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Verdi, Giuseppe

(October 10, 1813 - January 27, 1901)

Humble Origins
The son of Carlo Verdi, an inkeeper, and Luigia Uttini, Giuseppe Verdi showed an unquestionable talent for music at an early age. After lessons with Pietro Baistrocchi, the organist in Le Roncole, he continued his studies in Busseto: Ginnasio under Pietro Seletti, and music under Ferdinando Provesi, who was maestro di cappella at San Bartolomeo, and served as director for the local music school and philharmonic society. During that time Verdi would return to Le Roncole on Sundays for his duties as organist at the parish there. Between the ages of 13 and 18, as he himself wrote, he composed “a motley assortment of pieces: marches for band by the hundred, perhaps as many little sinfonie that were used in church, in the theater and at the academy... and many serenades, cantatas and various pieces of church music.” His activity was so intense that he earned the admiration of the citizens of Busseto and the patronage of Antonio Barezzi, a wealthy merchant and president of the local philharmonic.

Encouraged by a Local Patron
In 1831 Verdi was welcomed into Barezzi’s home, where he gave singing and piano lessons to his patron’s eldest daughter, Margherita, whom Verdi would go on to marry. Barezzi, certain of Verdi’s capabilities, was able to procure him a grant from the local pawnshop so that the young man could continue his studies in Milano. But in 1832 Verdi was denied admission to the conservatory there after failing his entrance exam in piano; he was also over the age limit. However, with backing from Barezzi, Verdi was able to study for three years under Vincenzo Lavigna, the maestro of the harpsichord at La Scala who had been a pupil of Giovanni Paisiello’s, who – as Verdi would later recall – prescribed him “canons and fugues, fugues and canons of all kinds.” In 1836 Verdi returned to Busseto, where he was appointed maestro di cappella by the municipality, and in May married Margherita Barezzi.

Difficult First Steps, Personal Tragedy
Three years later, longing to make a name for himself as a composer for musical theater, Verdi gave up his post in Busseto and moved to Milano, where the impresario Bartolomeo Merelli agreed to stage his first opera, Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio (1839) at La Scala. The work’s moderate success convinced Merelli to commission another opera from Verdi, this time a comedy, which would be entitled Un giorno di regno or Il finto Stanislao. It was written during the saddest and most painful period of the composer’s life – his daughter Virginia died in 1838, followed by the deaths of his son Icilio in 1839 and his adored wife Margherita in 1840. Verdi’s second opera was a flop. After a subpar performance in November 1840, it was dropped by La Scala. Embittered by his failure, Verdi almost gave up composing altogether. Luckily, Merelli stepped in and helped Verdi overcome his depression by commissioning him to write an opera for a new libretto, Nabucco, which had already been refused by Carl Otto Nicolai.

Driven by an Impresario
Years later, Verdi himself would recall how the manuscript of the libretto, which he had just received from Merelli, opened to the page containing the verse that read, “Va’, pensiero, sull’ali dorate,” when he violently threw it on his table at home. Verdi continued his story as follows:

I looked over the verses that followed and was truly impressed. All the more so because they nearly paraphrased a quote from the Bible, which I always enjoyed reading. I read one piece, then another. But since I had vowed never to write again, I forced myself to close the manuscript and went to bed. Only to have Nabucco rushing through my head!
I couldn’t get to sleep, so I got up and read the whole libretto over, not once, not twice, but three times. By morning I knew Solera’s libretto by heart. But despite all that, I still did not want to break that promise to myself, so the next day I went to the theater and returned the manuscript to Merelli.

“Nice, eh?” he said to me. “Bellissimo. Eh! So...set it to music!”

Having said that, he took the libretto and stuffed it in my overcoat pocket and, grbbing me by the shoulders, pushed me out of the dressing room. Not only: he closed the door in my face and locked it. What was I going to do? I went back home with Nabucco in my pocket. One day, one verse. Another day, another verse. A note here. A phrase there. And little by little, the opera got written.

A Legendary Career Launch
Nabucco premiered at La Scala on March 9, 1842. Among the cast was Giuseppina Strepponi, who would go on to become Verdi’s loyal companion. It was a huge success. Breaking all norms, Va’ pensiero was given an encore. It was already clear that the opera underscored that element of manifest patriotism which would make it an emblem of the Italians’ longing for independence, just as the letters of the name Verdi would be identified with the battle cry of rebellion: Long live V.E.R.D.I., which is to say, the acronym for Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia.

“Years in the Galleys
In the wake of Nabucco, Verdi’s creative ouput became so frenetic that he himself dubbed that time of his life the “years in the galleys”. In 1843 La Scala hosted the premiere of I lombardi alla prima crociata – whose chorus of “O Signor che dal tetto natio”, like Va’ pensiero, took on a patriotic connotation and would be sung with anti-Austrian sentiments. Ernani, the fruit of Verdi’s first collaboration with librettist Francesco Maria Piave, debuted at Venice’s La Fenice in 1844. Then came Giovanna d'Arco at La Scala (1845), Macbeth in Florence (1847), I masnadieri in London (1847), Verdi’s first work to be commissioned abroad, and Luisa Miller at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples (1849).

