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Giuseppe Verdi



On 12 October 1894, Otello made its preimere in Paris, France. Verdi, of course needed to provide the obligatory ballet music. The Ballabili was written a year after Falstaff and was finished on 12 August 1894 (Conati 1994, 224). It was his last operatic composition.

Comprised of seven different sections, each section paints the appropriate picture in the mind of the listener.

Italian Title English Title
1 Untitled Untitled
2 Canzone Araba Arabian Song
3 Invocazione di Allah Invocation of Allah
4 Canzone Araba Greek Song
5 Danza Dance
6 La Muranese The People of Murano
7 Canto Guerriero The Warrior's Song

The music is placed in the Third Act. After Iago leaves to bring Desdemona to meet the ambassadors, the horns launch into the first section of the Ballet. The music returns to the Third Act two measures after the point it first left. When Verdi sent the original manuscript to Giulio Ricordi (his publisher), he included a detailed scenario of the action:

Stage setting for Act 3

Looking at the splendid, colonnaded scene of the Third Act, I decided to make the music go as follows: At the very beginning, to the sound of horns, a group of Turkish slave-girls dance with reluctance and ill-humor because of the very fact they are slaves. Then, hearing the strains of the Arab Song, they grow livelier and at the end dance quite wildly…At the Invocation to Allah, they all fall to the ground…Just then a group of beautiful Greek girls appears among the columns, and four measures later another similar group; at the thirteenth measure these two groups join in a quiet, aristocratic, classical dance. The next motif is that of La Muranese (allegro vivace 6/8), which heralds the appearance of a "group" (!) of Venetians…Eight measures later, another group of Venetians enters and at the eighteenth measure (fortissimo) these two groups meet and dance at the front of the stage. After the fortissimo there is a passage of very light music in F sharp, which should be danced by couples. This motif is repeated, louder, and then all the Venetians dance together. The 6/8 motif reappears, and here I should like to see another group of Venetians come forward. The War Song should be danced by men alone. At the recurrence of the first motif, all the Venetians should be danced by men alone. At the recurrence of the first motif, all the Venetians dance again, then at the piu mosso, Venetians, Turks, Greeks, and the rest all dance together…Amen. (Gatti 1955, 326-7).

Verdi timed the composition at 5 minutes and 59 seconds. The section of the score marked Invocazione Di Allah is only six bars long. It serves as a breaking point between the more rapid sections, perhaps giving the "wild" dancers a short respite. Verdi had been looking for either a Hymn to Allah or Song of the Muezzin. The Oxford English Dictionary says that a Muezzin is, "a public crier in Muslim countries, who proclaims the regular hours of prayer from the minaret or the roof of a mosque." (Simpson 1989, 10:59). Verdi happened to remember a section written by Felicien David (1810-1876) in his Ode-Symphony, Le Desert. Verdi quoted this section directly from an orchestral transcription of a melody that was given by David to his tenor soloist. (Budden 1984, 3:401). The Ode-Symphony was premiered on 8 December 1844. There are three movements for soloists and male-voice chorus. Some of the scenes described include: a desert storm, a prayer to Allah, the caravan, the reverie du soir, and the Muezzin's call. The music is strictly oriental in inflection. The tunefulness of the hymn to Allah accounted for some of its popularity (Sadie 1980, 5:264). As for the Muranese, Verdi reported to Ricordi that it was written 2000 years ago for a war between Venice and Murano which the Muranese won. The Canzone Greca was a song from Greece written around 5000 B. C. (Conati 1994, 224).

Franco Zeffirelli made use of the Ballibili in his film version of Otello. He used the music as a segue to suggest an all-consuming Victory celebration over the defeat of the Turks. Iago and Roderigo take their conversation upstage and music from the first section of the ballet is introduced. The Invocazione Di Allah is then brought in. For the finale, the first section is combined with the Canzone Araba. Arabaian costumes are worn by the dancers. Lanterns are carried by children riding atop the adults shoulders. There are also people running and jumping over the bonfires increasing the crowd's pleasure.

Unfortunately, the Ballabili is omitted from performances today. Perhaps one reason is the fear that somehow it will lessen the intensity of the Third Act. Verdi in a letter to Giulio Ricordi said of the ballet music, "artistically speaking, it is a monstrosity." In fact, he stringently insisted that it be excluded from the score because it broke into the action (Phillips-Matz 1993, 690). After all, a ballet would certainly call for a round of applause. With the intensity of the first half of Act Three, emotions would already be running high; once that emotional momentum is rolling, do not risk stopping it. Several times I have been involved in concerts where the audience interrupted the flow with early applause. After the performance had concluded, the audience response was somewhat diminished as was their attention to the final movement. It remains to be seen whether it would detract or enhance the opera with today's audiences.

Partial Discography of the Ballibili

CD - Music From Italian Opera

The NBC Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Arturo Toscanini
Recorded: March 13, 1948
RCA #09026-60309-2
Mono Recording

CD - Verdi: Ballet Music

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Conductor: James Levine
Recorded: April and May 1992
Sony: #SK52489
Digital Recording

CD- Verdi Ballet Music

Munich Radio Orchestra
Conductor: ??
Recorded: 1995
RCA: 90026-62651-2
Digital Recording

FM - Otello

The Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala
Conductor: Lorin Maazel
Starring: Domingo, Ricciarelli and Diaz
Recorded: 1985
Stereo Recording


  • This list is not meant to be all-inclusive.
  • CD refers to Compact Disc. These are all one CD sets.
  • FM refers to a Film Version.

Copyright © 1996, Stephen L. Parker.