The Politics of Opera: A History From Monteverdi to Mozart
By Mitchell Cohen
Princeton University Press, 2017, 512 pp.
Toscanini: Musician of Conscience
By Harvey Sachs
Liveright, 2017, 944 pp.
For centuries, opera was not only the most prestigious form of Western music but also the most political. Cohen observes that the invention of opera coincided with the emergence of the modern nation-state, and the art form’s subsequent evolution has mirrored changes in state power. Many of the greatest operas raise profound questions of political philosophy. Claudio Monteverdi’s operas portray the ruthless political intrigue that the composer saw around him in small Italian courts. Operas by Jean-Baptiste Lully and Jean-Philippe Rameau explore how absolutist monarchs, such as the Bourbon kings for whom the two composers wrote, can wield their power for moral ends. Mozart’s three great Da Ponte operas trace subtle shifts in eighteenth-century society and question whether a social hierarchy headed by aristocratic men is truly consistent with Enlightenment values. This subtly insightful book helps readers experience these timeless masterpieces anew.
Composers have not been the only figures in the opera world to take on politics; conductors have as well, including Arturo Toscanini, one of the greatest in history. From the moment in 1886 when Toscanini, then a 19-year-old cellist and chorus master, stepped in as a last-minute substitute and conducted Verdi’s Aida from memory, he excelled not just at Italian operas but also at those by Beethoven, Wagner, and many others. Other books have analyzed his exceptional musical interpretations and traced his impact on the way we listen to music today. This long biography updates Sachs’ two previous books on Toscanini and seeks to be the final word on the conductor’s life and times. Much of the book concerns his intimate personal life, which was at times risqué. Yet the author also emphasizes Toscanini’s role as the most prominent antifascist musician of the mid-twentieth century. His courageous opposition to Francisco Franco, Adolf Hitler, and Benito Mussolini made headlines worldwide. Eventually, violent assaults on him in Italy, along with Hitler’s success, forced him to flee to the United States. Yet he won in the end when, after the war, the octogenarian returned to Italy to inspire a new generation. His life stands as a lesson that artists can be the most visible conscience of an era.