Personalities | Giuseppe Verdi | High Romantic | Opera

1813–1901, Italian

Giuseppe Verdi was that rarity, a modest, diffident genius. He was so unaware of his powers that he called himself ‘the least erudite among past and present composers’. Born in Le Roncole, near Busseto, Parma, Verdi was eight when his talents were noticed by a local merchant and patron of music, Antonio Barezzi.

In 1832, Barezzi paid for Verdi to attend the Milan Conservatory, but he failed to be accepted, partly due to ‘lack of piano technique and technical knowledge’ and ‘insufficient’ gifts.

A Modest Start

Verdi took private lessons to improve his musical skills and the same year he married Margherita, Barezzi’s daughter, he completed his first opera, Rocester (1836). It was never staged, but much of its music went into a second opera, Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio (1839). Oberto was so well received at La Scala, Milan, that Verdi was contracted to write more.

However, Verdi’s first work under contract, the comic opera Un giorno di regno (‘King for a Day’, 1840) was overshadowed by tragedy: both his children had died in infancy, and in 1840, he also lost his young wife. Un giorno was a fiasco, withdrawn after only one performance and the grieving Verdi was ready to give up. Fortunately, the impresario and librettist Bartolomeo Merelli (1794–1879) perceived his genius and persuaded him to try again. Merelli’s faith was more than justified. Verdi’s next opera, Nabucco, produced at La Scala in 1842, was a splendid success, and also signalled his emergence from the influence of Rossini and Donizetti. From now on, musically speaking, Verdi was his own man.

A Political Troublemaker?

Nabucco made Verdi’s name known throughout Italy, not only in the opera houses, but also in the political talking shops where the Risorgimento, the movement for the unification and independence of Italy, was being brewed. Even though Verdi had no interest in active politics, there is no doubt that he supported the Risorgimento. The censors, for their part, marked him down as a potential revolutionary. Verdi’s long and fractious involvement in censorship was at least partly the result of these suspicions.

The Cream of his Contemporaries

Verdi’s Ernani was another brilliant success; he was deluged with commissions and entered what he called his anni di galera – his ‘galley years’, in which he composed 16 operas in 11 years – 1842 to 1853 – half of them produced between 1844 to 1847 alone. Writing under pressure meant mixed results. The ‘galley years’ produced inspired achievements like La traviata and Il trovatore, both of which premiered in 1853, but also included Stiffelio, which was unloved by audiences despite Verdi’s extensive revisions. By the time the ‘galley years’ ended, Verdi, aged 40, eclipsed all others as the most highly acclaimed living composer of opera. However, he was not sitting on his laurels. In 1871, Aida, which was set in ancient Egypt, had its premiere in Cairo and although his...

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