Clash of the Titans: An Exploration of Verdi & Wagner

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi (Wikipedia Commons)

Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner wrote some of the most famous music of all time. They became icons of their nations during turbulent eras: Verdi for Italy and Wagner for Germany. Their music still moves us, and their operas still play to packed houses around the world.

But, in many ways, the two composers were fundamentally opposites, and on the occasion of their Bicentennial year, WQXR presents a one-hour program exploring these crucial differences. We learn how these two men of music, both born in the same year, but flowering in completely different directions, ultimately empowered both the greatest and the worst sides of humanity.

Host Jeff Spurgeon and producer Aaron Cohen speak with a collection of scholars to illuminate the essential differences between these two titans of 19th century opera.

Part I – The Operas

We examine the operas, discussing both their source material and musical forms. 

Part II – National History

We look at the impact each composer’s music had on European history, Verdi in Italy and Wagner in Germany. 

Part III – The Standing Structures

We compare the two standing structures the composers left us: Verdi’s Casa di Riposo in Milan, and Wagner’s Festspielhaus in Bayreuth.

Part IV (Web Bonus) – Musical Language

We investigate the musical language of each composer, with piano demonstrations of Rigoletto and Tristan & Isolde.

The Cast

Gundula Kreuzer is Associate Professor of Music at Yale University. She focuses on the history and theory of opera, particularly Wagner and Verdi, as well as on questions of contemporary staging and nationalism. Her publications include Verdi and the Germans: From Unification to the Third Reich (Cambridge University Press, 2010), the critical edition of Verdi’s instrumental chamber music (The University of Chicago Press and Ricordi, 2010), and the forthcoming monograph Wagnerian Technologies: On 19th-Century Opera as Production (University of California Press). Kreuzer has served as Associate and Reviews Editor of The Opera Quarterly and won numerous awards for her research.


Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. He has recorded more than 500 lectures on a range of composers and classical music genres for The Great Courses Series, and has been referred to as the “Elvis of music history and appreciation.” His book, How to Listen to Great Music, was published by Plume, a division of Penguin Books, in April, 2011. Greenberg is also a composer, and his many honors include three Nicola de Lorenzo Composition Prizes and a Koussevitzky commission from the Library of Congress.


Jonathan Steinberg teaches modern European history at the University of Pennsylvania and specializes in German and Italian history. His All or Nothing: the Axis and the Holocaust 1941 to 1943 (Routledge 2002) compared the two fascist regimes during the Second World War. His Bismarck. A Life (Oxford University Press, 2011) made the New York Times list of bestsellers and Henry Kissinger called it “the best study of its subject in the English language.”


Matthew Aucoin is a composer, conductor, poet, and pianist, based in New York City. Aucoin's next opera, for which he is composing both the music and the libretto, has been commissioned by the American Repertory Theater and will premiere in 2015, directed by Diane Paulus.  Aucoin is currently an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, and also conducts at the Rome Opera in Italy.  A 2012 graduate of Harvard College (summa cum laude in English), Aucoin's poems and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Harvard Advocate, the Colorado Review and elsewhere.


Jeffrey Swann enjoys an international performing career which has taken him throughout the United States, Europe, Latin America and Asia. He won first prize in the Dino Ciani Competition sponsored by La Scala in Milan, a gold medal at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, and top honors at the Warsaw Chopin, Van Cliburn, Vianna da Motta and Montreal Competitions, as well as the Young Concert Artists auditions in New York City. Since 2007 he has been Music Director of the Dino Ciani Festival & Academy in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, since 2008 the inaugural Adel Visiting Artist-in-Residence at the School of Music at Northern Arizona University, since 2010 Professor of Piano at New York University, and since 2012 Artistic Director of the Scuola
Normale Concert Series in Pisa.

Hosted by:

Jeff Spurgeon

Produced by:

Aaron Cohen


More in:

Comments [36]

Circus Circus from NYC

Commentators fulfilling an agenda. The dramatized dribble heard from the mouths of these so-called pundits on Wagner is laughable. Many of Wagner operas are based on myths/legends/lore of the Germanic people. Truths, morals and values of a people (of humanity in general) are contained in these ancient stories. This is what stirs the soul of listener and there is nothing wrong with this. Commentators however, have a set script they must provide in order not to be ridiculed by those with a political agenda or called an anti-sem (so silly). Wagner operas are not all dark and brooding (and arguable not anti-sem), rather they tend to be heroic, positive, and projects a message. Oh, did i mention that some of the most romantic scenes in opera are contained in his operas.
Enough for now. I suppose I hadn't expected anything substantive or intellectual from this "special program" or QXR in general. Some things never change.

