During his last years, Verdi worked on revising some of his earlier scores, most notably new versions of Don Carlos, La forza del destino, and Simon Boccanegra.
Otello, based on William Shakespeare’s play, with a libretto written by the younger composer of Mefistofele, Arrigo Boito, premiered in Milan in 1887. Its music is “continuous” and cannot easily be divided into separate “numbers” to be performed in concert. Some feel that although masterfully orchestrated, it lacks the melodic lustre so characteristic of Verdi’s earlier, great, operas, while many critics consider it Verdi’s greatest tragic opera, containing some of his most beautiful, expressive music and some of his richest characterizations. In addition, it lacks a prelude, something Verdi listeners were not accustomed to. Arturo Toscanini performed as cellist in the orchestra at the world premiere and began his association with Verdi (a composer he revered as highly as Beethoven).
Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, whose libretto was also by Boito, was based on Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, Part 1 via Victor Hugo’s subsequent translation. It was an international success and is one of the supreme comic operas which show Verdi’s genius as a contrapuntist.
In 1894, Verdi composed a short ballet for a French production of Otello, his last purely orchestral composition. Years later, Arturo Toscanini recorded the music for RCA Victor with the NBC Symphony Orchestra which complements the 1947 Toscanini performance of the complete opera.
In 1897, Verdi completed his last composition, a setting of the traditional Latin text Stabat Mater. This was the last of four sacred works that Verdi composed, Quattro pezzi sacri, which can be performed together or separately. They were not conceived as a unit and, in fact, Verdi did not want the Ave Maria published, as he considered it an exercise. The first performance of the four works was on 7 April 1898, at the Opéra, Paris. The four works are: Ave Maria for mixed chorus; Stabat Mater for mixed chorus and orchestra; Laudi alla Vergine Maria for female chorus; and Te Deum for double chorus and orchestra.
While staying at the Grand Hotel et de Milan in Milan, Verdi suffered a stroke on 21 January 1901. He gradually grew more feeble and died nearly a week later, on 27 January. Arturo Toscanini conducted the vast forces of combined orchestras and choirs composed of musicians from throughout Italy at Verdi’s funeral service in Milan. To date, it remains the largest public assembly of any event in the history of Italy.
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