Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Celebrating Verdi’s 200th — Life and Operas of Verdi: Macbeth

Speaking of facial hair (which I did in my previous post), I would issue a challenge to all the techies out there. I would dearly love to have an app that allowed me to actually “see” what someone looked like – clean shaven – beneath his beard. Now, I completely understand that a full beard is considered a sign of piety by some religious sects and as a symbol of male virility -“plumage” on full display – for various cultures. Nevertheless, as a card-carrying “face-man” (as opposed to a “breast-man” or a “leg-man”), I would assert that full beards cover up, and even disguise, that most special and revealing part of the human body: the face.

Depending upon how they are counted, there are anywhere from 19 to 43 muscles in the human face, the subtle interplay of which collectively are capable of an almost infinite degree of expressive nuance.

(Yes, there are exceptions to this. For example, given the range of emotional expression displayed by the actor Chuck Norris, we can correctly conclude that it is possible to have but a single facial muscle.)

However many facial muscles one possesses, a full beard will mask much of the expression written upon a face. With this in mind, we could go so far as to assert that for some men, a full beard is an intentional barrier between himself and the world, a shield against emotional intimacy; a de-facto cone of emotional silence. Thus my personal desire to see someone’s face without a beard is not just a matter of seeing what he looks like, but divining as well who he actually IS.

For your consideration I offer up the following short list of folks I’d like to see without their beards. (Feel free to contribute to the list.)

  • Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (their Jheri-curled beards really have to go; my opinion)
  • Claudio Monteverdi
  • William Shakespeare
  • Frederick Douglas
  • Robert E. Lee
  • Ulysses Grant
  • Karl Marx
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Johannes Brahms
  • Antonin Dvořák
  • Grigori Rasputin
  • Ayatollah Khomeini
  • Jerry Garcia
  • Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill (of ZZ Top)
  • The Robertson men from Duck Dynasty
  • Yosemite Sam

(We could add to this list a number of Eastern-Block female Olympic weight lifters and shot-putters, though their names escape me.)

I bring all of this up because no composer in the great history of Western music more effectively hid behind his beard than did Giuseppe Verdi. I am aware of only one image purportedly of Verdi without a beard: a painting in the possession of the Historical Archive of the publishing house of Ricordi that presumably depicts the child Verdi giving a piano lesson. However, few sources believe the image to be that of Verdi, which leads me to suspect that he was actually born with his beard. It was a beard that, in fact, complemented perfectly his personality: standoffish, taciturn, and circumspect.

For your viewing pleasure I offer up the following ten-minute excerpt from Lecture 8 of my 32-Lecture Great Courses survey, “The Life and Operas of Verdi,” dealing with Verdi’s rise to national prominence and his opera “Macbeth.”