hearts are warmed. . . .'' The juxtaposition of this song and the irony it conveys would not be lost on the audience. The music is almost Spanish or Greek, played on a mandolin and guitars. It is an invented folk music, much the vogue of Verdi's time. The song is simple and light with a few subtle variations. The measures are subdivided, contributing an effect of increased anxiety as the voices break into different parts. Desdemona sings this song of nature and Otello wonders how much he has been deceived.

Desdemona petitions Otello on Cassio's behalf, and Otello is greatly pained. Desdemona goes to wipe his forehead with a handkerchief, a magical handkerchief that he has given her. The handkerchief (and the music that complements it) is pure and innocent, a picture of whiteness personified. Here are employed dominant seventh inversions that fail to completely resolve the motive, subsiding to increased oboe coloring of the cadential phrase. Otello throws the handkerchief on the ground and becomes angry The music grows louder, in contrast to Desdemona's calmness as she is confused by his strong reaction. The music is that of pivotal action as Emilia picks up the discarded handkerchief. The focus and energy shift as she argues with Iago who, in a great musical moment, forces her to give him the handkerchief. After a descending scale, Desdemona's sweetness is summed up by her final phrases.

More rapid arpeggios anticipate the forward movement of plot, which is now fully on its course. Accented notes mark Otello's anger and disgust at Desdemona's implied disloyalty. Ironically, Iago tells him that ``honesty is not safe.'' The two discuss the need for certainty, the necessity that ``reason be guide to truth,'' and Iago then reveals an alleged dream in which Cassio calls out Desdemona's name. Here the music shifts to something that is more fitting of a dream, built on a less firm foundation so that the division between illusion and reality is sufficiently blurred. The music anticipates discomfort. There are a few higher and pained notes of sadness and melancholy as Otello relates his feelings. There is a gradual building of intensity and finally Otello kneels and gets more certain of Desdemona's disloyalty and vows vengeance in a striking mode of E major. Iago establishes himself as a true friend who will help, and the two sing together in the conclusion of the act. Strong percussion accompaniment leads the music into a minor mode with semiquavers in the strings and upper woodwinds, with accompaniment of timpani, and arpeggios on flute, piccolo, oboes, and clarinets. The abrupt modulations come to a halt with a marked grinding effect.

The symphonic introduction to Act Three builds tension as the short prelude is expanded contrapuntally. Quiet cellos beneath the viola semiquavers rise quickly without floating away, almost like grounded spider webs of intricacies, intimacy, treachery, and deceit, the closely woven threads like those of Otello's handkerchief. The music squeaks, it is sharp and almost painful. As in the first act, a horn sounds and a herald enters with an announcement. Iago, still seeming to be the picture of honesty, plots with Otello. Desdemona enters calmly and innocently. Otello seems to be mostly calmed and is friendly and takes her hand. The music repeats notes from their earlier love scene as well as the melodic introduction to this act. There is a subtle shift to a more discontented mood, and then Desdemona makes the fatal mistake of shifting the conversation once again to Cassio. Again Otello is pained and angered; there are thunderous foreshadowing notes, rising as Otello talks, and arpeggios that would previously have been most associated with Iago.

As Otello still desires conclusive proof to Desdemona's guilt, he asks Desdemona to fetch the lost handkerchief. The music appropriately builds in tension, increases in intensity and agitated syncopations. It quickly mounts to an obvious state of extreme emotion, agitation, and climatic foreshadowing. It then suddenly calms down until the discussion returns to Cassio. Then the music is filled with heavy chords, and there is obvious worry and fear in Desdemona's voice. She is powerless against Otello's mounting anger, which is reflected in flurries of semiquavers in cello. After a few single sharp notes, Desdemona swears her faithfulness, crying at the fury she hears in his voice. There is almost a repetition of their earlier happy theme, but it is more ironic, as Desdemona has come to recognize the change in Iago's disposition. She begs and pleads with him. Otello is touched, but is too cynical to grant any truth to her words and rejects her as deceiving and her words as a good act that would fool all. Verdi plays off of the differences between Otello and Desdemona's voices and levels of excitement. Otello's desolation is reflected by a chromatic scale on a tonic pedal while the musical thought evolves through repetitions and developments of a forlorn triplet figure on the first violin. The lyricism is tense and colored by chromatic inflections and the minor mode.