Oct. 09 2013 09:14 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

The third time is definitely not the charm for this poorly done "exploration" of the music of Verdi and Wagner. Surely, you could have come up with something more enlightening instead of serving up this drivel to your listeners once again.

Oct. 09 2013 10:38 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

HATE is the latest prominent ingredient in theatrical productions on stage and in film and in political campaigns and muck-raking publications and Tv and radio programming. HATE and VIOLENCE appeal to those seeking excitement from sensationalism and catastrophic explosive forms in nature as tsunamis. volcanic action, floods, snowstorms, dust storms and the like and bloody battles and car wrecks and contact sports such as wrestling which usually APPEARS, but ISN'T for real, yet satisfies the venal mindsets. Too many stage directors seeking self aggrandizement by doing the outrageous populate even our most respected opera houses and live theater establishments Although Wagner was an extreme radical antisemite, Nowadays productions reflecting the stage director's own political leanings tend to obscure the composer's intentions. TANNHAUSER nowhere expresses anything but a Roman Catholic concern for redemption which the Pope refused TANNHAUSER, but his virtuous lover Elizabeth by her sacrifice in her own death achieved for him. The composer Wagner had a Protestant mother and a Jewish father, LUDWIG GEYER, whom the child WAGNER adored. Nonetheless, his competitiveness and professional protocol approach ruled against his own reason and intellect and produced a contemptible blind scorn, a major blemish that thwarted a true view of others. The Germany of today views its ancestral NAZI predecessors as the villains they were.

Jul. 23 2013 06:34 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ


Jul. 23 2013 06:00 PM
presbar from New York

At least WQXR had the sense to present a belated homage to Wagner this week. Unfortunately, it overlaps with major live broadcasts from London and Bayreuth, also devoted to Wagner's works. It's too much of a good thing. As for "Titans," it was inevitable that it turn up again. The fault with the show was not that it mentioned the negative aspects of Wagnerism, but that those aspects overwhelmed discussion of everything positive about his achievements: music, drama, theater! I imagine that this one-sided view will be rebroadcast for the Verdi celebrations in October.

Jul. 23 2013 04:57 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

Thank you, Marky Mark, for your comment! I cannot believe that WQXR had the nerve to rebroadcast this silly program and try to pass it off as an objective comparison of Verdi and Wagner to "honor" Wagner's birthday, when in reality it was just an excuse to trash him once again.

Jul. 23 2013 10:24 AM
Marky Mark from New York

Bravo to "JonJ from Philadelphia", "Henry Watkin", and "CarolLuparella" for their critique of tonight's program. I found it pedestrian and quickly tiresome in its presentation. Thank God I didn't donate.

Jul. 22 2013 10:46 PM

oh brother exaggeration & crap, neither Verdi or Wagner revolutionized anything. Before Verdi & Wagner the curtain came up, singers sang and after the performance was over the curtain came down. After Verdi & Wagner the curtain continued to come up, singers sang and after the performance was over the curtain came down. And Verdi was mostly influenced by Shakespeare, Victor Hugo and Schiller?? Wrong, Verdi was mostly influenced by Donizetti, a composer he never got tired of stealing from.

Jul. 22 2013 09:18 PM

I'm utterly amazed that someone considers Beethoven to be a so-called anti-semite. Mr. Barenboim is certainly not the brightest bulb around. And someone also puts Richard Strauss in that category.Hello? His daughter-inlaw was Jewish, duh! Actually, Strauss shared with Wagner and Nietzsche a marked disdain for christianism, which N.considered the 'ultimate corruption' and W.practically regarded it as the 'mortal enemy of purest humanity'. Wagner also stated that all Roman Catholic priests should be shot. Some folks need to get their facts straight.

Jun. 19 2013 10:55 PM
presbar from New York City

John, the music which was being played at that moment was from the third act of "Parsifal." It's from the interlude between Scenes 1 and 2 and leads into Titurel's funeral music. You're lucky that you live in Seattle, where Wagner's work is frequently performed. Hopefully, Wagner's art can be enjoyed there without feelings of guilt, unlike some other places. It's all right to talk about his personal failings and unfortunate essays as long as his greatness as an artist is respected. The Web Bonus with Jeffrey Swann's discussion of "Tristan" should have been part of the radio broadcast, as it addressed the artistic, not the personal or political. I suspect that most of Wagner's critics understand little of musical or dramatic history. That's why they can dismiss his work so readily.

