Three of history's greatest composers -- Mozart, Beethoven and J. S. Bach -- each turned to a longstanding tradition at the end of their lives, while composing beautiful works that are also terrifying, forbidding and tragic. Giusppe Verdi, on the other hand, explored the same tradition, but took an entirely different approach.
In Amadeus, the popular cinematic version of Mozart's life, the composer is seen on his deathbed, struggling -- and failing -- to complete his great Requiem Mass. The scene may be a bit farfetched, but to an extent it's also accurate: The Requiem was Mozart's final work, left unfinished when he died.
For one of the movements he did complete, the "Kyrie," Mozart turned to one of music's most traditional forms: the fugue. Still, early listeners found the score radical -- they were shocked by its unguarded emotions. Even Beethoven, himself an artistic radical, called the work "too wild, and terrible."
Yet, late in Beethoven's life, he came up with some wild and terrible music of his own, and he also did it with a fugue. His famous "Grosse Fuge," or "Great Fugue," was written for one of his late string quartets, and many consider it the epitome of his late style. Its music is so introverted and contemplative, and yet so deeply expressive, that it seems to have moved into a new dimension: a severe netherworld that's barely comprehensible.
J. S. Bach wrote fugues throughout his career, so it's hardly surprising that he used the form again in his final composition, "The Art of Fugue." Still, that massive score rounds out his life's work in a way that's both beautiful and tragic: The manuscript goes blank in the middle of a phrase, leading to the legend that Bach actually died while writing it, pen in hand.
So, Mozart, Beethoven and Bach all turned to the age-old fugue in their final days, in ways that were anything but nostalgic or sentimental. Perhaps they chose that demanding, highly-structured form as a way of affirming their control over their art, at a time when control of their lives was deserting them -- while using the rigorous requirements of the fugue to make stern, even dire statements about life itself, and the stark reality of its end.
Giuseppe Verdi had other ideas. He had spent a lifetime writing deadly serious operas, with stories of titanic struggles, doomed romances and murderous revenge. His second-to-last opera, based on a great tragedy by Shakespeare, was Otello -- and if anything, Verdi's version is even more heartbreaking than the original.
So when it came to his final drama, composed when Verdi was well into his 70s, you might expect that he'd have written the most tragic opera of them all. Instead, again turning to Shakespeare, he did exactly the opposite. With Falstaff, Verdi may have written the most cheerful and optimistic valedictory by any great artist. And for the brilliant, final chorus -- with its ultimate sentiment that "all the world is a joke" -- Verdi wrote a carefree, buoyant fugue.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Verdi's Falstaff in a production from the same, historic venue where the opera premiered back in 1893: La Scala, in Milan. Baritone Ambrogio Maestri stars in the title role, alongside soprano Carmen Gianattasio as Alice and baritone Fabio Capitanucci as Ford.