Jan 102010

Verdi’s Otello is a work very much of its time, and this is true nowhere more than in its treatment of love and the erotic.  The simplest illustration of this may be found in the stark contrasts between the opera and its source.

Shakespeare’s Othello, more than any other play, is haunted by the theme of sexual disgust.  A.C. Bradley writes of the way in which “the matter of a play seems to go on working in Shakespeare’s mind and reappears, generally in a weaker form, in his next play.” [1] But the reverse process may also obtain, wherein a theme appears in one play in nascent form, only to be revisited on a far vaster scale in the next.  Thus the appalled fascination with sexuality in Hamlet, which lies behind both the title character’s ambivalent treatment of Ophelia and his famous castigation of his mother,

Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty! [2]

is echoed on a far vaster scale in Othello, taking root in the very first scene, in Iago’s mockery of Desdemona’s father, and growing until it all but dominates Othello’s mind.

The motif that is most commonly used to embody this theme of sexual disgust is the copulation of animals.  Thus Iago informs Brabantio of his daughter’s elopement with Othello in the following terms:

Iago:Even now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe…
You’ll have your daughter covered with a barbary horse;
you’ll have your nephews neigh to you, you’ll have
coursers for cousins and jennets for germans!

Brabantio:What profane wretch art thou?

Iago:I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and
the Moor are now making the beast with two backs. [3]

Iago’s seemingly lighthearted banter masks a ruthless progression: in the initial, concrete metaphors of “ram” and “horse,” specific animals are used as metaphors for specific individuals — Othello and Desdemona — in the act of copulation; but in that last, masterful phrase, it is the sexual act itself that is the object of comparison, and it is equated not with any particular animal, but with “the beast,” or perhaps we might say beastliness, itself.  Thus Iago’s metaphors lure Brabantio along a path from the particular to the general, from a satirical image of Othello’s wedding night to a vision of universal degradation, a reflection, in miniature, of the path along which Iago will lead Othello in the ensuing acts.

And indeed, from this seemingly lighthearted exchange emerges a train of imagery that culminates only when the half-mad Othello, after striking Desde­mona with a letter, departs the stage muttering the half-formed clause “Goats and monkeys!” [4] to himself, echoing the Elizabethan association of these animals with concupiscence. Othello’s loss of inner control is mirrored by the loss of grammar, and it is these words, which epitomize the association of sexuality and beastliness, that have broken the constraints of his grammar.

This image will appear once more, at the height of verbal cruelty in the play:

Othello:What, not a whore?

Desdemona:No, as I shall be saved?

Othello:Is’t possible?

Desdemona:O heaven, forgive us!

Othello:I cry you mercy then,
I took you for that cunning whore of Venice
That married with Othello.  You!  Mistress!
[Enter Emilia.]
That have the office opposite to Saint Peter
And keep the gates of hell-you, you, ay you!
We have done our course, here’s money for your pains,
I pray you turn the key and keep our counsel. [5]

Here Othello fuses the images of copulation and damnation, summoning Emilia both as hell’s gatekeeper and as the mistress of a common bordello.  But these images are synthesized with yet another image, that of bestiality; as Othello says “we have done our course,” he invokes not only the surface meaning of the phrase — a sexual bout — but also the suggeston of a horse race that lurks behind the word “course.”  Here the image of the “beast,” which begins lightheartedly, reaches its darkest point: from animals, to “beastliness,” and at last to “The Beast” in the metaphysical sense.

The principal difficulty Verdi and Boito faced in adapting Othello for the Operatic stage was not that its treatment of the erotic was fundamentally unoperatic; Wozzeck and Lulu both suggest otherwise. It was, rather, that Shakespeare’s particular brand of psychological realism was uncomfortable — not only for the operatic audiences of the time, but also for the composer and librettist themselves. Thus the work that they produced was one which, despite its great fidelity to the play, differed profoundly from Shakespeare in its attitude toward the erotic. The themes of sexual brutality, cruelty, and the animalistic are excised, replaced by a far simpler set of textual motifs.  Chief among these is the motif of the “kiss.”  As in Shakespeare, Otello and Desdemona share a three-fold kiss at the end of their love duet in Act I, which is then repeated twice over the course of the opera — before Otello kills Desdemona, and at the very end of the work, as he himself dies. The repetition of the kiss thus musically and textually bookends the work.  And it is also the kiss that becomes the focus of Otello’s growing jealousy, and with which Jago taunts him.  Thus, the crude sexual frankness with which Shakespeare’s Iago torments Othello.

Iago:You would be satisfied?
…but how?  how satisfied, my lord?
Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on?
Behold her topped? [6]

is replaced, at the parallel moment in the opera, with Jago’s simple “you would see them kiss, then?” [7]

But the erotic content of Othello is not excised from the opera, though this might appear to be the case from a glance at the libretto. Instead, it is sublimated. In place of the “psychologically” conceived network of erotic motifs that dominate the play, Verdi and Boito give us one monumental scene, the love duet.  This scene, unique among all the scenes of Otello, expands on its source rather than simplifying it.

