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Sunday, May 12, 2013

Conducting this score is a very intense human experience as well as a musical one and I think that one should not separate them. There are many elements that one could talk about when dealing with such a complex score‫:‬ the relations between the text and the music, Shakespeare, harmony, italian history, moral issues exc. but I would like to offer a personal point of view on a very small matter. It is not a secret that the note DO ( C ) is a center figure in Verdi's music and in Otello as well. Already in Rigoletto, the note DO symbolizes Monterone's curse on Rigoletto. the piece starts with the DO and its many faces and goes on during the hole opera as the Key of the cursed, the immoral. In Otello, Verdi take this DO into almost unlimited world of expressions and symbols. To start, I will present three of the biggest DO moments in the piece.

1. Jago - the Dream's Scene:

In the end of the second act, Jago tells Otello that once he heard Cassio in his dream talking about his love to Desdemona. This scene starts with the DO  (solo Horn) and in fact every time that Jago repeats the words of Cassio, Verdi uses the DO and repeats it constantly.

"Desdemona soave! il nostro amor s'asconda." (Sweet Desdemona, let us love forever..  )

Verdi does not only use the DO in order to show Jago's real intentions, he also shows us that the words of Jago enter the mind of Otello and convince him.

Otello: "Oh! mostruosa colpa" - (Oh! monstrous deed! )
Jago: "io non narrai che un sogno" - (I am only telling a dream)
Otello: "un sogno che rivela un fatto." - (A dream that reveals a fact. )

This dialog is sang by intense repetitions of the DO, by BOTH of them:
The tone of the words of Jago enters Otello's mind and he begins to speak as him. The lies of Jago are touching a special string in Otello's ears and he
begins to speak as Jago, think as Jago and eventually destiny himself to Death.

2. Desdemona's death

Desdemona has made peace with her destiny and Otello enters the room.
Verdi also here, uses the Brass as Otello's destiny call, Jago's DO in trumpets and trombones. Pianissimo but very clear: Jago's lies and immorality has concurred Otello's soul and Desdemona's destiny.

Otello: "Diceste questa sera le vostre preci? " - (Did you say your prayers?)
Desdemona: "Orai" - (I did)
Otello: "se vi sovviene di qualche colpa commessa che attenda grazie dal ciel,
      imploratela tosto." - (If you bethink yourself of any crime unforgiven as yet by heaven and by grace, then solicit straight for it!. )

As before, all this very hard dialogue is sang by repetitions of the DO. Verdi shows us that the diabolic intentions of Jago play almost an hypnotic role on Otello's mind. He does not see the difference between his thoughts and Jago's words. Without changing, the DO moves along from Jago's lies to Otello's manipulated truth. The DO of the dream scene is the same DO of the death scene.

After a very violent dialoguej between the two, Otello kills Desdemona: the very energetic music comes to a point where it all stops on a DO major chord in the orchestra with the words:

"calma come la tomba." - (Clam as the tomb. )
On the word "tomba" Verdi changes the harmony into the DO major (Cmajor).
The moral process of the DO has come to its goal: Death.

3. Destiny's DO.

Having all this in mind, I would like to send you back to a very special moment in the beginning of the piece.
Otello and Desdemona are in love and their first duet is an amazing, honest love duet. Already in this duet, Verdi gives us a hint regarding the DO and Otello's destiny.

Otello: " quest'attimo divino nell'ignoto avvenir del mio destino" - (like unto that, which at this hour I call mine own, succeeds in unknown fate)

This phrase is set on a B major7 chord which in english means, a dominant chord, a question. A dominant in E major key where this part of the duet lays in. This question does not get a normal answer: B major7 resolves into E major, this question resolves into the surprise harmony of the lowered Sixth grade in E major key which is not else but the C major - DO major. On the word destiny-fate, Verdi changes the normal course of the dominant chord into the DO major key: the same DO that will show his real intention and potential in the course of the piece.
In a more symbolic level, the DO of the first duet is a Doubt. The unknown fate comes as an unresolved answer to a question. The doubt that lays in each one of us has some certainties but most of all it has fears. Verdi shows us his fears of death, his own fear of choosing the wrong path, the path that leads you to your death. Is it the wrong one? is there another one?
Did Otello had a choice? Do we have a choice? The DO is the already doomed destiny or is it the open choice Otello has?

Why DO? the first answer that jumps to my eyes is the very obvious combination between the D of Desdemona and the O of Otello: DO. But there are other very important significances of the C major in the history of music. C major is the center, the beginning‫,‬ the Root of all the tonal system. This is enough in order to make a very wide guess regarding Verdi's choice of the DO as the center of his piece. The DO is in the same time the: Root of tonality, Dramatic force, Diabolic symbol, LIfe and Death. The DO, as we already said, is not new to Verdi. In Rigoletto he uses the DO as the power of the curse. The negative force that dooms Rigoletto and his destiny. While in Rigoletto, the DO is forced on him, in Otello it becomes HIS choice. And I will explain.

I think that by changing the key into the DO on the word Destiny (ex. 3) Verdi actually defines what might be the biggest human question: can we choose our destiny. The DO as we understand, is Otello's choice. The DO could become anything: in the tonal world it could go to all directions the same for Otello's choices. The DO represents the Doubt that leads us to choose. Jago puts a huge doubt in Otello's mind, a doubt that makes him choosing a path: Death. In the Masechet Avot (Hebrew Talmud, Ethics of the Fathers) there is a very famous phrase by Rabby Akiva: All is foreseen, and freedom of choice is granted. I find it almost amazing that Verdi manages to phrase this old philosophical quote in music. The beauty is in the fact that Verdi, as Rabby Akiva, does not give an answer to this huge question.

