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Giuseppe Verdi

Updated on December 23, 2010

1813-1901

Giuseppe Verdi was an Italian composer born in Le Roncole, near Busseto, Parma, October 10, 1813.

A child of poor parents, he displayed musical talent very early. He received local training, and for some time lived in the Busseto home of an understanding patron, the merchant Antonio Barezzi. When he was refused admission to the Milan Conservatory in 1832, he remained in that city to study privately with Vincenzo Lavigna. In 1835, after having been commissioned to compose an opera for Milan performance, he returned to Busseto. In 1836 he married Barezzi's daughter Margherita. The marriage was ill fated: the couple's two children died in infancy, and Margherita herself died in 1840.

Verdi's first opera, Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio, was staged at La Scala, Milan, on November 17, 1839, winning enough success to guarantee his future. An impresario signed him to a three-opera contract, but when the first of the three operas (a comic work entitled Un giorno di regno) was a total failure at its Milan premiere on September 5, 1840, Verdi asked to be released from the agreement. A libretto dealing with Nebuchadnezzar won him back, however, and he soon composed Nabucodonosor (known as Nabucco). With this third opera, staged at La Scala on March 9, 1842, he became famous. The Abigaille of the Scala cast, Giuseppina Strepponi, was to be Verdi's lifelong companion and, from 1859 to her death in 1897, his wife.

Into an Italian operatic world dominated largely by the bel canto operas of Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini, Verdi had begun to introduce an earthy vigor related to similar reflections of realism then appearing in literature and other arts. His life history, from about 1842, is largely the story of his operas, the successes and the fiascos, and of his rapidly established worldwide renown. His highly successful fourth opera, I Lombardi alia prima crociata (La Scala, Milan, February 11, 1843), included a chorus that Italian audiences interpreted as referring to their own country, and which evoked patriotic anti-Austrian demonstrations. So closely was Verdi's name to become linked with the peninsular struggle for independent unity that its very letters were to be read as standing for Vittorio Emanuele, Re d' Italia.

Verdi's first non-Milanese opera, Ernani (Teatro La Fenice, Venice, March 9, 1844) was set to a libretto based on Victor Hugo's play Hemani; before the year was over, it had been sung in 15 Italian cities, and within two years it was also heard in 10 other countries. In constant demand by impresarios, Verdi now composed too rapidly, giving adequate serious thought neither to his librettists' work nor to his own. I due Foscari (Teatro Argentina, Rome, November 3, 1844) was a failure: Giovanna d'Arco (La Scala, Milan, February 15, 1845), to a text based on Johann Christoph Friedrich Schiller's Die Jungfrau von Orleans, won little more sufferance. His next two efforts, Alzira (Teatro San Carlo, Naples, August 12, 1845) and Attila (Fenice, Venice, March 17, 1846), have long since receded into obscurity.

With his tenth opera, however, Verdi again did justice to his evolving capabilities. It was his first Shakespearean work, Macbeth (Teatro alia Pergola, Florence, March 14, 1847). Another Schiller drama, Die Rduber, supplied the libretto material of I masnadieri, the first Verdi opera given its premiere outside Italy (Her Majesty's Theatre, London, July 22, 1847). AJerusalem, a revision of Lombardi to a French libretto, was staged at the Paris Opera on November 26, 1847.

Verdi was in Milan during the revolutionary outbreak of 1848, but he now traveled much of the time. His 11 Corsaro failed when it was staged at Trieste on October 25, 1848, but its successor, La battaglia di Legnano (produced at the Teatro Argentina, Rome, on January 27, 1849) did better, in large part because of its patriotic libretto. Luisa Miller, Verdi's third opera to a Schiller-derived text (Kabale und Hebe) was significant beyond the mild acclaim it won at the San Carlo, Naples, on Dec. 8, 1849: it was one of the first operas to handle a subject from bourgeois domestic life. In 1849, too, Verdi moved to the Villa Sant'Agata, near his birthplace. It was to be his home for more than half a century.