The brief scene between Othello and Desdemona on which the love duet is based lasts all of a minute, takes place before the brawl, and occurs in full view of Cassio, Iago, and Othello’s attendants:

Othello:If after every tempest come such calms
May the winds blow till they have wakened death…
If it were now to die
‘Twere now to be most happy, for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like this
Succeeds in unknown fate.
Desdemona:The heavens forbid
But that our loves and comforts should increase
Even as our days do grow.
Othello:Amen to that, sweet powers!
I cannot speak enough of this content,
It stops me here, it is too much of joy.
And this, and this the greatest discords be     [They kiss]
That e’er our hearts shall make. [8]

Verdi’s love duet, by contrast, lasts some ten minutes, occurs in private, and takes place after the brawl, rather than before it.  More importantly, expanding upon one hint in Othello’s monologue — “If it were now to die/ ‘Twere now to be most happy” — it elaborates an entirely different conception of eros, which is expressed in music rather than words, and whose origins, likewise lie in the history of music as much as that of literature.

The love duet opens with a quartet of solo celli in the remote key of G-flat major, accompanying Othello’s words, “Now in the silent darkness/ The strife is heard no more.” [9] The instrumentation is strikingly reminiscent of the love scene between Siegmund and Sieglinde in Act I of Die Walküre, as is the modulation that occurs as Otello sings “and my heart…is lulled in sweetest calm” [10] at the word sweetest, the cello ensemble supporting him moves directly from E-flat minor, the submediant, to a chord of F-major, a minor second down from the tonic, echoing the direct modulation from B-flat major to A minor in Walküre’s love duet.  Given the singularity of the instrumentation, and Verdi’s familiarity with Wagner’s works, these resemblances are unlikely to be coincidental, or the result of an unconscious influence.  And indeed, the Wagnerian strain in Otello will only grow more marked as the work progresses; the structure of the opera as a whole has similarities with that of Tristan, and the concluding music of the “kiss” strikingly resembles that of the climactic embrace between Wotan and Brunnhilde in Act III of Walküre.

But even once we establish the existence of these resemblances, it is unclear what precisely they might mean.  What does Verdi have in mind in depicting the marital, socially sanctioned love of Otello and Desdemona with music that recalls the incestuous passion of Wagner’s doomed twins?  Are we perhaps meant to believe-as some critics have said of Shakespeare’s Othello-that the very intensity and immoderation of Otello’s love is what leads to his downfall?  In this interpretation, it is not jealously alone, but rather love itself that is his hamartia, or tragic flaw.

The violent intensity of this love is suggested, among other things, by the far-flung harmonic architecture that governs the duet.  The governing principle behind this architecture is a series of remote mediant relationships, which Verdi pursues to its furthest limits.  A striking instance of this occurs toward the close of the passage for cello ensemble, as Otello sings of his “boundless love.” In an illustration of “boundlessness” that is perhaps more compelling on the page than in the opera house, the orchestra momentarily moves, within the context of G-flat major, to a chord of E-double-flat major.  The second syllable of “amor” is followed directly by this shift, underlining two points of crucial importance.  The first is the rather Wagnerian notion of “boundless love” itself.  The second is the association of love with the relationship of two major keys a major third apart.  Thus the relationship of G-flat to E-double-flat, as it occurs here, forecasts the pairing of C major and E major that will govern the harmonic structure of a large part of the love duet, and, later, of the entire final act.

In a long interpolation based on Othello’s Act I monologue, Otello and Desdemona speak of his past and his courtship of her.  As Verdi and Boito cut Shakespeare’s first act from their libretto entirely, they found it necessary to make up much of the plot exposition contained within it “on the fly.”  Remarkably, the momentum of the duet is not lost; Verdi masterfully delineates the distance between Othello’s present happiness and past travails with an abrupt modulation from G-flat to C major, which appears beneath Desdemona’s question, “Do you remember?” This interpolation is thus a harmonic world apart, traveling from C to F within the context of a larger harmonic structure grounded principally in G-flat and E major.

