Personalities | Vincenzo Bellini | Early Romantic | Opera

1801–35, Italian

The musical abilities of Vincenzo Bellini were already well known in his home city of Catania in Sicily before he went to Naples at age 18 to study at the conservatory under Zingarelli. A competent pianist at age five, composer of his sacred music at six, the youthful Bellini’s ariettes and instrumental works were performed in aristocratic salons and provided anthems for the churches in Catania.

A Successful Student

Like Rossini, whose admiring disciple he was, Bellini scored success while still a student. His opera semiseria Adelson e Salvini (1925), which was staged at the conservatory, showed such promise that both the Teatro San Carlo, Naples, and La Scala, Milan, commissioned work from him. For Naples, Bellini composed Bianca e Fernando (1826). He was obliged to change the latter name to Gernando, because Ferdinand I, the autocratic king of the Two Sicilies (Naples and Sicily) claimed a monopoly of his own name and any other too closely resembling it. The original name of the opera was restored, though, after Ferdinand died later in 1825.

The Opera That Made His Name

The opera that made Bellini’s name was his work for Milan, Il pirata (‘The Pirate’, 1827) which had its first performance at La Scala on 27 October 1827. Though still only 26 at the time, Bellini had already demonstrated the basic elements of his personal style – creamy melody, graceful ornamentation, dramatic orchestration and touching, heartfelt sentiment. This was a winning combination that he carefully honed to reflect the emotions of his characters and the drama of their plight. Bellini soon revealed himself as the master of bel canto, a style that had connotations beyond the world of opera: the nocturnes, preludes and other melodies of the Polish pianist and composer Frédéric Chopin (1810–49) reproduced on the keyboard the long, lyrical musical lines Bellini wrote for the voice.

A Favourite with the Ladies

Like Chopin, whom he met when he visited London in 1833, Bellini had a strong appeal for women, with his slim figure, aristocratic looks and the delicate aspect that marked so many nineteenth-century musicians destined for short lives. While in Milan, where he remained for six years after the success of Il pirata, Bellini caught the eye of Giuditta Cantu, who was married to a wealthy landowner and silk manufacturer. The two embarked on a passionate love affair, which was later romanticized in literature, but caused a considerable scandal at the time. Gossip about it was all the more vigorous because in 1831, Bellini had become internationally famous after writing two more operas La sonnambula (‘The Sleepwalker’, 1830) and Norma (1833). Bellini’s visit to London in 1833 removed him from the scene of scandal not long after the affair became public and divorce proceedings began.

An Early End

Bellini disliked London, its audiences and its climate, although La sonnambula was a great success there. In August 1833, Bellini travelled to Paris, which was much more...

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