Giuseppe Verdi


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Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

G. Verdi

(born Roncole, 9/10 October 1813; died Milan, 27 January 1901).

He was born into a family of small landowners and taverners. When he was seven he was helping the local church organist; at 12 he was studying with the organist at the main church in nearby Busseto, whose assistant he became in 1829. He already had several compositions to his credit. In 1832 he was sent to Milan, but was refused a place at the conservatory and studied with Vincenzo Lavigna, composer and former La Scala musician. He might have taken a post as organist at Monza in 1835, but returned to Busseto where he was passed over as maestro di cappella but became town music master in 1836 and married Margherita Barezzi, his patron's daughter (their two children died in infancy).

Verdi had begun an opera, and tried to arrange a performance in Parma or Milan; he was unsuccessful but had some songs published and decided to settle in Milan in 1839 where his Oberto was accepted at La Scala and further operas commissioned. It was well received but his next, Un giorno di regno, failed totally; and his wife died during its composition. Verdi nearly gave up, but was fired by the libretto of Nabucco and in 1842 saw its successful production, which carried his reputation across Italy, Europe and the New World over the next five years. It was followed by another opera also with marked political overtones, I lombardi alla prima crociata, again well received. Verdi's gift for stirring melody and tragic and heroic situations struck a chord in an Italy struggling for freedom and unity, causes with which he was sympathetic; but much opera of this period has political themes and the involvement of Verdi's operas in politics is easily exaggerated.

The period Verdi later called his 'years in the galleys' now began, with a long and demanding series of operas to compose and (usually) direct, in the main Italian centres and abroad: they include Ernani, Macbeth, Luisa Miller and eight others in 1844-50, in Paris and London as well as Rome, Milan, Naples, Venice, Florence and Trieste (with a pause in 1846 when his health gave way). Features of these works include strong, sombre stories, a vigorous, almost crude orchestral style that gradually grew fuller and richer, forceful vocal writing including broad lines in 9/8 and 12/8 metre and above all a seriousness in his determination to convey the full force of the drama. His models included late Rossini, Mercadante and Donizetti. He took great care over the choice of topics and about the detailed planning of his librettos. He established his basic vocal types early, in Ernani the vigorous, determined baritone, the ardent, courageous but sometimes despairing tenor, the severe bass; among the women there is more variation.

The 'galley years' have their climax in the three great, popular operas of 1851-3. First among them is Rigoletto, produced in Venice (after trouble with the censors, a recurring theme in Verdi) and a huge success, as its richly varied and unprecedentedly dramatic music amply justifies. No less successful, in Rome, was the more direct Il trovatore, at the beginning of 1853; but six weeks later La traviata, the most personal and intimate of Verdi's operas, was a failure in Venice - though with some revisions it was favourably received the following year at a different Venetian theatre. With the dark drama of the one, the heroics of the second and the grace and pathos of the third, Verdi had shown how extraordinarily wide was his expressive range.

Later in 1853 he went - with Giuseppina Strepponi, the soprano with whom he had been living for several years, and whom he was to marry in 1859 - to Paris, to prepare Les vêpres siciliennes for the Opéra, where it was given in 1855 with modest success. Verdi remained there for a time to defend his rights in face of the piracies of the Théâtre des Italiens and to deal with translations of some of his operas. The next new one was the sombre Simon Boccanegra, a drama about love and politics in medieval Genoa, given in Venice. Plans for Un ballo in maschera, about the assassination of a Swedish king, in Naples were called off because of the censors and it was given instead in Rome (1859). Verdi was involved himself in political activity at this time, as representative of Busseto (where he lived) in the provincial parliament; later, pressed by Cavour, he was elected to the national parliament, and ultimately he was a senator. In 1862 La forza del destino had its premiere at St. Petersburg. A revised Macbeth was given in Paris in 1865, but his most important work for the French capital was Don Carlos, a grand opera after Schiller in which personal dramas of love, comradeship and liberty are set against the persecutions of the Inquisition and the Spanish monarchy. It was given in 1867 and several times revised for later, Italian revivals.