One more failure (Stiffelio, Trieste, Nov. 16, 1850) intervened before Verdi produced in swift succession three masterworks that were to become living parts of the international operatic repertoire. They were Rigoletto, based on Victor Hugo's Le roi s amuse (Fenice, Venice, March 11, 1851); II Trovatore (Apollo, Rome, Jan. 19, 1853), and La Traviata, based on La dame aux camelias by Alexandre Dumas fils (Fenice, Venice, March 6, 1853). Together, this trio of operas marked Verdi's achievement of musico-dramatic mastery.

Les Vepres siciliennes, the first of Verdi's two operas composed directly to French librettos, was staged at the Paris Opera on June 13, 1855. Next came Simon Boccanegra (Fenice, Venice, March 12, 1857) and Aroldo (an unsuccessful revision of the unsuccessful Stiffelio, Rimini, Aug. 16, 1857). After protracted struggles with the censors in Bourbonic Naples, Verdi's next opera was staged at the Teatro Apollo, Rome, on February 17, 1859. This was Un hallo in maschera, based on a text dealing with the assassination in 1792 of King ^Gustavus III of Sweden. The 23 years of Verdi's most rapid productivity ended with the staging, in St. Petersburg (now Leningrad), Russia, on Nov. 10, 1862, of La forza del destino. No new opera by him was to be staged for more than four years. In the interim, a revision of Macbeth (to a French adaptation of the original Italian libretto) was heard at the Theatre Lyrique, Paris, on April 21, 1865. Still another Schiller drama was the basis of his second opera originally composed to a French text, Don Carlos (Opera, Paris, March 11, 1867).

The first of Verdi's final trio of masterworks was heard at Cairo, Egypt, on December 24, 1871, in belated celebration of the opening of the Suez Canal. This was Aida, which was also staged at Milan on February 8, 1872, and which has become perhaps the most popular of all operas. The death in 1873 of Alessandro Manzoni, author of I promessi sposi, led Verdi to compose a Requiem Mass in his memory. This most important of his nonoperatic compositions (he composed other choral pieces and a string quartet) was heard at Milan on May 22, 1874. Verdi was now 60, and when no new opera, emerged from his workshop year after year (a revised version of Simon Boccanegra, the libretto somewhat reworked by Arrigo Boito, was staged at La Scala, Milan, on March 24, 1881), even his friends began to believe that his productive life had ended.

In 1885, however, the 72-year-old Verdi began secretly to compose an opera to a libretto that the skillful Boito had derived from Shakespeare's Othello. And when Otello was staged at La Scala, Milan, on February 5, 1887 (more than 15 years after the premiere of Aida) Verdi won perhaps the biggest triumph of his life. Again it began to be assumed that he had written his last opera. But in 1890, to a Boito libretto derived from Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, he began slowly to compose his first comic opera since the forgotten Un giorno di regno of 50 years before. He completed Falstaff in 1892; when he attended its highly successful premiere at La Scala, Milan, on February 9, 1893, he was in his 80th year. And Falstaff proved in fact to be the last of his 26 operas. Thereafter he lived mostly in retirement at the Villa Sant'Agata. The death of his wife in 1897 was a terrible blow to him. In 1900, Queen Margherita of Italy wrote a brief prayer after the assassination of her husband, Umberto (Humbert) I, and Verdi sketched out a musical setting of it. This was his last work. On January 21, 1901, he suffered a stroke. He died in Milan, aged 87, on January 27. His funeral was that of a national hero.

A graph of Verdi's popular and critical reputation provides fascinating study. Many of his operas became staples of the international repertoire early. Numerous melodies from them achieved such familiarity throughout the world as to be sung and whistled by millions of people. But serious musical criticism, long in the hands of Germans (and particularly in those of passionate partisans of Richard Wagner) continued well into the 20th century to see in Verdi little more than a shrewd theatrical man and a vulgar tunesmith. But in the 1920's, German musical criticism began a re-estimation of Verdi, and in succeeding decades critical opinion veered completely away from the earlier view. Otello and Falstaff first, then Aida and La Traviata and Rigoletto, and at last several others among Verdi's operas, have come to be judged as musicodramatic masterworks. Recent critical opinion affirms that Verdi belongs with Mozart, Gluck, Wagner, and a few others among the foremost creators of music drama.

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