In 1874, in order to commemorate the death on Manzoni, Verdi wrote his superb Messa da Requiem. In this sacred piece, Verdi realizes some of the important relations between tonality and symbols. Two things that I found in this score, must be connected to our discussion in Otello. The Requiem opens in a very silent and magical arpeggio in the cello. - Mi - Do - La. An arpeggio that describes the A minor chord. The A minor chord is the Sixth grade chord in the key of DO major (C major); it is the Minor parallel of the C major. Another important indication is the Tempo: Quarter = 80. The amazing thing is that 80, goes also as the indication for the Dies Irae movement and actually will come back every time this music will appear in the Requiem. The 80 as one can easily understand has an important significance in this piece. It is a beautiful experience to start this piece in pianissimo with only the cello section playing, but inside one should already imagine the grandiose drums and singing of the dies irae. In a way Verdi tells us that the judgment day is always there, beneath everything, waiting for its time. I don't think it is by chance that the final death scene (ex.2) is marked: Quarter = 80. I am sure Verdi wanted us to connect these two magnificent moments into one clear tempo: He defines the beat of the Requiem = Dies Irae = Consequences of Otello's choices = 80. When choosing the 80 as the tempo for Desdemona's death scene, Verdi is connecting de facto the choices one makes and the destiny one has. Verdi gives his own interpretation of the talmudic phrase: all is foreseen - death, freedom of choice is granted - life.

Along with the amazing 80 indication there are two other important moments relevant to our discussion. the Trumpets in the judgment scene and the Libera me at the end of the piece. Both are in DO. The trumpets start repeating the DO arriving to a huge fanfare and the hole requiem finishes in the words: Libera me, domino de morte aeterna, in die illa tremenda libera me, libera me. All sang on a DO major chord with repetitive DO. Let's try to hold everything together: beginning of the requiem in A minor (parallel of C major) tempo - 80, Dies Irae - 80, trumpets DO, libera me DO, Otello's choices DO, Jago's diabolic tone - DO, Desdemona's death scene - 80 and DO. This is not a coincidence: Verdi has chosen the DO as the Libera me tone, the same DO that represents the beginning of all tonal system, the DO represents that doubt and the choices one should make in order to achieve the Libera me. One must not be mistaken, the DO is not only Jago's diabolic intentions, the DO is the voice of Otello's choice, the DO is the musical realization of Otello's mental choices and eventually his actions. In fact, Jago talks to Otello in DOs but it is Otello that takes it and makes it his own destiny. One could say that the fact that Verdi gave Jago the DO as a leading tonality might symbolize the fact the the bad is in the root of all of us: the diabolic essence. This is all true, but it is Otello to choose it as his fate.

In Shakespeare's Otello, there is a scene in the third act that was left out by Verdi and Boito. This is a very short and almost insignificant moment where a musician is talking to the clown upon the arrival of the general - Cassio. This is actually an amazing moment, that I think receives its full importance only after Otello had become a musical piece.

Masters, play here; I will content your pains;
Something that's brief; and bid 'Good morrow, general.'


Enter Clown

Why masters, have your instruments been in Naples,
that they speak i' the nose thus?

First Musician 
How, sir, how!

Are these, I pray you, wind-instruments?

First Musician 
Ay, marry, are they, sir.

O, thereby hangs a tail.

First Musician
Whereby hangs a tale, sir?

Marry. sir, by many a wind-instrument that I know.
But, masters, here's money for you: and the general
so likes your music, that he desires you, for love's
sake, to make no more noise with it

First Musician 
Well, sir, we will not.

If you have any music that may not be heard, to't
: but, as they say to hear music the general
does not greatly care.

First Musician 
We have none such, sir.

Then put up your pipes in your bag, for I'll away:
go; vanish into air; away!

Exeunt Musicians

Dost thou hear, my honest friend?

No, I hear not your honest friend; I hear you.

Shakespeare reveals a great truth about music and about life: In order to exist music must be heard! In order to BE one must choose. We are not a theoretical entity, Otello chose and his choices led him and the people around him to a certain destiny. Otello does not exist if the musician will not play or sing it, otherwise it is a theoretical entity on a piece of paper. Verdi, by composing this theatrical piece, brought into life (especially by cutting this scene from his libretto) a very hidden and profound aspect in Shakespeare's Third Act. The clown even goes one step further by asking the musician, can you play without being heard? Or in other words, can you choose without living with the consequences of your choices?! I think that Verdi understood the importance of this small scene on the philosophical aspects of music and music making, and by composing Otello, he actually connects the BEING of music with the BEING of mankind. " All is foreseen, and freedom of choice is granted" as Rabby Akiva said, in hebrew the direct translation would be: All is written and the choice is granted. All is written in the score, and our choice as musicians is how to bring it to life. Music, as moral choices in life, must be done, must be realized. This is why the musician tells the Clown that he does not have any music that is not to be heard and this is why Verdi connects the DO of the requiem with the DO of Otello, we are all the same, and we need to make our choices and live with them.