Love and Death:
A Close Look at Two Key Melodic Themes
Texts and translations for the following tracks can be found here.
The visual design of the Met’s production of La Traviata, as students will see, involves many circular images, including a giant clock and circular movement. Director Willy Decker explains that he understands the opera as being shaped by the structure of a circle. A musical example of this involves the two melodies that might be identified as the love and death themes. Both are heard in the prelude to Act I (CD 2, Track 22). Students may enjoy trying to figure out which bit of the prelude represents love and which represents death before taking a closer listen. Texts and translations can be found here.
Track 23 provides students with an opportunity to get to know the second theme before going on to hear its reprise.
In a major key, this broad and lyrical melody is played by the violins, violas, and cellos. It is immediately repeated, over which the violins add a decorative countermelody.
This melody returns in a climactic moment in Act II, one key higher, where Violetta, prompted by Germont, bids farewell to Alfredo (Track 24).
Where in the Prelude it was played softly, here it is sung fortissimo over the accompaniment of sustained woodwind notes and a dramatic emotional tremolo in the strings.
A similar melody, the love-duet theme, is heard in the second part of Alfredo’s Act I aria, “Un dì felice” (“One happy day”), as he declares his love for Violetta. Note that the direction and contour of the melody is similar to the love theme from the Prelude, albeit with a different rhythm (Track 25).
The love-duet theme is heard again in Violetta’s soliloquy at the end of Act I (Track 26) and in Act III, played poignantly by a solo violin as Violetta reads Germont’s letter (Track 27).
If the second part of the prelude represents love, then by process of elimination, the first represents death. Play Track 28 to remind students of the theme. Played only by the violins, it is played softly in a high register in close harmony in a minor key. It represents the frailty of the heroine.
It recurs significantly in the prelude to Act III, an exemplary section of which can be heard on Track 29. Students familiar with the plot of the opera will be equipped to guess its significance there; Act III depicts the last hours of Violetta’s life.
The last few moments of her life may have posed an interesting problem for Verdi. Which theme would usher Violetta out of this world—love or death? Now that they are familiar with the two themes, students may enjoy discussing which and why. Then listen to CD 1, Track 30 (below) for Verdi’s touching—indeed, lovely—solution.