Act III of Rigoletto features one of the most memorable musical moments in all of Verdi’s oeuvre: The hitman Sparafucile is arguing with his sister and accomplice, Maddalena, who wants to spare the Duke’s life. Sparafucile has no particular grudge against the Duke, but he needs to deliver a body to Rigoletto by the end of the night, and where could he possibly find another person to murder on a dark and stormy evening like this? And then comes a knock at the door … just the wind, surely. But no: There it is again! And so Sparafucile and Maddalena prepare to welcome the new “guest” who will take the Duke’s place, while Gilda prepares to make the ultimate sacrifice. As Gilda crosses the threshold to meet her bloody fate, the thunderstorm passes directly overhead, punctuating the characters’ lines with orchestral flashes of lightning and crashes of thunder.
Storms like this one have a long pedigree in literature, theater, and opera. Powerful symbols of rage, spite, and fear, they often appear at especially charged narrative moments, as though the heavens themselves were horrified by the human (or supernatural) misdeeds taking place on Earth. In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Three Witches who confront Macbeth at the beginning of the play are accompanied by thunder and lightning, befitting their status as agents of hell. On the operatic stage, Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz (1821) features a famous scene set in the Wolf’s Glen, where the Devil assists the protagonist in casting seven magic bullets. The stage directions for the Wolf’s Glen—not somewhere you’d want to be after dark—call for not one but two thunderstorms approaching from opposite directions. Outside of the theater, too, there is a tradition of tempestuous music. Particularly after the modern symphony orchestra developed toward the end of the 18th century, composers were taken with the idea of representing such extreme weather with musical means alone. Ludwig van Beethoven led the way in his Sixth Symphony (1808), nicknamed the “Pastoral”: The idyllic mood of the third movement is abruptly cut off by a powerful storm in the fourth.
Yet the most direct predecessor to Rigoletto’s Act III storm may well be Gioachino Rossini’s overture to Guillaume Tell (1829), which features a particularly well-known storm depiction. Rossini’s overture makes use of several musical techniques that are highly characteristic of orchestral thunderstorms. Rising wind is rendered with nervous tremolo (trembling) strings, while short, sharp staccato notes in the flutes depict the isolated raindrops that precede the storm proper. The fury of the storm itself requires rolling strikes on the timpani and bass drum to represent thunder; this percussive roar is augmented by the brass instruments (especially trombones) playing at full throttle. Rapidly descending chromatic musical lines (filling in all the gaps between the notes of the scale) suggest lightning strikes and driving rain. Such techniques, albeit slightly modernized, are recognizable even in more recent music, such as the “Storm” interlude from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes (1942).
Verdi draws on all these techniques for the storm scene in Rigoletto, while also linking the musical effects to the unfolding drama in an especially striking way. Most of the action in this scene takes place inside Sparafucile’s inn, so Verdi crafted the music to make it sound like we are hearing a storm from within the building (unlike the fully outdoor thunderstorm in the Guillaume Tell overture). While Maddalena and Sparafucile argue, flashes of forked lightning appear as broken chords in the high winds—but quietly, as though flickering through rain-soaked windows. And Verdi comes up with a clever means of depicting the wind, with the chorus singing eerie rising and falling figures in close harmony, as though the wind were howling through the cracks of the ramshackle building. Only when the door is opened for Gilda, at the moment of highest dramatic tension, does the storm reach its peak. Both musically and thematically, it is all the more powerful for having withheld its fury until the last moment.
If you could create the soundtrack for a storm sequence, what kinds of sound effects would you want to use? Would you focus on standard musical instruments? Would you use non-musical objects to create sounds? Or would you use a combination of instruments and other objects?