Final Scene

Although Verdi was famously unimpressed by theoretical musical forms, he at times chose to employ them in his operas to produce particular dramatic effects. For the Act III finale of Falstaff, Verdi composed a musical ensemble in the form of a fugue, a contrapuntal musical form with historic roots going back to the 14th century. The art of fugal composition reached its pinnacle in the instrumental and sacred vocal works of Johann Sebastian Bach in the 18th century, but fugues can be found in the works of many later composers, both in orchestral music and in opera, including Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Act II finale) and the prelude to Act I of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

The fugue is a complex musical concept. It can refer both to a compositional technique and a composition using polyphonic instrumental or vocal lines. The term derives from two Latin words meaning “to flee” and “to chase,” reflecting the way that fugal “subjects” (musical ideas) figuratively chase one another. A fugue begins with a single voice introducing a main subject in the “tonic,” or home, key. Once the subject has been played or sung in its entirety, a second voice enters, usually a fifth above in the “dominant” key, but sometimes with slight variations. This statement in the dominant is called an “answer.” A third and often fourth voice then enter in sequence, each stating the subject or the answer. Once all voices have entered, the “exposition” section of the fugue is complete. Over the course of a fugue, the composer starts to “develop” the subjects, with voices entering in a range of keys and in variations, including inversion or retrograde motion in the melody, or rhythmic augmentation and diminution. After this development, a classic fugue will usually end with a final statement of the subject in the home key. Notably, fugues have long been associated with compositional virtuosity, and, as a form that is readily audible, they serve the purpose of drawing attention to specific musical moments (as well as the composer’s talent).

Verdi drew upon the musical history of the fugue, using the form with a certain amount of irony in Falstaff and in his earlier opera Macbeth. According to the composer’s letters, he viewed an operatic fugue as a musical joke for insiders when he employed the form in the battle scene in Macbeth: “You will laugh when you see that I have written a fugue for the battle!” he wrote to a friend. In Falstaff, though, Verdi delighted in the idea of using the form to revel in the story’s own comedy. In an 1889 letter to his librettist, Arrigo Boito, Verdi stated that “I’m amusing myself by writing fugues. Yes sir, a fugue: and a comic fugue which would be suitable for Falstaff.” In fact, Verdi did employ a fugue in Falstaff’s Act III finale, using this attention-grabbing technique to set the line “Tutto nel mondo è burla” (“Everything in the world is a joke”). In this fugue’s exposition, Falstaff introduces the subject, and Fenton supplies the first answer. Quickly and Alice follow, entering with second statements of the subject and answer, before other members of the cast and orchestra join.

Verdi may well have used the fugue to display his compositional vitality in a late 19th-century world where his own operatic aesthetics were markedly different from those represented by Wagner, whose operas were hailed as the exemplars of musical progress. Yet the Falstaff fugue is much more than a compositional exercise. The musical elements of the fugue also serve to underline the opera’s meaning and add to its social comedy. For one, although the characters have been pulled apart by their various schemes throughout the opera, the intricate weaving together of musical voices that is integral to the fugue form suggests that they are ultimately reconciled and that peace is restored to Windsor society. The order of the musical voices in Verdi’s fugue also illustrates the way in which Falstaff has been played during the opera: The title character sings the original opening subject, but this melody is gradually changed as Fenton, Mistress Quickly, Alice, and the other characters begin to sing, depicting the way in which Falstaff’s initial plans to get rich are altered, and ultimately scuppered, by the women and the young lovers. The Act III fugue finale is also a meta-theatrical moment in which the characters break the fourth wall in order to comment on the situation in which they find themselves. This is a classic operatic technique, allowing characters to step outside of the action to impart the narrative’s moral message to an audience—a technique that can also be heard in the final scenes of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, to name two well-known examples.