Jun. 15 2013 11:57 PM
John Smilgin from Seattle

Highly entertaining / enlightening; wish QXR would let us download this 4 future reference as it is such a valuable learning tool. Can anyone out there help me identify the Wagnerian music at about the 40 minute mark? Just as Jeff Spurgeon utters the word "catastrophe"? It's fantastic, but I am new 2 Wagner and cannot identify it. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance!

Jun. 08 2013 11:02 AM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

Enough with the damn witch hunts and political screening. He wrote great stuff. Let's just enjoy it.
Wagner was also a feminist. At the end of Die Walkure, Wotan condemns Brunhilde to being a housewife. You will sit in front of a fire and sing and spin. Her sisters run off, Woe, Woe.
Many great artists were bloody awful.

May. 28 2013 10:56 AM

Should not art transcend the person who creates it?

If we were to poke into the politics and biases of artists, we'd find a lot of repugnant beliefs.

May. 27 2013 02:08 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama IInstitute, Boonton, NJ

News today by the general manager of LA SCALA, Stephane Lissner that the world-famous opera house that was VERDI's outreach to the musical world is suffering government subsidy cutbacks and diminished attendance records will cut back on its scheduling, its season length and the number of productions. Worldwide the excuse by governments for cutting back on support of their cultural institutions, the opera, the symphony, the music conservatories, the museums, the universities and television and radio public broadcasting is 'we can't afford it." What we can't afford is the ignorance of our respective cultures that provide the incentive for achieving, that entertain and inform In the USA we are not even paying attention to our intrastructure with thousands of bridges and roadways and hospitals and schools in dangerous conditions, falling bridges with vehicles plunging into the waterways below. Terrorists terror but simple-minded, ethically challenged politicians potentially are even more destructive of an enlightened civilized society. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, opera composer and
director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute.

May. 27 2013 09:05 AM

An outstanding production: musicologically and historically most erudite and engaging. By the sound of some of the camps, though, I would guess that the Verdi and Wagner camps are still at it.

May. 26 2013 07:57 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

KUDOS to you "Jon J from Philadelphia" !!! Wagner was in every respect as much a revolutionary figure against monarchy, yet for a united Germany as was Verdi's compatriot Giuseppe Garibaldi for a united Italy. Wagner, as many leaders against an imperial status quo governing body, was imprisoned. His opera RIENZI, a man of the people, the historical last tribune of Rome was partially written, the overture especially exciting, while Wagner was in prison. The genius Mozart, like Wagner, depended on the financial support of royalty, yet pictured them for what they were, oppressive and the counts and Dons freakish womanizers.

May. 25 2013 11:05 PM
JonJ from Philadelphia

Like others in this thread, I was also rather disturbed by the trashing of Wagner on this program. The basic point of the whole program was "Verdi: a saint; Wagner: an anti-Semitic bum." I agree that Verdi was a very admirable person in many ways, and poor Richard was not the most sterling example of a human being in numerous respects. But I was very puzzled by how vehemently the people who put the program together were determined to blacken Wagner's image. While Verdi's role in Italian politics was emphasized, no mention at all was made of Wagner's revolutionary politics in 1848 and how it forced him into exile for many years. The emphasis was all on Wagner's anti-Semitic side (which none of us Wagner admirers would deny at all). Moreover, there was no discussion of the subtleties of the characters or plots of Wagner's late operas, in which his progressive political inclinations continued to be expressed (alongside the mystical aspects which the program stressed). Basically, it seemed to me that whoever was responsible for the Wagner half of the program was quite ignorant of that subject. I would have expected something much more professional from WQXR.

May. 25 2013 08:55 PM
Gloria & Gene Sosin

dear Jeff Spurgeon(sp?)
We enjoyed your erudite, and personal remarks this afteroon (Sat circa 4 pm) about Verdi and Wagner (both with V sound)

If we remember correctly Daniel Barenboim did play some
Wagner in Israel --it was the first time but you thought that Wagner ws banned --
Also thank goodness the fund raising is over, you almost lost us --

May. 25 2013 05:53 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Bloggers you have every right to "stick to your guns." The two incredible mammoth size talents in opera are VERDI and WAGNER. They have been given short shift on Radioland including WKCR which has done better than one would need to expect given its potential rival. The average person might be mortified learning the names of many of their icons of art and politics and science and teaching that had major flaws in their psychological persona. The product of genius is what we should ourselves accommodate in adjusting our scheduling of time and our choices of seeing, reading or hearing. The 'taste test" should not require a Curriculum Vitae, a passport or a declaration from "on high," but rather our own internal gratification in the presence of masterworks.

