Music History in Pairs

Comparison is a strong rhetorical tool. Bach vs. Handel, Beethoven vs. Rossini, Stravinsky vs. Schoenberg. These are only a few of the piquant juxtapositions that have been used by music history teachers for years, to great effect in the classroom. Taruskin has used this approach in his history as well, by treating exact contemporaries as “classes.” In Vol. II it was the class of 1685: JS Bach, Handel, and D. Scarlatti; in Vol. III it is the class of 1813: Wagner and Verdi.

Is there any stronger or more towering comparison in the 19th century than the two titans of opera, Verdi and Wagner? It’s the mythic German against the revolutionary Italian (though this is of course a simplification). Unlike most comparisons, which are constructed by historians, Wagner and Verdi were incessantly compared in their lifetimes, with unprecedented visibility in the press. As Nicholas Vazsonyi points out in his new book, Wagner was so adept at manipulating the press and promoting himself (through journalism and media events), that he defined and fulfilled a unique Wagner brand in the music marketplace.* Verdi’s own voice was heard less often in the press, especially in the second half of his career—but he was such a celebrity that the Italian press (and his publisher Ricordi) kept him ever present in the minds of their countrymen.

Here is one of my favorite comparisons between the two composers: Two love duets, the first from Verdi’s La Traviata (1853) and the second from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1856-59, premiered 1864). What are your favorites?

*Vazsonyi, Nicholas. Richard Wagner: Self-Promotion and the Making of a Brand. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.


  1. Ibo Ortgies says:

    “Is there any stronger or more towering comparison in the 19th century than the two titans of opera, Verdi and Wagner?”

    Well, if you ask about comparison of “titans” and look into a wider array of genres than just one single genre (opera):

    Brahms — Liszt/Wagner/Bruckner!

    Probably stirred up more debate than any other comparison during the 19th century.

  2. Gene says:

    I like juxtaposing two poignant father/daughter pairings: first Verdi’s Rigoletto and his daughter Gilda eavesdropping on the licentious Duke having his way with Maddalena (Quartet from Act III). Then, the final scene from Wagner’s Die Walküre, in which Wotan puts his rebellious daughter Brünnhilde to sleep surrounded by a ring of fire. On video especially, these are a terrific introduction to both composers and give rise to great discussions.

  3. Mark Samples says:

    Ibo—No doubt the Brahms/Wagner(ians) divide instigated the most debate amongst specialists (music critics, composers, historians). But the Verdi/Wagner juxtaposition is more “towering,” in my opinion, due to the widespread import that the genre of opera had not only with specialists but with the wider public.

    Gene—Thanks for your example. I’ll have to use this in class someday…

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