Verdi is considered with Richard Wagner the most influential composer of operas of the nineteenth century, and dominated the Italian scene after Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. His works are frequently performed in opera houses throughout the world and, transcending the boundaries of the genre, some of his themes have long since taken root in popular culture, as “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto, “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” (The Drinking Song) from La traviata, “Va, pensiero” (The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Nabucco, the “Coro di zingari” from Il trovatore and the “Grand March” from Aida.
Born: Roncole, near Busetto, Italy
Oct. 9, 10, or 11, 1813 Died: Milan, Italy
Jan. 27, 1901 Age when he began music studies: 3 Father’s occupation: tavern-keeper Operas Composed: 26, all but two are tragedies Musical antagonist: Composer Richard Wagner Greatest career influence: Giulio Ricordi of the Ricordi music publishers First opera: Oberto, premiered at La Scala in 1839 Last opera: Falstaff, premiered at La Scala in 1893
Verdi was born sometime between Oct. 9 and Oct. 11 (the records are unclear), 1813. Though he was not a peasant, he came from extremely modest circumstances — his parents were innkeepers in Roncole. Apprenticed to the town organist, he showed enough aptitude to pursue studies in the nearby town of Busseto. His education was underwritten by a fatherly benefactor, Antonio Barezzi, a greengrocer.
Barezzi helped Verdi go to Milan, where he was refused enrollment at the conservatory on the grounds that he was 19, which was considered too old, and not proficient enough at keyboard playing. Despite this rebuff, Verdi studied privately with an accompanist at La Scala in Milan and the mentor saw to it that Verdi attended the opera regularly. In 1836 Verdi married Barezzi’s daughter Margherita. Three years later, his first opera, Oberto, was staged at La Scala in 1839.
In 1840 the young composer suffered a series of misfortunes. He fell sick, Margherita died, and his second opera failed. The successive shocks caused Verdi to consider abandoning music. It wasn’t until two years later, when he discovered the libretto Nabucco, a tale of the plight of the Hebrews during biblical times, that his interest in opera revived. Nabucco was a great success, and its portrayal of oppression was understood as a political statement about Italy.
Verdi’s name became synonymous with the movement to free and unify Italy, and he took his growing public stature quite seriously. Nabucco’s success encouraged Verdi, and he went on to compose some of the most important operas in all of opera history, including La Traviata, Rigoletto, and Aida. Verdi died in Milan on January 27, 1901.
During his last years years, Verdi worked on revising some of his earlier scores, most notably new versions of Don Carlos, La forza del destino, and Simon Boccanegra.
Otello, based on William Shakespeare’s play, with a libretto written by the younger composer of Mefistofele, Arrigo Boito, premiered in Milan in 1887. Its music is “continuous” and cannot easily be divided into separate “numbers” to be performed in concert. Some[who?] feel that although masterfully orchestrated, it lacks the melodic lustre so characteristic of Verdi’s earlier, great, operas, while many critics[who?]consider it Verdi’s greatest tragic opera, containing some of his most beautiful, expressive music and some of his richest characterizations. In addition, it lacks a prelude, something Verdi listeners are not accustomed to. Arturo Toscanini performed as cellist in the orchestra at the world premiere and began his association with Verdi (a composer he revered as highly as Beethoven).
Verdi’s statue in the Piazza G. Verdi, Busseto
Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, whose libretto was also by Boito, was based on Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, Part 1 via Victor Hugo’s subsequent translation. It was an international success and is one of the supreme comic operas which shows Verdi’s genius as a contrapuntist.
In 1894, Verdi composed a short ballet for a French production of Otello, his last purely orchestral composition. Years later, Arturo Toscanini recorded the music for RCA Victor with the NBC Symphony Orchestra which complements the 1947 Toscanini performance of the complete opera.
In 1897, Verdi completed his last composition, a setting of the traditional Latin text Stabat Mater.
This was the last of four sacred works that Verdi composed, Quattro Pezzi Sacri, which can be performed together or separately. They were not conceived as a unit and, in fact, Verdi did not want the Ave Maria published as he considered it an exercise. The first performance of the four works was on 7 April 1898, at the Opéra, Paris. The four works are: Ave Maria for mixed chorus; Stabat Mater for mixed chorus and orchestra; Laudi alla Vergine Maria for female chorus; and Te Deum for double chorus and orchestra.
On 29 July 1900, King Umberto I of Italy was assassinated by Gaetano Bresci, a deed that horrified the aged composer.
While staying at the Grand Hotel et de Milan in Milan, Verdi suffered a stroke on 21 January 1901. He gradually grew more feeble and died nearly a week later, on 27 January. Arturo Toscanini conducted the vast forces of combined orchestras and choirs composed of musicians from throughout Italy at Verdi’s funeral service in Milan. To date, it remains the largest public assembly of any event in the history of Italy.
Verdi was initially buried in Milan’s Cimitero Monumentale.
A month later, his body was moved to the “crypt” of the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, a rest home for retired musicians that Verdi had recently established. In October 1894, the French government awarded him the Grand-Croix de la Legion d’honneur. He was the first non-French musician to receive the Grand-Croix. He was an agnostic atheist.Toscanini, in a taped interview, described him as “an atheist”, but “agnostic” is probably the most accurate description. His second wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, described him as “a man of little faith”.
Verdi’s operas (in Italian unless noted) and their date of première are:
- Oberto, 17 November 1839
- Un giorno di regno, 5 September 1840
- Nabucco, 9 March 1842
- I Lombardi alla prima crociata, 11 February 1843
- Ernani, 9 March 1844
- I due Foscari, 3 November 1844
- Giovanna d’Arco, 15 February 1845
- Alzira, 12 August 1845
- Attila, 17 March 1846
- Macbeth, 14 March 1847
- I masnadieri, 22 July 1847
- Jérusalem (a revision and translation into French of I Lombardi alla prima crociata) 26 November 1847
- Il corsaro, 25 October 1848
- La battaglia di Legnano, 27 January 1849
- Luisa Miller, 8 December 1849
- Stiffelio, 16 November 1850
- Rigoletto, 11 March 1851
- Il trovatore, 19 January 1853
- La traviata, 6 March 1853
- Les vêpres siciliennes, (In French), 13 June 1855
- Simon Boccanegra, (Original Version), 12 March 1857
- Aroldo (A major revision and re-working of Stiffelio), 16 August 1857
- Un ballo in maschera, 17 February 1859
- La forza del destino, 10 November 1862
- Macbeth, (Revised version with added music), 19 April 1865
- Don Carlos, (5 acts, in French), 11 March 1867
- Aida, 24 December 1871
- Simon Boccanegra, (Revised Version), 24 March 1881
- Otello, 5 February 1887
- Falstaff, 9 February 1893
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