May. 24 2013 08:28 AM
Frank from UWS

Wagner's days are numbered in our society. As we become more enlightened, his anti-Semitic works will go the way of blackface minstrel theater and racist cartoons. That's partly where were so few celebrations on Wednesday here in the U.S.

Bye, bye, Richard. Hello Giuseppe.

May. 23 2013 10:26 PM
Stephen from New York

Suprised by the ending which gave a "thumbs up" to Verdi and a "thumbs down" to Wagner.

Thank you I can make up my own mind.

May. 23 2013 08:17 PM

These comments are opinions, right? My opinion is that I really loved the “Clash of the Titans” program last night. I thought Spurgeon was even better than his usual self while serving as moderator. I thought all the guest speakers were excellent. Their knowledge and opinions really made the program. I lot of important material was put into one hour. A very disconcerting thing, however, was Mr Steinberg telling us about his experience with the “Ring” cycle. He said that he was being “converted.” I took that to mean morally corrupted by the experience. Why didn’t he just get up and leave and not attend the remaining three operas. Did he feel that as a well educated man and a professor he had the duty to attempt to objectively examine this pagan theology even if it had the power to morally corrupt him. Nobody has the duty to take that sort of risk. Another point is can music alone without the words and story line be corrupting? Beautiful music is beautiful music regardless of who wrote it and what his hidden goals might be. Just think of all the great singers, musicians, and conductors earning a living by subjecting themselves to Wagner’s music over and over again. Are they being morally corrupted or converted by the experience? As for the other comments that were written in. Please lighten up, folks. If you thought Wagner was being short changed, why didn’t you just turn off the radio and play the Wagner recordings from your own personal record library to honor him?

May. 23 2013 08:02 PM

I'm getting pretty tired of all these witch hunts to find flaws in people's characters. We ALL have clay feet.

May. 23 2013 04:04 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

Professor Steinberg's talk on the states that became united as Italy that Verdi saw in his lifetime, and the Prussia that Wagner lived in was especially enlightening. I would have liked to have heard some comments on whether Verdi ever used leitmotifs in his most mature operas, as some critics would have us believe. I don't think so, at least not as Wagner did, because the motives --- specifially the "kiss" motive in "Otello", doesn't change to mirror different psychological states, as they always do in Wagner's "Der Ring des Niebelungen". I think the only non-human "character" in Verdi's operas is the Celestial Voice in "Don Carlo", whereas all of "Der Ring" 's characters are mythological, as are Lohengrin and Parsifal. In "Die Meistersinger von Nu"rnberg", everyone is human.

May. 23 2013 11:42 AM

Henry is absolutely correct. Let us just appreciate Wagner's music and stop looking for things in it that aren't there.

May. 23 2013 11:14 AM
Peter Fearon from New York

It is always wise to judge the artist and his or her art separately and apart. That's true whether it's Picasso the misogynist, Hemingway the oafish pompous, arrogant, drunk, Wagner the antisemite or Mahler who converted to Christianity in compliance with antisemitic laws which barred Jews from important cultural posts, or any of a whole host of great artists with unpleasant attitudes, beliefs, judgements or tastes. Better to just listen to the music.

May. 23 2013 11:12 AM
Henry Watkin from New York, NY

To set the record straight no one is suggesting that Wagner's antisemitism should be suppressed. From all accounts he was an extremely unpleasant man to be with, and his writings on Jewry are rabid and odious. But what is important for most of us is the majesty, pathos, and joy of his music and dramas, and that, Bernie and Mr. Feldman, is what we can separate from the horrid little man who wrote Judentum in der Musik.

As far as Jewish caricatures in the music are concerned, I personally have yet to see a convincing argument that, Mime, Beckmesser, Klingsor, or any other character in Wagner's operas have any recognizable Jewish traits. I would contrast this with the St. John Passion of Bach--whose industy Bernie so enthusiastically praises--which contains unequivocal attacks on the Jews.

As Carol Luperella stated, it is foolish to blame Wagner for Hitler, who was equally if not more fond of The Merry Widow. The composer of that work was actually complicitous with the Nazis ( Shall we stop listening to work as well?