The return to the present is marked by a brief modulation to E-flat major, one of the two common thirds of C and G-flat, on Otello’s words “Venga la morte!”-”Death, you may claim me.” [11] Through another mediant motion we are brought to briefly to a first-inversion triad of C-flat major.  Here the mediant progression coincides with the word “ecstasy.”  Shortly thereafter, C-flat returns as B; but rather than an unproblematic triad, the B chord is a dominant ninth, over which Otello’s vocal line — to the words, “I fear that I shall never more be granted such a moment of happiness” — sinks, chromatically and yearningly, downward from the ninth to the root.  Thus Otello’s doubts about his happiness are expressed as an extended prolongation of a B dominant pedal.  Finally his vocal line is allowed to reach the tonic of E that it has been striving toward; yet this portion of the melody is harmonized by a deceptive cadence to C major, as Otello completes his phrase: “that I shall never more be granted such a moment of happiness in the dark years that lie before me.” This last part could be translated more literally as “the dark years of my destiny.”  The last syllable of destino, in a maneuver with which we have by now become familiar, coincides exactly with the deceptive cadence on C.

The climax of the love duet, which follows shortly after this passage, is the three-fold kiss.  This passage epitomizes the great distance between Verdi’s intellectual world and that of his Shakespearian source.  Othello is, as Bradley remarked, the most poetically inclined of all of Shakespeare’s heroes, and his words here are of surpassing eloquence-”And this, and this the greatest discords be/ That e’er our hearts shall make.”  By contrast, the words with which Boito supplants Shakespeare’s are of an almost inarticulate simplicity: “A kiss!  Again a kiss!  Another kiss!” [12] The eloquence of the scene lies not in Otello himself, but in the enormous contrast between the inadequacy, even the banality, of his words, and the ravishing music to which they are set.

And indeed, this music is perhaps the most yearning, Romantic passage Verdi ever wrote-and this is precisely what most emphasizes the distance of Otello from Othello.  Whereas Shakespeare’s monologue closed on a note of ominous irony, Verdi’s ends with a lushness and longing that preclude any possibility of ironic distance.  Beneath an extended series of appoggiaturas in the melody, a descending chromatic bass outlines a progression of increasingly dense dissonance which ultimately wrenches the music away from its home key of E major to a C-major 6/4 triad.  Each appoggiatura is set to a kiss, until the bass reaches G, underlining the C 6/4 triad.  Here the flow of the music is interrupted, and, to the words ancorr’ un baccio, Otello’s vocal melody at last resolves in E major, following a direct progression from the C 6/4 triad, by way of a B dominant seventh, back to E.

This final harmonic pairing, resolving C into E, represents the mirror image of the deceptive cadence from E to C major that accompanied Otello’s misgivings about his destiny.  Thus eros is posited as the answer of the question implicit in the earlier passage.  Yet, musically, something remains unanswered; the direct progression from C 6/4 to B feels somehow incomplete.  And indeed, the polarity of C and E will be truly resolved only at the end, both of the opera and of Otello’s life.  For now, the orchestra modulates back to G-flat major, returning to the serene music of the cello ensemble with which the scene began.  The memory of the peculiarly plangent progression that accompanies the third kiss remains with the audience like another question, as the lovers retreat indoors, leaving us alone with the music and our misgivings.

The music of the triple kiss, appearing in various guises, shadows the remainder of Otello.  Most notably, a minor variant of it serves as the refrain of Desdemona’s Willow song, which pairs E minor and C major, when she sings, “I was born but to love him and die.”  But the kiss also appears twice more in its original form — before Otello kills Desemona and before he himself dies. It is in only in this last appearance that the tensions inherent in the relationship between E major and C major are truly resolved.

The final reappearance of the “kiss” music is ushered in with an inspired contrast: as Otello stands above the lifeless body of Desdemona, speaking of her purity, a bare E minor phrase in the English horn accompanies him.  But as he bends down to kiss her once more, E minor transforms to E major, and the lone English horn is joined by the entire orchestra, as the music of the kiss reappears.  The way in which we exper­ience this passage is a fascinating testament to the mutability of musical meaning; not a note is changed, but the music that seemed so sweet and yearning when it appeared in Act I now assumes, by virtue of its context, an almost unbearable sadness.

With the third “kiss” Otello dies.  What follows is a brief coda: over an E pedal, three soft chords of C, A, and F are played, and the last is resolved directly into the E major chord which, reiterated several times, closes the opera.  What this coda accomplishes, with the utmost simplicity, is the final resolution of the alien C major tonality into E major, completing what was begun at the end of the “kiss” music in Act I.  C, A, and F are, respectively, the tonic, submediant, and subdominant of C major; if we consider, further, that the role of the 6/4 triad in tonal music is fundamentally that of an implicit dominant — as at the beginning of the cadenza in a classical concerto — then it becomes clear that the C 6/4 at the close of the “kiss” music is essentially an incomplete statement of the dominant of C major.

Thus, between the final statement of the “kiss” music and the coda that follows, Verdi has effectively resolved all four of the structural pillars of C major directly into E, finally assuaging the architectural conflicts that arose with the deceptive cadence from E to C that accompanied Otello’s words, “I shall never more be granted such a moment of happiness in the dark years that lie before me.”  The question of Otello’s destiny is thus quite literally posed, and answered, in harmony.

