The Music of Otello

Please note: Describing Verdi's compositional style for Otello to non-musicians, opera lovers and the general public is a very difficult task. If you find this article difficult to understand, scroll down to the bottom for a three sentence summary. It may be more helpful than the following article.

With Otello and Falstaff, Giuseppe Verdi managed to forge a new operatic style that he had only hinted at in previous operas. Verdi's style had always been overtly dramatic and essentially embedded in the traditions of early nineteenth century Italian opera, traditions both musical and theatrical. True, certain operas were experimental in the sense that the composer made serious (and successful) attempts to cast moribund structures aside in favor of more naturalistic solutions to dramatic problems. La traviata and Rigoletto are marvelous examples of this attempt to stretch the limits of the art form. But the growth that we are now able to hear by comparing Aïda with Otello, operas whose premieres are separated by sixteen years, is truly extraordinary and completely unexpected.

One always has the feeling in Verdi's operas that the progression of the story is absolutely driven. There is a sense of the inexorable, that we're moving dynamically from moment to moment, with no sense of rest or lull until the drama's climactic end. True, he always sought dynamic stories and librettos that would help him achieve this sense of theatrical electricity. But each aria, each ensemble, each scene telescopes into the next aria, ensemble or scene giving the audience a sense of breathless momentum. To achieve this effect using the standard structures of traditional Italian opera was a spectacular feat. To throw those structures aside and attempt something new was rather courageous for a seventy-five year old, semi-retired opera composer.

Otello finally does away completely with the standard aria and ensemble forms, and for the most part obliterates the stylistic difference that, even in operas as late as Don Carlo and Aïda, traditionally divides aria and recitative. The music of Otello moves seamlessly from one dramatic moment or scene to another, rarely stopping, and with a sense of the natural unfolding that one experiences when viewing a stage play. Verdi achieves this naturalness negatively…he actually resists allowing a melody to develop and moves us quickly from one melodic fragment to another throughout the piece. By not allowing the ear to luxuriate in a fully developed tune, he creates the sensation of constant forward movement. In fact, the whole opera is built by moving from one melodic motive to another. Interestingly, Verdi reserves the truly soaring, beautifully shaped tunes for the climaxes in the piece, rewarding the listener for sticking with the ebb and flow of this unique motivic process.

The compositional style that Verdi developed for this opera keeps the listener attentive and in a constant state of anticipation and expectation. With the audience members on 'the edge of their seats' musically, the drama (which unfolds in a series of short episodes that 'telescope' into one another) is enhanced in a similar way. A perfect example of this approach can be seen in the love duet between Otello and Desdemona at the end of Act I. Otello begins the duet by singing an extended melody to the text Già nella notte densa s'estingue ogni clamor (Already in the dark night, every sound is silenced). The melody is through-composed, having no interior repetition of melodic content or sequencing of any kind. Desdemona's response to Otello's lines begins at Mio superbo guerrier! (My superb warrior!). This is, in fact, a new melody: it is not a continuation of Otello's phrases, nor a variation on them. At the text Oh! com è dolce il mormorare insieme (Oh! how sweet it is to murmur together), it seems that another melodic idea is introduced, only to be interrupted by te ne rammenti? (do you remember?). Yet another melodic idea appears at Quando narravi l'esule tua vita (When you told me of your life of exile), again seemingly not related to anything that comes before it. The duet continues in this melodic 'patchwork' way until the climax of the duet, the statement of the "bacio" theme at the end when Otello sings Un bacio…un bacio…ancora un bacio (A kiss…a kiss…again a kiss.)

A short coda follows.

Compare the structure of this duet with duets from any of Verdi's earlier operas and you will hear an immediate difference. No repetition is involved, no sense of discrete sections that recur (like a refrain), nor is any variation technique applied to the melodic material. This is quite unlike Verdi's past efforts and far beyond the techniques of earlier Italian operatic composers. Dare we say it? It is almost…Wagnerian! Verdi was not ignorant of the music being created by his most famous contemporary; in fact he was quite taken with Wagner's Lohengrin which he saw in Bologna in the 1870s. In sheer technical terms, Verdi's through-composed style for Otello is similar to Wagner's 'uninterrupted melody', but in terms of sheer sound the two techniques are quite dissimilar. Verdi is still an Italian through and through and could never be mistaken for any composer steeped in the symphonic traditions of that parallel universe across the Alps! In fact, what we discover in Verdi's Otello is a technique of constantly interrupted melody, so cleverly crafted that we don't take notice of it and, because it matches the text of the drama so perfectly, we accept it as a naturally progressing melodic flow.

To put it simply:

Otello is a gigantic string of sometimes beautiful, often exquisite melodic fragments that are never given the opportunity to fully develop. Through the use of this fragmentary technique, Verdi's musical language for Shakespeare's play matches the episodic nature of the drama as well as the scenario and the Italian poetry developed by the librettist, Arrigo Boïto. This technique leaves the listener breathless, expectant and completely unprepared for what will come next, all crucial factors in the genre of suspense, of which Othello and Otello are wonderful examples.