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Clash of the Titans: An Exploration of Verdi & Wagner

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Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner wrote some of the most famous music of all time. They became icons of their nations during turbulent eras: Verdi for Italy and Wagner for Germany. Their music still moves us, and their operas still play to packed houses around the world.

But, in many ways, the two composers were fundamentally opposites, and on the occasion of their Bicentennial year, WQXR presents a one-hour program exploring these crucial differences. We learn how these two men of music, both born in the same year, but flowering in completely different directions, ultimately empowered both the greatest and the worst sides of humanity.

Host Jeff Spurgeon and producer Aaron Cohen speak with a collection of scholars to illuminate the essential differences between these two titans of 19th century opera.

Part I – The Operas

We examine the operas, discussing both their source material and musical forms. 

Part II – National History

We look at the impact each composer’s music had on European history, Verdi in Italy and Wagner in Germany. 

Part III – The Standing Structures

We compare the two standing structures the composers left us: Verdi’s Casa di Riposo in Milan, and Wagner’s Festspielhaus in Bayreuth.

Part IV (Web Bonus) – Musical Language

We investigate the musical language of each composer, with piano demonstrations of Rigoletto and Tristan & Isolde.

The Cast

Gundula Kreuzer is Associate Professor of Music at Yale University. She focuses on the history and theory of opera, particularly Wagner and Verdi, as well as on questions of contemporary staging and nationalism. Her publications include Verdi and the Germans: From Unification to the Third Reich (Cambridge University Press, 2010), the critical edition of Verdi’s instrumental chamber music (The University of Chicago Press and Ricordi, 2010), and the forthcoming monograph Wagnerian Technologies: On 19th-Century Opera as Production (University of California Press). Kreuzer has served as Associate and Reviews Editor of The Opera Quarterly and won numerous awards for her research.


Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. He has recorded more than 500 lectures on a range of composers and classical music genres for The Great Courses Series, and has been referred to as the “Elvis of music history and appreciation.” His book, How to Listen to Great Music, was published by Plume, a division of Penguin Books, in April, 2011. Greenberg is also a composer, and his many honors include three Nicola de Lorenzo Composition Prizes and a Koussevitzky commission from the Library of Congress.


Jonathan Steinberg teaches modern European history at the University of Pennsylvania and specializes in German and Italian history. His All or Nothing: the Axis and the Holocaust 1941 to 1943 (Routledge 2002) compared the two fascist regimes during the Second World War. His Bismarck. A Life (Oxford University Press, 2011) made the New York Times list of bestsellers and Henry Kissinger called it “the best study of its subject in the English language.”


Matthew Aucoin is a composer, conductor, poet, and pianist, based in New York City. Aucoin's next opera, for which he is composing both the music and the libretto, has been commissioned by the American Repertory Theater and will premiere in 2015, directed by Diane Paulus. Aucoin is currently an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, and also conducts at the Rome Opera in Italy.  A 2012 graduate of Harvard College (summa cum laude in English), Aucoin's poems and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Harvard Advocate, the Colorado Review and elsewhere.


Jeffrey Swann enjoys an international performing career which has taken him throughout the United States, Europe, Latin America and Asia. He won first prize in the Dino Ciani Competition sponsored by La Scala in Milan, a gold medal at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, and top honors at the Warsaw Chopin, Van Cliburn, Vianna da Motta and Montreal Competitions, as well as the Young Concert Artists auditions in New York City. Since 2007 he has been Music Director of the Dino Ciani Festival & Academy in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, since 2008 the inaugural Adel Visiting Artist-in-Residence at the School of Music at Northern Arizona University, since 2010 Professor of Piano at New York University, and since 2012 Artistic Director of the Scuola
Normale Concert Series in Pisa.