But it is answered only in death.  And indeed, the end of Otello is nothing less than a Wagnerian Liebestod, both in its placement and in its structural function.  Like the end of Tristan, it is the repetition of an earlier love duet, sung by one of the lovers over the dead body of the other.  As at the end of Tristan, this paean ends with the singer’s death.  And as at the end of Tristan, it is only with the singer’s death, and only in the orchestra, that long-standing harmonic tensions, left unassuaged at the end of the earlier duet, are at last allowed to resolve.

If we now set Verdi’s music next to Shakespeare’s words, we become conscious of the vast gap between them.  His treatment of eroticism is infinitely closer to Romanticism and the mystical world of Tristan than to the secular, psychologistic world of Shakespeare’s play.  Otello has none of Othello’s ambivalence, and none of its distance from its subject.  The final words of Shakespeare’s Othello — “I kissed thee ere I killed thee.  No way but this/ Killing myself, to die upon a kiss” [13] — evoke profoundly the pity and terror that Aristotle felt was appropriate to tragedy. But we are not enveloped by Othello’s suffering as we are in Verdi; rather, the world continues after he dies, and Ludovico makes preparations for the punishment of Iago and for the continuation of the affairs of the nation: “Myself will straight aboard, and to the state/ This heavy act with heavy heart relate.” [14] Othello is in this sense very much a tragedy in the archaic sense, insofar as it deals with the fall of the Great, and with its profound impact upon the world they leave behind.

But in Verdi’s opera, as in Tristan, the world is clearly no longer a concern at all; our entire attention is upon Otello himself, upon his final vision of eros, and upon the last, transfiguring passage of this vision into the peace of death.  In Otello the vast, almost impersonal scope of Shakespearian tragedy is replaced with a radical interiority; the drama, and in a sense we ourselves, die with Otello.  In this sense Otello is the culmination of Romanticism’s infatuation with Shakespeare, which began with Schlegel. It may thus be seen as a corollary to Wagner’s attempt to base the Ring upon the categories of ancient Greek tragedy: in each case, the nineteenth century looked into the enigmatic glass of a past tradition, and found — itself.

We now return for a moment to the possibility, considered earlier, of seeing Othello’s (and Otello’s) love, rather than merely his jealousy, as the tragic flaw from which his downfall proceeds. In Shakespeare, this interpretation is reinforced by Othello himself, when he describes himself as “one that loved not wisely, but too well.” [15] The monumental final soliloquy from which these words come was largely eliminated by Verdi and Boito.  But we might say that its meaning remains intact; for what takes its place, tellingly, is the final reminiscence of the “kiss” from the act I love duet. Otello, like the lovers in Act II of Tristan und Isolde, is left virtually mute.  As he dies, he murmurs only “a kiss, again, another kiss.” [16] Where is the last flowering of eloquence with which Shakespeare’s hero bids the world farewell?  It exists only in the orchestra. Otello’s final syllable, the “cio” of Baccio, is set, with potent symbolism, to a rest; thus the final sound of the word is also the sound of his last, expiring breath.  Words lose themselves in music, and Otello’s great, yearning melodic line is resolved only in the orchestra.

This ending brilliantly encapsulates the two great “meanings” of Otello, which link Verdi intimately both with Wagner and with the spirit of his age.  The first is the union of eros and death, the Liebestod — the Romantic vision, traceable back at least to Novalis, of a love which annihilates all boundaries. Thus Verdi expands upon Shakespeare’s vision of “one who loved not wisely, but too well,” enlarging this idea until it becomes central to the entire opera.

The second meaning of Otello, proceeding from the first, is the vision of music as a noumenal realm in which alone the realization of this all-encompassing love is possible.  Thus as Otello dies, his melody, and with it his love, is taken up into the orchestra, there to find the only fulfillment it has ever truly known.



1. A.C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy [New York: Fawcett, 1967], 202.

2. William Shakespeare, Hamlet [London: Arden, 1982], III/iv, 91-94.

3. William Shakespeare, Othello [London: Arden, 2006], I/i, 87-115.

4. Othello IV/i, 275.

5. Othello IV/ii, 88-96.

6. Othello III/iii, 396-399.

7. Giuseppe Verdi, Otello (Libretto, trans. Andrew Porter) [New York: Riverrun Press, 1981], 54.

8. Othello II/i, 183-197.

9. Verdi, Otello [op. cit.], 43.

10. ibid.

11. ibid., 44.

12. ibid.

13. Othello V/ii, 336-7.

14. ibid., 368-9.

15. Othello V/ii,, 342.

16. Verdi Otello [op. cit.], 76.

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Verdi’s Otello”

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    Most notably, a minor variant of it serves as the refrain of Desdemona’s Willow song, which pairs E minor and C major, when she sings, “I was born but to love him and die.” Bu… [...]

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