• Don Carlo Musical Highlights

Ear of the Beholder:
A Close Look at the Theme of Liberty and Friendship Shared By Rodrigo and Carlo

In the first scene of Act II, Carlo and Rodrigo vow eternal friendship and commit to a lifelong fight for liberty. The musical theme established in their anthem recurs several times over the course of Don Carlo, resulting in an interpretive question: What was Verdi trying to say with this theme?

Some scholars say it represents true friendship. Others, including Nicholas Hytner, describe it as a theme of political liberty. In the director’s view, “Rodrigo, who is idealistically, politically, on the side of the angels, is ruthless in his personal dealings, utterly ruthless in his dealings with [Carlo], the confused young man who’s supposed to be his best friend.”

The meaning of a musical theme can deeply influence a listener’s understanding of the scenes in which it is heard. This Musical Highlight offers your students a chance to listen and weigh in. Text and translations can be found here. The reproducible includes space for students to take notes as they listen.

Track 31 presents the initial setting of the theme—a song with which the two men seek to encourage each other at the unfortunate occasion of Elisabeth’s wedding to King Philip. As noted above, their oath embraces both friendship and liberty.

Students who participated in the Classroom Activity may have noticed the theme in orchestral accompaniment during Track 9, when Carlo and Rodrigo repeat their vow to live together or die together, ending their lives with a cry of freedom. Immediately thereafter, a stately reprise of the theme by the orchestra brings the curtain down on Act II, Scene 1 (Track 32).

In the first scene of Act III, Rodrigo asks Carlo to hand over all papers relating to the rebellion in Flanders. He says that this will protect Carlo, but since Carlo knows that Rodrigo has already taken a job assisting the King, he hesitates. Rodrigo insists that Carlo can rely on him. The scene therefore involves both the liberty of Flanders and their friendship. Part of this conversation can be heard in Track 33, followed again by an even more energetic rendition of the theme, again ending the scene.

Rodrigo and Carlo meet under different circumstances in the second scene of Act III. As discussed with respect to Tracks 14 and 15 in the Classroom Activity, this is the moment when Rodrigo disarms Carlo, defending the King against Carlo’s demand to be sent to Flanders. Silence descends, then, as the scene continues, woodwinds leak a thin, slow version of the friendship/liberty theme (Track 34). The King immediately promotes Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, to Duke. Verdi seems to be commenting on the end of something, but what has ended? The friendship between the two men? The dream of liberty for  Flanders?

In Act IV, Scene 2, Rodrigo is assassinated in Carlo’s prison cell. With his life ebbing away, he sings a well-known aria, begging Carlo to go on—someday to rule Spain. He adds, “I must die for you,” and the theme wells up as a quiet, insistent march in Track 35.

Rodrigo continues, in Track 36, that he will die happily knowing that he has been able to help provide Spain with a liberator and future King. “Save Flanders!” he cries, as promised, with his dying breath, his hand in Carlo’s. Not a bar of the theme is heard in this track. Why do your students think Verdi made this choice?

Have your students ponder the following questions while listening to these tracks:

  • Does the musical theme represent a bond between Carlo and Rodrigo?
  • If so, is it a bond of friendship or a bond of political fraternity?
  • Might it represent one meaning for Carlo, another for Rodrigo?
  • What might the difference be—and can students point to evidence in any of its recurrences?