Personalities | Giuseppe Verdi | Late Romantic | Classical
(Joo’-sep-pa Ver’-de) 1813–1901
Verdi composed 28 operas over a period of 54 years. In his native Italy he became immensely popular early in his career, and by the time he died he was idolized as the greatest Italian composer of the nineteenth century. In other musical centres of Europe it took a little longer for Verdi’s genius to be recognized. Audiences loved his operas, but critics were less impressed.
The tremendous rhythmic vitality of his style, the memorability of his splendid tunes, just the things that captivated the ordinary opera-lover, did not appear as virtues to the London musical establishment. Gradually the critical climate changed, and after the production of his two final operas, Otello and Falstaff, universally acclaimed as masterpieces, even the critics were willing to admit that Verdi was a genius. After the composer’s death, his reputation continued to grow, although it was not until 1951, the fiftieth anniversary of his death, that many of his early operas were disinterred and found to be, if not masterpieces, then extremely enjoyable in performance. In his long life Verdi cast a very long shadow over his Italian contemporaries. The early deaths of Bellini and Donizetti removed two possible rivals, and it was not until 1893, the year of Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, that the production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut heralded the arrival of his successor.
Verdi was born on 10 October 1813 at Le Roncole, a village near Busseto in the Duchy of Parma. His parents were poor, but his musical ability was recognized early, and he was given lessons by the village organist. Sent to school in Busseto, he came to the notice of Antonio Barezzi, president of the local Philharmonic Society, who virtually adopted him. Donations from a charitable organization and support from Barezzi enabled the 18-year-old Verdi to go to Milan, but the Conservatory rejected him as too old, so he studied for two years with Vincenzo Lavigna, a conductor at La Scala opera house. In 1836 Verdi married his benefactor Barezzi’s daughter, Margharita. They had two children, both of whom died under the age of two. Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, was finished by 1838 and rehearsed, but it had to be postponed owing to the tenor’s illness. It was finally performed at La Scala on 17 November 1839, scoring a fair success. The publisher Giovanni Ricordi bought it for publication, and the Scala impresario Bartolomeo Merelli put Verdi under contract. While he was writing his next opera, Un giorno di regno (‘King for a Day’), a comedy, his wife Margharita died of encephalitis. Verdi tried to break his contract, but Merelli refused to release him and Un giorno was given at La Scala on 5 September 1840. A total failure, it received only one performance. Verdi swore never to write another opera, but relented when Merelli gave him the libretto of Nabucco, concerned with the captivity of the Hebrews in Babylon. Produced at La Scala in...
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