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Composer Profiles
Giuseppe Verdi
Born: Le Roncole, Italy - 1813
Died: Milan, Italy - 1901
Considered the greatest Italian opera composer of the 19th
century, Giuseppe Verdi was born on October 10, 1813 in the
small village of Le Roncole, located in northern Italy near
Milan. His father was an innkeeper and grocer, and the
family moved to the town of Busseto when Giuseppe was
still a child. It was there that the composer showed his first
signs of musical talent, so his father arranged lessons for him through Antonio Barezzi, a rich
merchant who saw to it that Verdi had the best education possible. At eighteen, Verdi was sent to
the city of Milan, home of the great opera house La Scala, where many Italian operas were
premiered by master composers including Salieri, Mozart, and Puccini. In 1836 Verdi married his
former benefactor’s daughter Margherita Barezzi, but tragedy would strike early when she and
their two children died suddenly in 1840. This would have a profound impact on Verdi’s life, and
after a few operatic failures, he had his first success with Nabucco (or Nabucodonosor) in 1842.
This opera would quickly establish Verdi as a powerful force in Italian opera, and even Verdi
recognized that “with this opera . . . my artistic career can truly be said to have begun”.
Italy at this time was in the middle of a revolution; over the entire country foreign rulers
were being exiled in an attempt to bring about national unification. Because of the nationalistic
themes in Nabucco, Verdi soon became a symbol of the cause for independence. Even his name
became an acronym for the people’s desired ruler, Vittorio Emmanuel (“Vittorio Emmanuel, Rey
D’Italia”, or Vittorio Emmanuel, King of Italy). Verdi composed sixteen operas between 1839 and
1850, and from 1851 to 1853 produced his three greatest masterpieces, Rigoletto (1851), Il trovatore,
and La traviata (both in 1853). During this time, Verdi’s operas began to grow more grandiose and
ambitious. With the creation of La forza del destino (1862) and Aida (1871), Verdi included the
larger concept of world affairs into his librettos. All this gave him enormous popularity with the
Italian people; he was even invited to sit in the newly created Parliament, which he accepted and
performed his duties admirably for four years, and in 1874 he was named Senator of the Kingdom
by King Victor Emmanuel II. This was also the year that Verdi wrote his famous Requiem Mass,
which was immediately hailed as a masterpiece. Although Verdi had mentioned that he was
interested in going into retirement, the prospect of working on an opera based on his favorite
subject, Shakespeare, offered itself with the libretto of Otello by Arrigo Boito. The opera was
premiered at La Scala in 1887, when Verdi was seventy-three. His final opera, Falstaff, integrated
Verdi’s music with another of Shakespeare’s works, The Merry Wives of Windsor. On January 27,
1901, Verdi died at the age of 87, the most dominant force ever seen in Italian opera.
Though the magnitude of Verdi’s popularity cannot be overstated, the composer himself
possessed a rather limited knowledge of music by other composers. In his own words, Verdi
admits “of all composers, I am the least learned. I mean that in all seriousness, and by learning I
do not mean knowledge of music”. Like many composers, Verdi’s works can be divided into three
primary creative periods. His first began around 1839, one year before the death of his family and
concludes around 1850. In this period Verdi’s operas still contain evidence of the Italian bel canto
style, a tradition fostered by Rossini and was still very relevant in Verdi’s early life. Unlike Rossini,
Verdi would include a number of patriotic and nationalistic themes, thus elevating his operas
from mere entertainment to a symbol for the Italian struggle for independence. These operas are
mostly fast-paced, and reflect melodic innovations originally pioneered by composers such as
Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini.
It is in Verdi’s treatment of Shakespearean subjects, beginning with Macbeth, that Italian
opera began to transform from the bel canto school to a more dramatic art form, resulting in a
style favoring the emotional quality of the plot rather than the virtuosic gymnastics of previous
conventions. Verdi’s middle period confirms that trend; from 1851 to 1870 Verdi composed operas
that heightened drama and created a more unified cohesion. In addition to the three masterpieces
of this period, Verdi also began showing an increased interest in more broad subjects, including
La forza del destino and Don Carlos (1867). These operas were written primarily for theatres
outside of Italy, such as Paris, St. Petersburg, and Cairo, and represent influences of the French
grand opera.
Verdi’s third period generally begins with Aida in 1871. It represents a combination of the
Italian and French influences that Verdi had been building nearly all his life. After Aida’s success
in both Cairo and back home in Milan, Verdi began to work on compositions outside opera. His
first was to set a Requiem by the poet Alessandro Manzoni, who had died in the spring of 1873.
Verdi’s Requiem Mass was a triumph despite critiques that the work was too operatic for religious
themes. Verdi would compose several more non-operatic works, though many of them have been
forgotten in comparison with his operas. In 1879, Verdi was presented with a new libretto for
Otello by the opera composer and librettist Arrigo Boito (1842-1918). Though Boito’s opera
Mefistofele failed miserably, Verdi was impressed with Boito’s treatment of Shakespeare, and
provided the music, culminating in the premiere of Otello in 1887. In Otello and Verdi’s final
opera, Falstaff (1893), the composer harnesses all the power of the orchestra to heighten the
drama and provide continuous music throughout the work. This differed greatly from the
previous conventions of the orchestra providing mere recitative; instead the orchestra provides a
backdrop to the emotional quality of the characters themselves. To this end, Verdi’s legacy is that
of a very human quality; his operas reflect his desire to display the human condition and all its
aspects. He had revolutionized the composition of theatrical music and would be the sole driving
force in Italian opera during the majority of the 19th century.
Suggested Listening
First Period: Nabucco (or Nabucodonosor); Ernani; Macbeth
Second Period: Rigoletto; Il travatore; La traviata; La forza del destino
Third Period: Aida; Requiem Mass; Otello; Falstaff