Watch: Verdi vs. Wagner 200th Birthday Debate with Stephen Fry

Tuesday, September 17, 2013 - 05:58 PM

The Royal Opera House in London hosted an Intelligence Squared debate on Sunday on the question of Verdi vs. Wagner, the full video of which has since been posted online.

Cultural critic, novelist and Verdi devotee Norman Lebrecht argues that Verdi is unfairly written off as "just another Italian tunesmith and organ-grinder to Wagner's pantheon of sound." But Verdi was a "novelist who worked in sound," Lebrecht says, and a predecessor to Hollywood film composers. He notes that in his day, Verdi was unfavorably compared with Wagner, "who was the monkey on his back."

Novelist and Wagner worshiper Philip Hensher calls the German composer a "supreme psychologist in opera." He heads off Lebrecht's criticism of Wagner's anti-Semitism by noting that "the 19th century was full of German nationalists, some of whom were undoubtedly extremely nasty. It was also full of Italian nationalists, some of whom were extremely nice." But, he added, "some of the worst operas in the world were written by extremely nice people."

Wagner won the day with 53 per cent of the vote, thanks in part to the debate's chair Stephen Fry, a card-carrying Wagnerian. Watch below and tell us who you think won.

WQXR carries the Royal Opera House broadcasts.


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Comments [4]

Henry Watkin from New York, NY

Come now, WQXR Staff (whoever you may be). Philip Hensher destroyed Lebrecht,whose arguments were puerile when they weren't being purely mendacious. Stephen Frye was totally impartial, and on the whole supportive to Lebrecht, only noting that he had committed a calumny in saying that Wagner approached king Ludwig for money. And why is Lebrecht an "Verdi devotee" while Hensher is a [slavish?] "Wagner worshiper"?

Last night on YouTube I watched the video of the absolutely magnificent Wagner Birthday Gala given on May 22, 2013 by the Dresden Staatskapelle under Christian Thielemnann and featuring Jonas Kaufmann. If only WQXR had thought to broadcast that on Wagner's 200th birthday, instead of spending the day slinging mud on him. I think we all should have had a much more enjoyable time.

Nov. 25 2015 05:39 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Enough already with this Verdi vs Wagner nonsense. Both were musical gods.

Oct. 01 2013 09:20 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

This presentation is as thought-provoking as it is informative. The advocates Lebrecht and Hensher both assert that their composers are prededessors of film music and both are musical novelists. I think Wagner and Verdi's aesthetics were based upon archtypes in the former's case, (except for "Die Meistersinger von Nu"rnberg"), and the Italian opera tradition mandating librettists and set pieces by the latter. I think both composers transcended their beginnings in their most mature and final works. If it were possible to resurrect the great Greek dramatists, I think they'd claim Wagner as a descendent, and the Florentine Camerata would claim Verdi as their descendent. Both Wagner and Verdi's works are indispensable to me.

Sep. 18 2013 12:25 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Having heard the arguments from both ardent exponents, one of the Verdi and the other of the Wagner causes, it only proves that both composers' oeuvre are essential to one's full appreciation of what opera may communicate.
Since 1600 with the first opera, EURIDICE, by Jacopo Peri, many composers have contributed masterpieces that in their own idiosyncratic way communicated pleasure and enlightenment. As an opera composer myself and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, I can sense an unfortunate decline in the classical music field in the USA with so many diversions in music formats and no input from the public schools to provide classical music support. As a Wagnerian heldentenor with two three hour-long solo ALL-WAGNER concerts in Carnegie Hall's Isaac Stern Auditorium in 1995 and 1998, I am confirming my own predilection for that master's achievements.

Sep. 17 2013 11:14 PM

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