May. 22 2013 11:27 PM
Bernie from UWS

I'm with Peter Feldman on this one. You can't selectively pick and choose biographical facts to make yourself feel good about a composer. People celebrate Bach's industriousness, Beethoven's railing against deafness, Chopin's patriotism for Poland, or Shostakovich grappling with Stalin's rule. Similarly, you must consider that Wagner was not a nice man, and not only wrote anti-Semitic treatises but seems to have included Jewish caricatures in his music. This documentary did right by including it, warts and all.

May. 22 2013 10:19 PM

Thank you, Henry, and I completely agree with your comments. I was not too impressed with this program, which seemed like just another forum to trash Wagner. What was the purpose in bringing up the subject of Nazism? It was not Wagner's fault that he happened to be Hitler's favorite composer. Wagner may have been an unpleasant person, but that is no excuse to continually bring up his faults. No other composer gets treated in this way, and it is really getting quite annoying.

May. 22 2013 09:36 PM
Peter Feldman from New York City

Thank you for let us know what Richard Wagner wrote about Jews. I knew that he was anti-Semitic but I never knew the extend until a read the book Mein Leben (My Life) written by him that can be read in the Internet. This is not any trashing Wagner, it is to be EXACT about this man, a real Nazi with a big ego who spent his life trashing other composers specially Jewish composers. It is justice that his words are not hidden anymore.

May. 22 2013 07:57 PM
Henry Watkin from New York, NY

Carol Luparella's comments certainly hit the mark!! And I must say that I am less inclined to renew my support for WQXR after this simplistic and Manichaean presentation.

Again, I am forced to ask what is the point of trashing Wagner so totally on the 200th anniversary of his birth. Surely many of the facts presented in this program could be seen in different light. To name but one, Wagner's desire for a theater built to his own specifications can be viewed as a function of his artistic vision, his wish to create the Gesamtkunstwerk, and not merely a craving for a temple to himself. As even the program is obliged to admit his innovations in theater design were brilliant.

In suggesting that Wagner's music has some sort of magical power it is Jonathan Steinberg who is being antirational. The only "magic" involved is power of great music, which in any event is never a rational force. Moreover I think it is safe to say that most of us who love Wagner's music dramas deeply have not become Nazis or even antisemites!

May. 22 2013 07:40 PM

You can see what WQXR thinks of Wagner from the fact that they chose to schedule their Fundraiser to overlap his 200th birth anniversary. Then they just put on this one program and think that is enough. Yet they had Bach all day, every day for 10 days straight, and it wasn't even a milestone birth anniversary or other special reason. I guess they will schedule their next Fundraiser to overlap Verdi's 200th birthday!

May. 22 2013 03:14 PM
Peter O'Malley

Yes, WKCR plays lots of jazz (stuff you don't hear anywhere else except WBGO), and Phil Schaap is a great resource, but that wasn't my point. Regardless of your views of Wagner, if a station bills itself as "the place for classical music in New York", and purports to recognize the Wagner bicentennial, it could do more, which WKCR is doing. QXR could, of course, rip off the idea, as it did with the Bachfest (where even Phil Schaap talks about Bach), but it hasn't yet.

May. 22 2013 01:09 PM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

Now when WKCR played Billie Holiday all day on her birthday I was listening (and got compliments from others for the captivating music), but Wagner? As I've commented before we've got "Wagner up the vahzoo" on WQ almost every day. Ring cycle in our noses. No need for even more saturation, unless of course some billionaire puts up some very big bucks. "Boh Coo" or "Boo Coo" bucks as the new idiom goes.

I'll pass on the WKCR Vahgner and wait for Phil Schaap to return.

May. 22 2013 12:01 PM
Bernie from UWS

Peter: you are correct. Not much imagination happening here:!/playlist-daily/2013/may/22/

I'm going to WKCR now...

May. 22 2013 11:16 AM
Peter O'Malley from Oakland, New Jersey

This would be a good start if we could expect it to lead into a more extensive examination of, along with playing more of the music of, either or both composers (outside of the excellent job being done by Bill McLoughlin on "Exploring Music", which is not a WQXR production). Instead, it will fade away and we will get the usual: Triumphal March from "Aida" (instruments only); Festmarch from "Tannhauser (instruments only); "Anvil Chorus" from "Trovatore"; Act III Prelude from "Lohengrin".
For the record, at the other end of the dial (if you're using a radio, WKCR (89.9, or is doing a 48 hour Wagner bicentennial today through tomorrow. "Tannhauser" is on right now (with singing!!!), and there are no commercials (sorry!: "paid promotional announcements").

May. 22 2013 09:51 AM

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