Young Verdi & Ladino Music: A Possible Connection

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Born in Roncole, Italy, on Oct. 9 or 10, 1813, Verdi was named in French, Joseph François Fortunin. At that time, that part of Italy was still under French dominion. He was the son of Carlo and Luigia Verdi.

Verdi’s parents owned a tavern close to Busetto in the Parma region of northern Italy. His parents were middle-class, educated Catholics. His father even bought a spinet piano for his young son, which indicates both that they were people of means and that they supported Verdi’s talent from a young age.

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Verdi received his main musical education as a child from the organist of his church in Roncole. Until the age of 12, he studied at the gymnasium in Busetto, which, because of its distance from his town, obliged him to lodge with the family of a shoemaker.

This is the kind of profession that was most often held by Jews in Italy of that time. Might this family have been Jewish? Might Verdi’s musical ear have been influenced by the Jewish prayer modes he heard at the synagogue, or the Ladino songs he might have heard circulating around him?

As for Verdi’s faith in God, one interesting event from Verdi’s childhood can be substantiated. As an altar boy in Roncole, he once failed to pay attention during Mass, irritating a priest who knocked him down the altar steps. Giuseppe responded by cursing the priest, “May God strike you with lighting.”

As if in response to the boy’s curse, the priest was killed in September 1828 when lightning struck the nearby church of La Madonna de’ Prati. Verdi, whose parents were catering a dinner for the clergy there, remembered the shattered altar and the charred bodies of four priests, two laymen, and two dogs. He often told friends and relatives about the horrifying sight. In the countryside, where superstition ran abreast with the Catholic faith, Verdi’s curse became a part of local lore.

While in Busetto, Verdi studied organ with the master of music of the village, a Signor Provesi. Then he went to live with the family of Antonio Barezzi, a prominent citizen who would become his father-in-law. Denied entry to the conservatory in Milan, Verdi in 1832 began private music studies with Vincenzo Lavigna. His lessons were largely paid for by Barezzi. He was considered a “boorish” lodger.

It is also because of his not having been accepted to the conservatory that Verdi was largely self-educated, going often to the opera and theatre, and reading all the works of Shakespeare, and Manzoni, the great Italian novelist.

In 1836, Verdi returned to Busetto to take the place of his former professor, who had died, as organist. However, a political squabble broke out in the town over who should get the job, and, disgusted, he left for Milan again.

This is the outline of Verdi’s early life. Might it have included exposure to Ladino music? I argue that this is plausible, given his need to walk six kilometres to school, and his rooming with the family of a shoemaker.

What is Ladino?

Ladino is a language invented by Jews living in Spanish lands. It is a composite of Spanish and Hebrew, also known as Judea EspanolLadino song is a Jewish folk song repertoire that originated with the Sephardic, or Spanish Jews.

Until the advent of the Spanish Inquisition, Ladino was spoken by a respected, educated and flourishing community. When Jews were expelled from Spain, many fled to Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Ladino continued to thrive, incorporating many Arabic words. However, once these Jews returned to Israel during the last century, the language fell into decline in favour of Hebrew. It is now experiencing a small renaissance.

Ladino music evolved as a natural adaptation to the community’s needs and customs. It incorporates elements of prayer and stays largely within the confines of the Jewish modes, notably the Ahava rabba or Seliha mode.

My belief is that the resemblance of  Verdi’s “Addio del passato,” from La Traviata, and “Adio querida,” a Ladino song of unknown date, is not coincidental. The haunting melody so long associated with Verdi can now be seen as connected, indeed original, to this ancient, traditional melodic history associated in particular with the Jews of Spain and Italy.

The Comparison

La Traviata was set to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave and based on the 1848 novel La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils. La Traviata means literally “the fallen woman.” Both Verdi and Piave insisted on the right to have the production set in the “present time,” i.e. the 1850s. As for “Addio del passato” (or “Tu madre cuando te pario”), it is impossible to date exactly, but it was most likely written between 1200 and 1500 AD.

The melody of “Adio querida” is in a straightforward AABB form. The words show that this is a song of an embittered lover. The aria from La Traviata takes place at the harshest moment for Violetta, when she realizes that although Alfredo might have come back to her, it is too late, she is dying. The form of the aria “Addio del passato” is also a straightforward AABB. In the aria, Verdi uses the exact melody of the B section of “Tu madre” for his A section.

The melodic comparison here is striking. There can be no argument that Verdi somehow heard the melody of this famous Ladino song and incorporated it into this aria. The elements in common are too clear. The question more interesting to answer is: Where, and how, did Verdi hear this song?

This article is an excerpt from “The Mysterious Motives of Giuseppe Verdi,” a doctoral thesis by Sharon Azrieli (Université de Montréal, 2011). Dr. Azrieli is an internationally-acclaimed Canadian soprano and has sung leading roles in major opera houses around the globe.

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