Deathmatch: Verdi vs. Wagner

Verdi vs. Wagner
Verdi vs. Wagner

[Editor's note: Deathmatch pairs two artists who have something in common, and determines who is better. It's a concept we sort-of ripped off from MTV, except that instead of claymation it's the printed word!]

Ladies and gentlemen, it's the main event of 19th-century opera! In this corner, sporting facial hair resembling a terrier, composer of 26 operas, the man from Milan, the Italian Stallion, Giuuuuuuseppe Veeeeerdiiiiiii. Over here, rockin' the neck beard, the composer of 13 operas, the bad boy from Bayreuth, the Teutonic Terror, Richard Wagnerrrrrrrr.

Who was the greater innovator?

Before Wagner, operas were like musicals with no spoken dialogue; a series of extended songs with sung material in between to move the plot along. Wagner changed that by writing operas where the music continuously evolves, in the process devising harmonies and orchestral sounds no one had heard before. Wagner pioneered the use of leitmotivs. With some tweaking, the tradition of introduction-song-repeat-until-hero-or-heroine-dies suited Verdi.

Point: Wagner

Who was the superior tunesmith?

It's not hard to guess who wrote the melodies that people went home humming.

Point: Verdi

Who's more popular currently?

Verdi had great success in the middle of the 19th century, but by the time he died in 1901 Pagliacci and Puccini were setting the trends in Italian opera. Wagner was his own best promoter, writing dozens of articles and books convincing folks that he was the future of opera. Critics agreed, and so did opera house managers -- by 1901, Wagner was considered the greatest opera composer of the 19th century.

These days the situation has reversed. For every single performance of a Wagner opera, there are ten of La Traviata or Aida. Audiences love a good tune, and they don't have to sit around for five hours to get through a Verdi opera.

Point: Verdi


1864 newspaper cartoon depicting Wagner's affair with the wife of his conductor, Hans von Bulow
1864 newspaper cartoon depicting Wagner's affair with the wife of his conductor, Hans von Bulow

Who was the more upstanding citizen?

Giuseppe was a self-made man, a hard worker whose musical dramas had to be successful in order for his family to eat. He became the wealthiest composer of his day, and his music was so inspirational to countrymen during Italy's unification that hundreds of thousands of mourners accompanied Verdi's funeral procession.

Wagner was a dick, a Jew-hating moocher who had to skip town every few years to escape creditors. Wagner persuaded admirers to give him money or conduct his music, and repaid them by sleeping with their wives.

Point: Verdi

Who was the bigger player?

Verdi may have had affairs, but he was pretty much a family guy, though he scandalized respectable Italians by living for a decade with a woman before marrying her. Wagner couldn't keep it in his pants (see above).

Point: Wagner

Who had the greater influence?

Verdi left no school of imitators. Wagner's use of leitmotivs was picked up by other composers, and years later evolved to underscore movies. His theories of continuous thematic development even influenced Verdi in Otello and Falstaff. Wagner's new harmonies were a springboard for younger composers like Strauss and Schoenberg who stretched tonal harmony until it broke. Hello 20th century!

Point: Wagner

Who had the greater cultural impact?

Wagner is one of those composers whose music you've heard, even if you've never been to an opera or concert. The most memorable scene in Apocalypse Now features Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. The popular wedding song "Here Comes the Bride" is actually a chorus from Lohengrin in which Lohengrin's wife is being led to his bedroom so they can screw like monkeys. Did Verdi ever have a Bugs Bunny cartoon inspired by his operas? And what's the stereotype of opera singers? A fat woman in a Viking outfit--Wagner's character, Brünnhilde.

Point: Wagner

Totals: Wagner 4, Verdi 3.

Nice guys finish last. Wagner, Wagner über alles!


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >