"The pen is mightier than the sword," goes the old adage. While we usually associate this pithy statement with the written word, I propose that music also has the power to challenge the sword. When music is added to words, as in poetry, film or opera, the impact of words may be multiplied or modified by many orders of magnitude.
Think of how deeply the music of a film score can enhance, color or intensify the action going on in a movie. Consider also the piano's relentless bass line triplet figures that so brilliantly imitate the pounding of a racing horse's hooves on the forest floor in Franz Schubert's song to the text of Johann von Goethe's chilling poem, "The Erl King" -- a depiction of a father's race to outrun the messenger of death pursuing his dying child. A more exultant example is the pulse-speeding effect of the band accompaniment John Philip Sousa composed for "The Stars and Stripes Forever."
Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, 1813-1901, is one of history's indisputable grand masters at combining soul-stirring music with words. While his operas are among the world's favorites, one of his most sublime (sometimes terrifying) works is his "Messa da Requiem" in seven movements: Requiem and Kyrie; Dies Irae; Offertorio; Sanctus; Agnus Dei; Lux aeterna; and Libera me, all parts of the Roman Catholic funeral Mass. In the bicentennial year of the composer's birth, the San Francisco Opera and Italy's Teatro di San Carlo of Naples are gearing up to present this thrill-a-minute masterpiece right here in the Bay Area at 8 p.m. Oct. 25 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., in San Francisco.
Verdi was a fervent admirer of the Italian poet, patriot, and novelist Alessandro Manzoni, a supporter of the 19th-century movement for Italian national unity known as the "Risorgimento." It was upon Manzoni's death in 1873 that Verdi composed his epic Requiem, a work in which his politics and musical genius reached a grand fruition. It premiered at Milan's San Marco Cathedral on the first anniversary of Manzoni's death. While it's seldom performed in an actual liturgical setting, it has become a favorite work in concert halls all over the world.
But back to words: Humanities West, an innovative organization formed in San Francisco in 1983, will begin its 30th anniversary celebration with reams of words relevant to the works of Verdi, from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Friday Nov. 1 and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2 at the Marines' Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St. in San Francisco. The format will be a series of lectures, discussions and music exploring the "Risorgimento" and the genius of Verdi, who many consider an embodiment of the patriotic yearnings the Italian people of the time.
Co-sponsors are the consul general of Italy, the Italian Cultural Institute, the San Francisco Opera and the Leonardo da Vinci Society. Among the individual presenters will be keynote speaker Philip Gossett of the University of Chicago, who will examine the period from the 1840s through the time when Verdi became a member of Italy's first national Parliament in 1861.
"O Patria Mia: Bringing Patriotism to Life on the Stage" will be presented by San Francisco Opera musicologist Clifford (Kip) Cranna in a lecture that will include video samples and live performances illustrating Verdi's emotional world and his personal devotion to homeland. Soprano Hope Briggs, accompanied by pianist Ron Valentino, will perform "Ritorna vincitor" and "O patria mia" from Verdi's "Aida."
Saturday's lineup will include Giovanna Ceserani of Stanford University in a lecture titled "Verdi and Garibaldi: Heroes of the Risorgimento," followed by Mary Ann Smart from UC Berkeley speaking on "Risorgimento Fantasies," an exploration of the political ideas of the poets, journalists and theater officials of the time and how they found their way into its music. Cranna will then explore how Verdi's operatic scenes were put together, again using video samples and live examples sung by soprano Cheryl Cain and tenor Chris Coyne, with Valentino at the piano.
Gossett will present the final talk in the series, "Verdi, Shakespeare and Falstaff," which will deal with Verdi's lifelong fascination with the Bard. A panel discussion featuring all the presenters, along with questions from the audience, will follow.
For the complete program schedule and additional information about the presenters, call 415-391-9700 or go to www.humanitieswest.org. Tickets range from $20 to $80. Call 415-392-4400 or go to www.cityboxoffice.com.
Contact Cheryl North at firstname.lastname@example.org.