By James Conlon

Today the world is marking the two-hundredth birthday of Giuseppe Verdi. It started already last night (he may have possibly been born in the evening of October 9). In either case, it really has been going on all year, and well it should.

Verdi has been with me my entire life, since hearing my first opera, La Traviata, at eleven years old. Not just the composer, but also the man is an immense inspiration.  A lifetime of conducting his works has only magnified those feelings.

I treated myself to a weekend in Chicago, to attend the opening night of the Lyric Opera (Otello) and a concert performance of Macbeth with the Chicago Symphony conducted by Riccardo Muti.

Aside from the magnificent performance, Maestro Muti had some very witty words to say about Verdi and Wagner (whose bicentennial it is as well). There was a résumé of those words printed in the program. I quote them in part:

“Verdi is like Mozart–he speaks to us about our sins, our defects, all our qualities. And he is not like Beethoven, who points his finger and judges–because Beethoven was always a moralist…Verdi’s music will be of great comfort for generations and generations to come, because he speaks to us like a man speaking to another person.

“When Verdi died, Gabriele d’Annunzio, the famous Italian poet, wrote a few lines which I think perfectly express who Verdi was: “Diede una voce alle speranze e ai lutti, pianse ed amò per tutti” he gave a voice to all our hopes and struggles, he wept and loved for all of us.”

On the editorial page of today’s New York Times, there are five letters to the editor reacting to a front page article from October 4 entitled “For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov.” The article, well worth reading, reports studies published in the journal Science.  The study found that after reading literary fiction or serious non-fiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.

The last of the five letters published today, written by Kathleen Crisci, reflected my immediate reaction, that one should make a similar study for various genres of music. She writes, “Who could listen to the pathos of a Beethoven Symphony…and not feel empathy and compassion?”

Art, almost by definition, does not need to justify itself, nor does classical music. But those of us who believe deeply in its value, and who live a life devoted to it, might be enthusiastic to see a similar study conducted, if for no other reason than for it to strengthen the argument for renewed inclusion of the arts in our children’s schools.

I do not know if there is any scientific evidence that listening to classical music has the same effect as was noted by the research cited in the New York Times, but my intuition suggests to me that it does. At least I would like to think so. I suspect that a lot of people reading this Musical America blog would also like to think so. And were they to conduct such a study, they should include the music of the king of empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence:  Giuseppe Verdi.

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