Again, the introduction of brass instruments adds a level of excitement. Otello hides while Iago and Cassio talk. The music starts out calmly, with Iago skillfully leading Cassio, the music with the required crescendos. Almost comically, he shows the handkerchief so that Otello can clearly recognize it. Them music is almost like a scherzo, with sharp notes squeezing playfully. The whole thing becomes a game for Iago, a game in which he has control. Verdi has the recitative lightly scored allowing for agile, rhythmic ambiguity and instrumentation of a few violas and cellos. The light notes of happiness in the background are nearly mocking the situation like the laughter in the drinking scene. ``This is a spider's web wherein your heart is caught,'' Iago tells Otello, using the web-handkerchief metaphor. The two discuss what is to be done and Iago suggests strangling Desdemona.

Yet again, there is a dramatic shift in mood and music as a triumphant song welcoming the military hero is heard on brass registers. Boito has skillfully woven the words of Emilia, Desdemona, Iago, Lodovico, and Otello, all in front of this more public background. Otello and Desdemona have another conversation which quickly turns to argument, and after she leaves Lodovico tells Otello to be kind to Desdemona. Desdemona falls to the ground and weeps in pain and grief. She pours out her heart in a long solo comprising three quite separate melodic ideas in different keys. She recalls their once happy past and the audience sympathizes with her fully. The men and women comment on her situation. Otello is momentarily in despair, but Iago is there to prompt him along and remind him to act quickly. He tells Otello that he will kill Cassio. There is horrific music as Otello curses Desdemona. Otello then faints at the thought of Desdemona and Cassio. There is a juxtaposition and irony as the townspeople view Otello as a war hero where he is really only a troubled lover and an evil schemer. The militaristic percussion and brass cry out ``Long live Otello!'' completely unaware of his civilian difficulties.

The opening of the final act is perhaps more French than Italian with woodwinds and horns and the addition of the mournful and desolate English horn. It seems as though most of the tension has suddenly dissipated. It is nighttime and the music is virginal, someone sensual, and of pure whiteness. Desdemona asks Emilia to take out her bridal sheets, and the music itself seems cloaked with the white sheets of not to distant past. There is a long musical introduction with a sense of gloom and foreboding. Emilia and Desdemona discuss Otello. Symbolically sitting in front of a mirror (for mirrors as in Hamlet provide the introspective path), the music is also reflective. Desdemona talks about an unfortunate maid. Here there is the swaying of two chords, the poor maid rocking in her grief, and the ritornello to the maid's song of weeping willows which Desdemona will sing. This is the closest the opera gets to true aria. She says goodbye to Emilia with a degree of finality much stronger than a simple goodbye and she is left in an ethereal tranquility, ``O Willow, alone and crying. . . .''

As a transition, Desdemona prays and then falls asleep. The music transmutes to the kiss motive as Otello enters and kisses her until she wakens. The music then shifts from C major to F minor in 3/2 with sustaining notes from the brass. In a grotesque musical moment, Otello kills Desdemona. Emilia enters to tell Otello that Cassio has killed Roderigo and is then horrified to find that he has killed Desdemona. She calls out and a crowd draws. Iago tries to silence her but she refuses to withhold knowledge and tells Otello that she found the handkerchief and gave it to Iago. The kiss motive is heard once more as Otello kisses the dead Desdemona before killing himself. Boito's libretto strays from Shakespeare's text and Emilia is not killed. Nothing is told of Iago's fate as he escapes. There is a short orchestral decrescendo with heavily accentuated bass sonorities. The opera ends with the distant rumbling of fate and Shakespearean humanity.