A sense of humor is a precious commodity that can radically increase our well-being. When the writer Norman Cousins became so ill that his doctors gave up on him, he “cured” himself by watching classic comedies, giving concrete form to the adage, “laughter is the best medicine.”
Great music can also help us laugh, a vital ability to cultivate especially as we age. Recently in a New York Times interview, Lorin Maazel, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, who has just completed his final season with the orchestra at 79, talked about Giuseppe Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, which premiered at La Scala in 1893 when Verdi, like Maazel, was nearly 80!
This comic opera, adapted from parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor, is a major accomplishment for any composer, let alone one so advanced in years. (Verdi died at 88.)
Verdi’s own life was filled with both tragedy and transcendence. Married in 1836 at 23, he lost his wife and 2 children to sudden illnesses all within the next 4 years. Devastated, he found it hard to keep working, but music ultimately helped him not only to survive but thrive.
In 1842 Verdi’s career suddenly took off with the opening of his opera Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar), based on the biblical story of the Babylonian captivity of the Jews. The premiere was an electrifying event, since it came at a time of growing Italian nationalism. Italian patriots of the day immediately identified with the enslaved Jews and reviled the detested Hapsburg rulers of Italy as tyrants like Nebuchadnezzar and his court.
The stirring chorus from that opera, “Va, pensiero, sull’ ali dorate,” (“Go, my thoughts, on golden wings”) quickly became an anthem of the patriotic movement and helped make Verdi a national hero.
To learn more about Verdi’s achievements in his later years and hear the grand finale of Falstaff–his celebration of laughter in old age–listen to our audio here.