Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901)

The great Italian composer Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was born in La Roncole on October 10, 1813. When he was still a child, Verdi’s parents moved from Piacenza to Busseto, where the future composer’s education was greatly facilitated by visits to the large library belonging to the local Jesuit school. Also in Busseto, Verdi was given his first lessons in composition.

Displaying considerable talent from a very early age, he was assistant organist at the small local church by the time he was ten. In 1829, at the age of 13, he was an assistant conductor of the Busseto orchestra and an organist at the town church. In 1836, Verdi married Margherita Barezzi, the daughter of his benefactor, Antonio Barezzi.

Verdi went to Milan when he was twenty to continue his studies.  He took private lessons in counterpoint while attending operatic performances, as well as concerts of, specifically, German music. Milan’s beaumonde association convinced him that he should pursue a career as a theatre composer.  During the mid 1830s, he attended the Salotto Maffei salonsin Milan, hosted by Clara Maffei.

His first successful opera, Oberto, opened at La Scala in 1839.  However, his next opera, the comedy Un Giorno di Regno (King for a Day), was a complete failure. To add tragedy to insult, Verdi lost his wife and two young children to illness within the same year, and the despondent composer resolved to give up music altogether. Fortunately, the manager of La Scala persuaded him to persevere and write his next opera – Nabucco, which premiered in 1842 to great acclaim and securing Verdi’s reputation as a major figure in the music world.

Between 1844 and 1850 Verdi composed at a tremendous rate, demonstrating a maturing style and more flowing musical line, as evidenced in Ernani (1844), Macbeth (1847), and Luisa Miller (1849). During his “middle period” Verdi wrote three of his most succesful operas: Rigoletto (1851), Il Trovatore (1853), and La Traviata (1853). These were followed by I vespri siciliani (The Sicilian Vespers, 1855), Simon Boccanegra (1857), Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball, 1859), La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny, 1862) and Don Carlos(1867). After Aïda (1871), which commemorated the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt, Verdi retired to his estate at Sant’Agata, where he wrote the great Requiem Mass.

In each of these operas, Verdi expanded the formalism that we hear in works like The Barber of Seville to a musical language that is more fluid and which joins the music with the drama.  In a sense, Verdi and his German rival Richard Wagner were moving on different roads toward the same goal – music drama.  Verdi and his librettist for Il Trovatore, Salvatore Cammarano condensed Gutierrez’s sprawling historic melodrama into a concise libretto set against the backdrop of a fifteenth-century Spanish civil war.  Unfortunately, Cammarano died before completing work on Il Trovatore, and the libretto had to be finished by Leone Emanuele Bardare.

Unlike the third opera of Verdi’s trilogy, La Traviata whose opening night, just three months after Il Trovatore, was a fiasco; Il Trovatore’s first performances in January 1853 at the Teatro Apollo in Rome were an unqualified triumph.  Il Trovatore received 229 performances throughout Europe in the next three years — 190 in six different theaters in Naples alone.  The Paris debut followed in 1855, for which Verdi translated the libretto into French, with the title Le Trouvere, and added ballet in Act III, which was expected in Paris at the time.

Verdi was drawn back to the opera by his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, who introduced him to the celebrated poet and composer Arrigo Boito. They worked together on what would be Verdi’s final triumphs, both based on works by Shakespeare: Otello (1886) Falstaff (1893), the only other comedy he had written since the disastrous Un Giorno di Regno and considered Verdi’s humanistic masterpiece.

Upon his death in 1901, there were scenes of national mourning for the man who was both a great musician, philanthropist and patriot to all of Italy. At the funeral, the 28,000 people who lined the streets of Milan broke out softly but spontaneously into “Va pensiero,” the great chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Nabucco – a song which had become Italy’s unofficial national anthem. Verdi was buried with his second wife Giuseppina Strepponi at the Casa di Riposo, a retirement home for elderly musicians that was establshed by Verdi himself.