Giuseppe Verdi, composerb. Busseto, Italy, October 9, 1813; d. Milan, January 27, 1901
Verdi’s early life and career fit the mold we have come to expect of the Romantic Era artist. Born to a family of modest means, his musical abilities became apparent early on and were guided and nurtured by a kind patron, Antonio Barezzi (who later became his father-in-law).
Denied admission to the Milan Conservatory, he was forced to study privately. Eventually he would find his way to the Teatro alla Scala, where his first opera, Oberto (1839) was a modest success and his second, Un giorno di regno (1840), a comic opera written shortly after the tragic death of his young wife and two children, was a fiasco. At a low point of his career, he would make another attempt, Nabucco (1842), which was a spectacular success that changed the course of his life.
Verdi’s opera’s of the 1840s are imbued both overtly and covertly with the interests of the Risorgimento—Italian citizens who sought the reunification of Italy. His chorus, “Va pensiero,” from Nabucco would become an anthem for the Risorgimento.
In the coming years, Verdi would run afoul of the censors with operas that questioned the political situation and the church. For example, Rigoletto (1851) required major revisions in order to be staged. Despite the censors, Verdi achieved almost unprecedented international acclaim in the 1850s, especially from three major successes in a row Rigoletto, Il trovatore (1853) and La traviata (1853).
The successes of his 1850s operas allowed Verdi to be very selective about his choice of projects in subsequent decades. He spent most of the remainder of his life going in and out of retirement, writing only when a particular commission interested him. He composed La forza del destino for St. Petersburg in 1862, and a revision 1869. In 1867 he composed Don Carlos, his most ambitious work, for the Paris Opéra. An invitation of the Khedive of Egypt to compose an opera for Cairo led eventually to the hugely successful Aida of 1871.
Verdi would achieve the zenith of his career in collaboration with the young Italian poet and composer Arrigo Boito. Their first major collaboration was the 1881 revision of Verdi’s earlier Simon Boccanegra (1857). Otello, brilliantly distilled from Shakespeare’s play by Boito and set to music of the highest order by Verdi, soon took its place among the greatest Italian lyric tragedies. This triumph was followed by Falstaff (1893), adapted from Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV. In this final opera Verdi, at age eighty, astonished the world with his warmth, uncanny comic timing, and youthful ebullience. In this final opera, Verdi astonished the world with his warmth, uncanny comic timing, and youthful ebullience.
Throughout his life Verdi remained an intensely private man. His long relationship with the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi (she became his second wife in 1859) was especially meaningful to him, but never something he intended as grist for the chattering classes. He was always uneasy in the public role the success of his operas—and their identification with Italian unification—forced upon him. Whatever his discomfort, his importance to Italian cultural life could not be denied, and when he died in 1901, the outpouring of grief and respect was remarkable by any standard. An entire century of Italian music seemed to die with him.
Adapted from a biography by Douglas L. Ipson