Verdi returned to Italy, to live at Genoa. In 1870 he began work on Aida, given at Cairo Opera House at the end of 1871 to mark the opening of the Suez Canal (Verdi was not present): again in the grand opera tradition, and more taut in structure than Don Carlos. Verdi was ready to give up opera; his works of 1873 are a string quartet and the vivid, appealing Requiem in honour of the poet Manzoni, given in 1874-5, in Milan (San Marco and La Scala, aptly), Paris, London and Vienna. In 1879 the composer-poet Boito and the publisher Ricordi prevailed upon Verdi to write another opera, Otello; Verdi, working slowly and much occupied with revisions of earlier operas, completed it only in 1886. This, his most powerful tragic work, a study in evil and jealousy, had its premiere in Milan in 1887; it is notable for the increasing richness of allusive detail in the orchestral writing and the approach to a more continuous musical texture, though Verdi, with his faith in the expressive force of the human voice, did not abandon the 'set piece' (aria, duet etc) even if he integrated it more fully into its context - above all in his next opera. This was another Shakespeare work, Falstaff, on which he embarked two years later - his first comedy since the beginning of his career, with a score whose wit and lightness betray the hand of a serene master, was given in 1893. That was his last opera; still to come was a set of Quattro pezzi sacri (although Verdi was a non-believer). He spent his last years in Milan, rich, authoritarian but charitable, much visited, revered and honoured. He died at the beginning of 1901; 28,000 people lined the streets for his funeral.