In 1851 Rigoletto triumphed at La Fenice. It was Verdi’s first of a string of romantic works, which also included Il trovatore, which debuted in Rome in 1853, and La traviata, which was staged the world over after its unfortunate opening at La Fenice on March 6, 1853. For years, Verdi had been living in Busseto, and in 1849 purchased his Villa at Sant’Agata, where he was joined by Giuseppina Strepponi, whom he would marry ten years later. In 1855 he wrote Les Vêpres Siciliennes for the Paris Opera – it had been commissioned by the French government for the inauguration of the Exposition Universelle. Once back at Busseto, Verdi churned out Simon Boccanegra for La Fenice (1857), which was followed – after a series of rewrites – by Un ballo in maschera (Rome, 1859), La forza del destino (St. Petersburg, 1862) – which took Verdi to Russia twice, Don Carlos (Paris, 1867), and Aida, commissioned by the Khedive of Egypt and premiered in Cairo in celebration of the opening of the Suez Canal (1871). Verdi also composed L’inno delle nazioni, with lyrics by Arrigo Boito, for London’s 1862 International Exhibition.
Masterpieces from His Later Years
Aida was followed by a period of silence which made for but a few exceptions – such as Messa da requiem, in memory of the venerated Italian author Alessandro Manzoni, which Verdi himself conducted at Milano’s Church of San Marco in 1874. Verdi was past 70 when he made his return to the theater, resuming the winning combination he’d struck up with Boito. Otello appeared in 1887, Falstaff debuted in 1893: two masterpieces that crowned a lifetime of intense activity in opera. Revered and honored by the entire world, Verdi left us in 1901, at the dawn of a new century.


Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio (A. Piazza and T. Solera – Milan, La Scala)
Un giorno di regno, ossia Il finto Stanislao (F. Romeni – Milan, La Scala)
Nabucodonosor, called Nabucco (T. Solera – Milan, La Scala)
I lombardi alla prima crociata (T. Solera – Milan, La Scala)
Ernani (F.M. Piave, da Hugo – Venice, La Fenice)
I due Foscari (F.M. Piave, afer Byron – Rome, Teatro Argentina)
Giovanna d'Arco (T. Solera, after Schiller – Milan, La Scala)
Alzira (S. Cammarano, after Voltaire – Naples, San Carlo)
Attila (T. Solera – Venice, La Fenice)
Macbeth (F.M. Piave and A. Maffei, after Shakespeare – Florence, Teatro Della Pergola)
I masnadieri (A. Maffei, after Schiller – Londra, Her Majesty's Theatre)
Jérusalem (A. Royer and G. Vaëz, remake of I Lombardi alla prima Crociata – Paris, Opéra)
Il corsaro (F.M. Piave, after Byron – Trieste, Teatro Grande)
La battaglia di Legnano (S. Cammarano – Rome, Teatro Argentina)
Luisa Miller (S. Cammarano, after Schiller – Naples, San Carlo)
Stiffelio (F.M. Piave – Trieste, Teatro Grande)
Rigoletto, original title La maledizione (F.M. Piave, after Hugo – Venice, La Fenice)
Il trovatore (S. Cammarano, after A. García Gutiérrez – Rome, Teatro Apollo)
La traviata (F.M. Piave, after Dumas fils, Venice, La Fenice)
Les Vêpres siciliennes (E. Scribe and C. Duveyrier, Paris, Opéra)
Giovanna de Guzman (italian version of Les Vêpres siciliennes edited by A. Fusinato, Parma, Teatro Regio; then I vespri siciliani)
Simon Boccanegra (F.M. Piave, after García Gutiérrez – Venice, La Fenice)
Aroldo (F.M. Piave, remake of Stiffelio, Rimini, Teatro Nuovo)
Un ballo in maschera, original title Una vendetta in domino (A. Somma, after Scribe’s Gustave III – Rome, Teatro Apollo)
La forza del destino (F.M. Piave, after A. Pérez de Saavedra, St. Petersburg, Imperial Theatre)
Macbeth (french version of 1847’s edition edited by C. Nuitter and A. Beaumont – Paris, Théâtre Lyrique)
Don Carlos (F.J. Méry and C. Du Locle, after Schiller – Paris, Opéra)
Aida (A. Ghislanzoni, after F.A. Mariette – Il Cairo, Teatro dell'Opera)
Simon Boccanegra (new version with libretto by A. Boito – Milan, La Scala)
Don Carlo (new version, italian translation by Ghislanzoni – Milan, La Scala)
Otello (A. Boito, after Shakespeare – Milan, La Scala)
Falstaff (A. Boito, after Shakespeare – Milan, La Scala)

Sacred choral compositions
Messa di requiem (dedicated to Alessandro Manzoni) for soli, choir and orchestra (1874)
Pater Noster, for 5 voices choir (1880)
Ave Maria, on the "scala enigmatica" (enigmatic scale), for 4 voices choir (1889)
Stabat Mater, for choir and orchestra (1896-1897)
Te Deum, for double choir and orchestra (1895-1896)
Laudi alla Vergine Maria, for 4 voices female choir (1898)

Choral compositions
Suona la tromba, hymn (1848)
Inno delle nazioni, cantata for London International Exposition (1862)

For voice and orchestra
Ave Maria, for soprano and strings (1880)

Chamber music
Quartetto in mi min., for strings (1873)

Romances for piano and voice
6 Romanze (1838); L'esule (1839); La seduzione (1839); Chi i bei dì m'adduce ancora (1842); Album di 6 Romanze (1845); Il poveretto (1847); Fiorellin che sorge appena (1850); La preghiera del poeta (1858); Il poveretto (1863); Stornello (1869); Pietà Signor (1894);

and also:
Guarda che bianca luna. Notturno, for s., t. and b. with fl. obbligato (1839)