Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (Le Roncole, Busseto, 10 October 1813 – Milan, 27 January 1901) was an Italian composer, mainly of opera. He was the most influential member of the 19th century's Italian School of Opera. 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 - such as "La donna è mobile" from Rigoletto and "Libiamo ne' lieti calici" from La traviata. Oftentimes scoffed at by the critics, in his lifetime and today, as catering to the tastes of the common folk, overly simple in chromatic texture and shamelessly melodramatic, Verdi’s masterpieces dominate the standard repertoire a century and a half after their composition.
Verdi was born in Le Roncole, a village near Busseto in the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza (now in the province of Parma). His father was an innkeeper. When he was still a child, Verdi's parents moved to Busseto from the province of Piacenza, where the future composer's education was greatly facilitated by visits to the large library belonging to the local Jesuit school. Also in Busseto, Verdi received his first lessons in composition from Ferdinando Provesi, who was in charge of the local philharmonic society.
Verdi went to Milan when he was twenty to continue his studies, but the Conservatory of Music rejected him, citing that he was two years over the age limit. Verdi took private lessons in counterpoint while attending operatic performances in Milan, as well as lesser concerts of, specifically, Viennese music. Association with Milan's beaumonde convinced him he should pursue a career as a theatre composer.
Returning to Busseto, he became town music master and he gave his first public performance at the home of Antonio Barezzi in 1830, a local merchant and music lover who supported Verdi's musical ambitions in Milan and who invited him to be the music teacher of his daughter, Margherita. They married in 1836 and their two children died in infancy.
The production of his first opera, Oberto, by Milan's La Scala, achieved a degree of success, after which Bartolomeo Merelli, an impresario with La Scala, offered Verdi a contract for two more works.
While working on his second opera, Un giorno di regno, Verdi's wife and children died. The opera was a flop and he fell into despair vowing to give up musical composition forever. However, Merelli persuaded him to write Nabucco in 1842 and its opening performance made Verdi famous. Legend has it that it was the words of the famous "Va pensiero" chorus of the Hebrew slaves which inspired Verdi to begin writing again.
A large number of operas followed in the decade after 1843, a period which Verdi was to describe as his "galley years". These included I Lombardi (1843) and Ernani (1844)
For some, the most important and original among Verdi's early operas is Macbeth (1847). For the first time, Verdi attempted an operistic adaptation of a work by his favorite dramatist, William Shakespeare, and by creating an opera without a love story, he broke a basic convention in Italian 19th Century opera.
In 1847, I Lombardi, revised and renamed Jerusalem, was produced by the Paris Opera and, due to a number of Parisian conventions that had to be honored (including extensive ballets), became Verdi's first work in the French grand-opera style.
At the age of thirty-eight, Verdi began an affair with Giuseppina Strepponi, a soprano in the twilight of her career. Their cohabitation before marriage was regarded as scandalous in some of the places they lived, but Verdi and Giuseppina married in 1859.
As the "galley years" were drawing to a close, Verdi created one of his greatest masterpieces, Rigoletto which premiered in Venice in 1851. Based on a play by author Victor Hugo, the libretto had to undergo substantive revisions in order to satisfy the epoch's censorship, and the composer was on the verge of giving it all up a number of times. The opera quickly became a great success.
With Rigoletto Verdi sets up his original idea of musical drama as a cocktail of heterogeneous elements embodying social and cultural complexity, and beginning from a distinctive mixture of comedy and tragedy. Rigoletto's musical range includes band-music such as the first scene or the song La donna è mobile, Italian melody such as the famous quartet Bella figlia dell'amore, chamber music such as the duet between Rigoletto and Sparafucile and powerful and concise declamatos often based on key-notes like the C and C# notes in Rigoletto and Monterone's upper register.
There followed the second and third of the three major operas of Verdi's "middle period": in 1853 Il Trovatore was produced in Rome and La traviata in Venice. The latter was based on Alexandre Dumas, fils' play The Lady of the Camellias.
Between 1855 and 1867 an outpouring of great Verdi operas were to follow, among them such repertory staples as Un ballo in maschera (1859), La forza del destino (commissioned by the Imperial Theatre of Saint Petersburg for 1861 but not performed until 1862), and a revised version of Macbeth (1865). Other somewhat less often performed include Les vêpres siciliennes (1855) and Don Carlos (1867), both commissioned by the Paris Opera and initially given in French. Today, these latter two operas are most often performed in Italian; and Simon Boccanegra in 1857.
In 1869, Verdi composed a section for a Requiem Mass in memory of Gioacchino Rossini. Verdi proposed the Requiem to be a collection of sections composed by other Italian contemporaries of Rossini. The Requiem was compiled and completed, but it was not performed in Verdi's lifetime. Verdi later reworked and used the "Libera Me" section he composed for the Rossini Requiem as part of a complete Requiem Mass, honoring Alessandro Manzoni, who died in 1873. The complete Requiem was first performed at the cathedral in Milan, on 22 May 1874.