Time Line

Verdi is born at 8 o'clock in the evening on October 10 (birth certificate) at Le Roncole in the Duchy of Parma, then part of Napoleon's Kingdom of Italy.
1821 After showing an early interest in music he is given a second-hand spinet.
1823 He moves to nearby Busseto to get an education at the 'Ginnasio'.
1824 Begins studying music with Ferdinando Provesi.
1828 Composes new overture to Rossini's Barber of Seville for performance in Busseto.
1832 First journey to Milan; the conservatory refuses his admission (!!), and he begins private studies with Vincenzo Lavigna.
1833 Verdi's only sibling, his younger sister Giuseppa, dies at age 17.
1836 He marries Margherita Barezzi, daughter of his Bussetan patron Antonio Barezzi, in May; becomes 'municipal music master' of Busseto. Lavigna dies in September.
1837 Daughter Virginia is born on March 26.
1838 Son Icilio is born on July 11; Virginia dies on August 12. His first composition is published: six rather mournful songs (Sei romanze). He resigns as 'municipal music master' of Busseto.
1839 The Verdis move back to Milan. Icilio dies of bronchial pneumonia on October 22 - the young parents are heartbroken. Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio premieres at La Scala on November 17 and is shown 14 times that season to generally favourable reviews. This certainly establishes Verdi as a serious composer. The Milanese publishing house Casa Ricordi secures the rights to his next work, and a lifelong (notwithstanding the later half of the 1840s, were Verdi published mostly with Lucca) and almost unblemished relationship is formed, spanning the Ricordi generations from Giovanni (1785-1853) to his son Tito (1811-1888), Tito's son Giulio (1840-1912) and Giulio's son Tito II (1865-1933). He meets soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, a staunch supporter in the years to come.
1840 Margherita dies of encephalitis on June 18. Verdi loses his zest for life: 'A third coffin goes out of my house. I was alone! Alone!'. Small wonder then that his buffo opera Il finto Stanislao flops miserably at La Scala on September 5, all further performances are cancelled.
1842 His third opera Nabucco triumphs at La Scala. Giuseppina Strepponi sings Abigaille.
1843 I Lombardi is performed to great success, and Verdi's fame begins to spread. The choruses from 'Nabucco' (see below) and 'I Lombardi' are sung in the streets and become the hymns of Italian patriots and freedom-fighters. The first of many trips abroad takes him to Vienna for performances of 'Nabucco' at the Kärntnerthor Theater.
1844 Immense success for Ernani at La Fenice. Only eight months later I due Foscari premieres in Rome.
1845 Two new operas again: Giovanna d'Arco, the last premiere at La Scala for more than twenty years! Verdi is so indignant about the handling of his works by the Scala management that he categorically forbids Giovanni Ricordi to offer any new operas of his to that house. (Of course, Verdi's post-1845 operas were played at La Scala, and usually very successfully too, but they never premiered there until 1869, with the triumphant opening of the revised 'La Forza del Destino'.) Verdi doesn't set foot again in Milan (except briefly in March 1848) until 1868. Alzira opens in Naples. Another song cycle is published. Verdi buys the Palazzo Dordoni in Busseto.
1846 Attila premieres at La Fenice.
1847 Macbeth in Florence is followed by I Masnadieri in London. Verdi buys Sant'Agata and work begins on re-modelling it to his requirements. His relationship with Giuseppina Strepponi develops in earnest. Jérusalem is shown in Paris in November.
1848 In March, the 'cinque giornate' - five days of fighting in Milan which drive out the Austrian occupying forces. The Austrian Army succeeds in retaking the city in August, but the 'Risorgimento' gathers momentum. Donizetti dies; with Bellini dead since 1835 and Rossini 'retired' from the opera stage, Verdi is peerless among Italian composers. Il Corsaro has its first performance in Trieste.
1849 La Battaglia di Legnano premieres in Rome at the beginning of the year: another thinly veiled battle-cry to throw off the chains of foreign rule, the opera is an immediate and immense success in the political climate of the time. The end of the year sees the first Luisa Miller in Naples. Manon Lescaut is just one of the many subjects that remained on the drawing-board in the 1840s...
1850 Although the music is received warmly, Stiffelio in Trieste is not a roaring success due to the controversial subject of the libretto. The period usually referred to as Verdi's 'anni di galera' (the years of hard labour) is drawing to a close.
1851 Rigoletto, the first of what we now call 'the big three: RigTrovTrav', is a triumph at La Fenice. Verdi and Giuseppina Strepponi move from the Palazzo Dordoni, situated on the main street of Busseto and right under the eyes of the local moral watchers - indeed they encounter a great deal of prejudice because they live, unmarried, under one roof - to the greater seclusion of the Sant'Agata estate. Verdi's mother Luigia Uttini dies.
1853 Il Trovatore is a great success in Rome, while the new La Traviata flops miserably at La Fenice only seven weeks later. Towards the end of the year Verdi and Giuseppina move temporarily to Paris.
1854 14 months after the initial fiasco, La Traviata triumphs at the Teatro San Benedetto, another Venetian theatre.
1855 Les Vêpres Siciliennes premieres - on the occasion of the World Fair in Paris - to muted reviews.
1856 Verdi reworks Stiffelio into Aroldo. His thoughts revolve around King Lear again, but this pet project since the early 1840s (and first seriously tackled in 1850) is never carried to its conclusion.
1857 Simon Boccanegra at La Fenice gets a cool reception. Aroldo premieres in Rimini to polite applause.
1858 Verdi travels to Naples to supervise the new Un Ballo in Maschera; however, the problems with the censors turn out to be so severe that Verdi withdraws the opera entirely and offers it to Rome.
1859 Un Ballo in Maschera in Rome is Verdi's biggest success since 'Il Trovatore' six years earlier. The political situation in Italy, split as it is into many states under the rule of various foreign powers, comes to a head; Viva VERDI (short for 'Vittorio Emanuele, Re D'Italia') is seen in Naples for the first time, expressing the fervent desire for a united and free Italy under King Vittorio Emanuele II of Piedmont. Verdi and Giuseppina are married on August 29 in Collonges-sous-Salève near Geneva, in the then Italian part of Savoy which was part of Piedmont. Verdi is elected to represent Busseto in the Assembly of Parma provinces.
