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.