Verdi's grand opera, Aida, is sometimes thought to have been commissioned for the celebration of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, but, according to Budden (see below, volume 3), Verdi turned down the Khedive's invitation to write an "ode" for the new opera house he was planning to inaugurate as part of the canal opening festivities. The opera house actually opened with a production of Rigoletto. It was later in 1869/70, when the organizers again approached Verdi, this time with the idea of writing an opera, that he again turned them down. They warned him they would ask Charles Gounod instead, but when they threatened to engage Richard Wagner's services, Verdi begin to show some considerable interest, and agreements were signed in June 1870.
In fact, the two composers, who were the leaders of their respective schools of music, seemed to resent each other greatly. They never met. Verdi's comments on Wagner and his music are few and hardly benevolent ("He invariably chooses, unnecessarily, the untrodden path, attempting to fly where a rational person would walk with better results"), but at least one of them is kind: upon learning of Wagner's death, Verdi lamented: "Sad! Sad! Sad! ... a name that leaves a most powerful mark on the history of our art." Of Wagner's comments on Verdi, only one is well-known. After listening to Verdi's Requiem, the great German, prolific and eloquent in his comments on some other composers, said, "It would be best not to say anything."
Aida premiered in Cairo in 1871 and was an instant success.
During the following 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 feel that although masterfully orchestrated, it lacks the melodic lustre so characteristic of Verdi's earlier, great, operas, while many critics 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.
Verdi's last opera, Falstaff, whose libretto, also by Boito, was based on Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor and Victor Hugo's subsequent translation, was an international success. The score is one of the supreme comic operas and shows Verdi's genius as a contrapuntist.
Verdi died January 27, 1901.
Many of his operas, especially the later ones from 1851 onwards are a staple of the standard repertoire. No composer of Italian opera, besides Giacomo Puccini, managed to match Verdi's greatness.
Verdi's role in the Risorgimento
Music historians have long perpetuated a myth about the famous Va, pensiero chorus sung in the third act of Nabucco. The myth reports that, when the Va, pensiero chorus was sung in Milan, then belonging to the large part of Italy under Austrian domination, the audience, responding with nationalistic fervor to the exiled slave's lament for their lost homeland, demanded an encore of the piece. As encores were expressly forbidden by the government at the time, such a gesture would have been extremely significant. However, recent scholarship puts this to rest. Although the audience did indeed demand an encore, it was not for Va, pensiero but rather for the hymn Immenso Jehova, sung by the Hebrew slaves to thank God for saving his people. In light of these new revelations, Verdi's position as the musical figurehead of the Risorgimento has been correspondingly downplayed (see for instance C.Casini, Verdi, Rusconi, 1994). On the other hand, during rehearsals, workmen in the theater stopped what they were doing during "Va, pensiero" and applauded at the conclusion of this haunting melody.
The myth of Verdi as Risorgimento's composer also reports that the slogan "Viva VERDI" was used throughout Italy to secretly call for Vittorio Emanuele Re D'Italia, referring to Victor Emmanuel II, then king of Sardinia.
Verdi's predecessors who influenced his music were Rossini, Bellini, Giacomo Meyerbeer and, most notably, Gaetano Donizetti and Saverio Mercadante. With the possible exception of Otello and Aida, he was free of Wagner's influence. Although respectful of Gounod, Verdi was careful not to learn anything from the Frenchman whom many of Verdi's contemporaries regarded as the greatest living composer. Some strains in Aida suggest at least a superficial familiarity with the works of the Russian composer Mikhail Glinka, whom Franz Liszt, after his tour of the Russian Empire as a pianist, popularized in Western Europe.
Throughout his career, Verdi rarely used to use the high C in his tenor arias, citing the fact that the opportunity to sing that particular note in front of an audience distracts the performer before and after the note comes on. However, he did provide high Cs to Duprez in Jérusalem and to Tamberlick in the original version of La forza del destino.
Although his orchestration is often masterful, Verdi relied heavily on his melodic gift as the ultimate instrument of musical expression. In fact, in many of his passages, and especially in his arias, the harmony is ascetic, with the entire orchestra occasionally sounding as if it were one large accompanying instrument - a giant-sized guitar playing chords. Some critics maintain he paid insufficient attention to the technical aspect of composition, lacking as he did schooling and refinement. Verdi himself once said, "Of all composers, past and present, I am the least learned." He hastened to add, however, "I mean that in all seriousness, and by learning I do not mean knowledge of music."
However, it would be incorrect to assume that Verdi underestimated the expressive power of the orchestra or failed to use it to its full capacity where necessary. Moreover, orchestral and contrapuntal innovation is characteristic of his style: for instance, the strings doing the rapid ascending scale in Monterone's scene in Rigoletto accentuate the drama, or, also in Rigoletto, the choir humming six closely grouped notes backstage portray, very effectively, the brief ominous wails of the approaching tempest. Verdi's innovations are so distinctive that other composers do not use them; they remain, to this day, Verdi's signature tricks.
Verdi was one of the first composers who insisted on patiently seeking out plots to suit his (or her) particular talents. Working closely with his librettists and well aware that dramatic expression was his forte, he made certain that the initial work upon which the libretto was based was stripped of all "unnecessary" detail and "superfluous" participants, and only characters brimming with passion and scenes rich in drama remained.
List of compositions by Giuseppe Verdi