1860 The Verdis begin spending the winter months in the milder climate of Genoa.
1861 Verdi is elected Deputy for Borgo San Donnino and attends the opening of the Italian Parliament. In November, the Verdis travel to St. Petersburg, but the premiere of 'Forza' is postponed due to illness of the soprano.
1862 The Inno delle nazioni is performed on 24th May at Her Majesty's Theatre, not as written with a tenor solo but with a soprano singing the part of the bard. Again Verdi travels to St. Petersburg to supervise the 'Forza' rehearsals and the successful premiere of La Forza del Destino takes place on November 10.
1864 Begins revision of 'Macbeth' for Paris. Verdi is elected member of the French Académie des Beaux-Arts. Florence becomes capital of Italy.
1865 The revised Macbeth is shown in Paris. Verdi stands down from his parliamentary seat.
1866 Composes 'Don Carlos'. Parts of northern Italy are still under Austrian rule and Garibaldi marches into the Trentino with volunteer forces which include Giulio Ricordi, Franco Faccio and Arrigo Boito. Verdi supports the cause with money to buy guns and ammunition.
1867 Don Carlos premieres in Paris. Both Carlo Verdi, his father, and Antonio Barezzi, his early benefactor and first father-in-law, die. Verdi and Giuseppina take on the guardianship of Filomena Maria Cristina, the 7-year-old daughter of one of Verdi's cousins.
1868 Verdi meets the revered Alessandro Manzoni in Milan, great Italian man of letters and patriot.
1869 The revised La Forza del Destino premieres at La Scala. A new opera house is opened in Cairo with a performance of 'Rigoletto'. Verdi composes the Libera me for the Messa per Rossini.
1870 Verdi agrees to compose an opera for the Egyptian Khedive's new opera house in Cairo (and not for the opening of the Suez Canal, as is often heard).
1871 Rome becomes capital of Italy. The premiere of Aida is delayed by the Franco-Prussian war. It eventually opens on December 24.
1872 The European premiere of Aida takes place to great acclaim at La Scala on February 8.
1873 Verdi composes a String Quartet while in Naples for a revision of 'Don Carlo' (the Italian form of the title) and a revival of 'Aida'. Manzoni dies on May 22, and Verdi composes a Requiem Mass for him.
1874 The Messa da Requiem for Manzoni is performed at the Church of San Marco in Milan on May 22, with Verdi conducting. In the following years he takes the Requiem to many European cities. Verdi is nominated to the Italian Senate.
1875 The relationship with Casa Ricordi is seriously tarnished by the discovery of 'irregularities' in their accounting. Verdi is furious, but eventually settles for the token sum of 50 000 Lire; it takes a while before friendship and trust resume.
1879 The 'Otello' project is proposed by Giulio Ricordi.
1880 Work on the revision of 'Simon Boccanegra' with Arrigo Boito. The libretto of 'Otello' is taking shape.
1881 The revised Simon Boccanegra premieres at La Scala.
1882 Verdi begins the revision of 'Don Carlo' for Milan.
1883 Richard Wagner dies in Venice on February 13.
1884 The revised 4-act Don Carlo premieres at La Scala. Verdi starts on the composition of 'Otello' and works closely with Boito in the following years.
1886 A 5-act Don Carlo in Italian is shown in Modena on 26th December. The composition of 'Otello' is finished.
1887 Otello premieres at La Scala on February 5; Verdi is made honorary citizen of Milan three days later.
1888 He composes 'Laudi alla Vergine Maria', published 1898 as No.3 of 'Quattro pezzi sacri', and endows a new hospital for poor farm labourers and their families in Villanova, a village near Sant'Agata.
1889 Boito infects him with his passion for riddles and he composes 'Ave Maria sulla scala enigmatica', published 1898 as No.1 of 'Quattro pezzi sacri'. Verdi decides to compose 'Falstaff' and buys a site in Milan for a musicians' retirement home.
1892 'Falstaff' is finished late in the year.
1893 Falstaff premieres at La Scala on February 9, a huge success. Some lasting revisions are made for the premiere in Rome in April. Verdi is made honorary citizen of Rome.
1894 Verdi composes the ballet music and makes some adjustments to the Act III concertato for the French premiere of 'Otello' - this is his last trip to Paris and he receives the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour. His song 'Pietà, Signor' is published to aid earthquake victims in Southern Italy.
1895 The Casa di Riposo is at the planning stage - the architect is Camillo Boito, Arrigo's elder brother. Verdi begins composing the Te Deum, to be published as No. 4 of 'Quattro pezzi sacri'.
1896 Verdi works on 'Te Deum' and 'Stabat mater', No. 2 of 'Quattro pezzi sacri'.
1897 Giuseppina, his loving companion for fifty years and untiring supporter through the invariable ups and downs, dies at Sant'Agata on November 14.
1898 Verdi now stays at his suite at the Grand Hotel in Milan much of the time, supervising the building of the Casa di Riposo. Teresa Stolz (1834-1902) keeps him company in his last years.
Verdi had known 'La Stolz', a soprano from Bohemia, since they first met thirty years earlier. She created Leonora in the revised La Forza del Destino 1869, Aida in the European premiere of Aida 1872, and the soprano part of the Messa da Requiem 1874.
1899 The Casa di Riposo is officially founded.
1901 Verdi suffers an ultimately fatal stroke on January 21; the street outside the Grand Hotel is covered with straw to muffle the noise from horses' hooves, carriage wheels and car tyres. He dies a few days later, shortly before 3 a.m. on January 27. The funeral is a very quiet affair, in accordance with his wishes: 'without music or singing'.

A month later his and Giuseppina's coffins are transferred from the temporary buriel ground at the cemetery in Milan to the crypt at the Casa di Riposo.

On this occasion - a state ceremony - the funeral cortege is accompanied not only by the immediate family and friends, but also by members of the Italian Royal family and Parliament, civic dignitaries, foreign diplomats and fellow composers (among others Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo and Giordano).

Led by Arturo Toscanini, the forces of La Scala sing Va, pensiero, the famous chorus from 'Nabucco' - joined softly by the voices of the tens of thousands of people lining the black-draped streets, paying their last respects to the man who dominated the Italian musical scene for half a century, the great Giuseppe Verdi.

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