Back in 2013, when I was first getting used to this website creation malarkey, I had ambitious plans to create a bunch of websites, each dedicated to a different topic. This was complete madness – I didn’t understand how much work maintaining a single website could be and I wasn’t even prepared to really put in the work to do that. This was how we got: Kirsty Morgan Music, Kirsty Morgan Music Blog, Snark [music] Notes, Ethnomusicology: St Mary’s Singing Group, 50 Book Challenge, and my greatest non-starter, the website we’re going to talk about today, A-Z of Giuseppe Verdi (which I have just deleted).
2013 was the bi-centenary of Verdi’s birth, so having just started a music degree and seeing some of my classmates had their own music websites, I wanted to get involved. I decided to create an A-Z of Verdi operas, posted fortnightly (26 letters, 52 weeks of the year). Not a bad idea in theory (if I do say so myself), but I should have decided which operas to write about for each letter right from the start – or at the very least checked that there was an opera for each letter (spoilers: there isn’t).
On top of this, I was busy with university courses, and hanging out with friends, and I started having health problems. And the weeks slipped by. I might have been able to play catch-up but then I’d have to write 2, 3, 10 posts a week just to break even. It was a disaster. In the end, I wrote 1 post: A is for Aïda.
And…. it’s not the best post in the world. There’s no conclusion. I found out some stuff about the opera and wrote it down. Most of it contains a plot synopsis that can be found in better forms elsewhere. But I also kinda like it, in a weird nostalgic sort of way. So, in the interest of centralising everything onto the ONE blog (which, yes, I ought to have been doing from the start), here is my single blog post, that I’m posting today to commemorate the 120th anniversary of Verdi’s death.
A is for Aïda, Verdi’s twenty-fourth opera. It was composed very quickly, at the request of the Khedive Ismail Pacha of Egypt. When Verdi was offered the job, he was working as a farmer and had no desire to compose anything, especially not for an Egyptian (the horror!).
Fortunately for music lovers, Verdi’s nationalism was won over by the substantial payment offered – over 15,000 francs for the Egyptian performances alone (at a time when 10 francs were considered a large salary). After several delays caused by the 130-day siege on Paris by the Prussians, Aïda premièred in Cairo on Christmas Eve, 1871.
The première was hugely successful. Aïda’s Egyptian influences appealed to the native audience, as Italian critic, Filippi, explained, with all the tact befitting a nineteenth-century white guy:
“The Arabians, even the rich, do not love our shows… it is a true miracle to see a turban in a theatre in Cairo. [Yet] Sunday evening the opera house was crowded before the curtain rose.”
Set against the backdrop of a bloody war between Egypt and Ethiopia, Aïda is a tragic story of the love between the Egyptian Pharaoh’s favourite soldier (Radamès) and a young Ethiopian slave-girl in the Pharaoh’s court (Aïda). The conflict between true love and patriotic loyalty (for both Aïda and Radamès) drives the plot.
Shortly before leaving for war, Radamès accidentally reveals his love for Aïda, slave-girl to the Pharaoh’s daughter (Amneris). Amneris, insanely jealous, tricks Aïda into admitting that she returns Radamès’s affections. The princess vows to make the slave-girl even more miserable than she already is.
Radamès returns from war victorious with a slew of Ethiopian prisoners, one of whom is Aïda’s father and king of Ethiopia (Amonasro). Amonasro is dragged to the Pharaoh’s dungeon in chains and Aïda’s grief at her father’s fate is exacerbated further when the Pharaoh announces that, as a reward for his valour in battle, Radamès is to marry Amneris, the princess.
On the eve of the wedding, Amneris prays at the temple of Isis that Radamès will love her. Taking advantage of the princess’s absence, Aïda meets her father outside the temple. Amonasro explains that the Ethiopians are ready to fight once more and suggests that Aïda convince Radamès to abandon Egypt and join her in Ethiopia. Radamès, however, has other plans. He knows that he will be sent to battle once more and, if he defeats the Ethiopians a second time, the Pharaoh will be hard pressed to refuse his requests to marry Aïda instead of the princess.
Aïda manages to persuade Radamès to run away with her but, when he realises that she is the daughter of the Ethiopian king, Radamès despairs, calling himself a traitor and a coward. The lovers are discovered and, as Aïda escapes with her father, Radamès gives himself up to the custody of the Pharaoh’s priests.
Refusing Amneris’s offer to help him, Radamès is brought to trial for his treachery and sentenced to be buried alive. Aïda hides in Radamès’s crypt, choosing to die at her lover’s side rather than live alone. She dies in Radamès’s arms and the opera ends: “Peace, peace, peace.”
Musical Analysis – Triumphal March
The Triumphal March, also known as the Grand March, has been described as “the most celebrated tune in the opera.” Its popularity out of context can overshadow the fact that Aïda, for all its showiness and glamour, is truly an intimate opera. Almost all of the music for the three principal characters – Aïda, Radamès and Amneris – is accompanied by minimal orchestration in order to focus the audience’s attention on the magnificent vocals. However, the spectacular march of Act II Scene 2 – celebrating Egypt’s victory over the Ethiopians – is a vivacious and highly enjoyable affair.
After twenty-four bars of lively (yet majestic) orchestral introduction, the chorus explodes into a splendid tune “Gloria all’ Egitto” which impressed the Khedive of Egypt so much he decided to make it the Egyptian National Anthem.
While writing Aïda, Verdi initially intended to use authentic Egyptian instruments. However, after examining an ancient Egyptian flute in a Florentine museum, he changed his mind, dismissing the flute (with all the tact befitting a nineteenth-century white guy) as “a reed with four holes in it like the ones our shepherds have.”
Instead, Verdi requested that six trumpets – three in A flat and three in B – be made to his specifications. These long, straight instruments were designed to emulate Verdi’s vision of Egyptian trumpets and were crafted in Milan then shipped to Egypt.
The trumpets in A flat play the march tune in unison before immediately being taken over by the remaining three trumpets which repeat the march in their key of B. This sudden key change is one of the most exciting and effective moments in the entire opera.
After a lively balletic movement, the chorus returns and builds to the climax – the triumphant entry of Radamès. “Gloria!”
Bacon, Mary Schell Hoke. Operas Every Child Should Know (New York, 1911)
Osborne, Charles. The Complete Operas of Verdi (New York, 1969)
Steen, Michael. Great Operas: A Guide to Twenty-Five of the World’s Finest Musical Experience (London, 2012)