Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (October 9 or 10, 1813 – January 27, 1901) was the most influential composer of the nineteenth century Italian opera, who focused on the dramatic aspects of the genre rather than the showcase of singers' talents. Born into a poor family and thus denied the musical education considered mandatory for a successful artist, still he created works that are frequently performed around the world. "La donna è mobile" from "Rigoletto" and "Libiamo ne' lieti calici" from "La traviata" have become part of popular culture.
With the death of national Italian poet Alessandro Manzoni in 1874, Verdi responded with the composition of his "Messa da Requiem", which some critics still call "Verdi's greatest opera" because of its passionate and intensely dramatic writing. In his last years, Verdi worked closely with Arrigo Boito, a poet and composer of operas himself, in the construction of the librettos, or texts, of what would become his final two operas. Both based on Shakespearean subjects, the results are widely regarded as Verdi's greatest triumphs, the tragedy "Otello" and the comedy "Falstaff", (based on "The Merry Wives of Windsor,").
When Verdi died in 1901 he was admired, revered, and acknowledged as probably the greatest composer Italy had ever produced. His works had almost completely monopolized the Italian operatic scene for most of the nineteenth century, and many lesser composers rushed to fill the void left by his death. Many composed in a style reminiscent of Verdi's final operas (particularly Otello), a style that was to influence the emerging verismo school of Italian opera and which led directly to the works of Giacomo Puccini.
When he died at the age of 87, two hundred thousand people came to pay homage. The composer had instructed that no music be played at his funeral; however, before the procession left the cemetery, Arturo Toscanini conducted a mass choir which sang his beloved "Va, Pensiero" from "Nabucco", which soon spread throughout the crowd.
Verdi was born in Le Roncole, a village near Busseto in the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza (now in the province of Parma), Italy. The exact day of his birth is not known, as the baptismal register, on October 11, lists him as being "born yesterday." Since days were often considered to begin at sunset, this could have meant either October 9 or 10. Verdi's father was an innkeeper and his mother a spinner. When he was still a child, his family moved to Busseto from the province of Piacenza, where the future composer began visiting the extensive library belonging to the local Jesuit school. Also in Busseto, Verdi received his first lessons in composition from Ferdinando Provesi, who managed the local philharmonic society.
When he was twenty, Verdi left for Milan to study music, but the Conservatory of Music rejected him, citing his two years over the age limit. Refusing to give up on further education, he took private lessons in counterpoint. He also attended operatic performances in Milan, as well as lesser concerts of Viennese music. This, as well as association with Milan's beaumonde, influenced his choice of career as a theater composer.
Upon return to Busseto, Verdi became the town music master. In 1830, he gave his first public performance at the home of Antonio Barezzi, a local merchant and music lover who financially supported Verdi's musical ambitions in Milan and who invited him to be the music teacher of his daughter, Margherita. The two married in 1836 and had two children, who fell ill and within a few weeks died.
The performance of Verde's first opera, "Oberto", by Milan's La Scala was a success, which prompted an offer of a contract for three more works to be composed over the next two years, by Bartolomeo Merelli, an impresario with La Scala.
The first was the comic opera "Un Giorno di Regno", which failed disastrously on its first night in September 1840. Verdi had composed it in the period of the tragic loss of his wife Margherita in June 1840. In the previous two years, they had lost their son and daughter.
The grieving composer fell into despair, vowing to give up musical composition forever. Merelli intervened and persuaded him to write "Nabucco" in 1842, whose opening performance brought Verdi accolades. Legend has it that it was the words of the famous "Va Pensiero" chorus ("Chorus of the Hebrews") of the Hebrew slaves that inspired Verdi to resume writing.
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 Alla Prima Crociata" in 1843 and "Ernani" in 1844.
Verdi's "Macbeth" in 1847 is sometimes considered to be the most important and original among his early operas. It was his first operatic adaptation of a play written by his favorite dramatist, William Shakespeare. Lacking a love story, this opus was a breach of the basic convention in Italian nineteenth 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 38, Verdi began an affair with Giuseppina Strepponi, a soprano in the twilight of her career. The couple's cohabitation before they finally married in 1859 was viewed by many as scandalous.
As the "galley years" were drawing to a close, Verdi created one of his greatest masterpieces, "Rigoletto", which premiered in Venice in 1851. The libretto based on a play by Victor Hugo had to undergo substantive revisions in order to satisfy the epoch's censorship, which once again brought the composer to the verge of surrender to the adverse forces acting in his life. The endurance paid off, as the opera quickly won acclaim.
With "Rigoletto", Verdi established his original concept 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 the powerful and concise declamatos often based on key-notes like the C and C# notes in Rigoletto and Monterone's upper register.
Verdi's "middle period" is marked by the second and third of his three major operas: in 1853 "Il Trovatore" was produced in Rome and "La traviata" in Venice. The latter was based on Alexandre Dumas' play "The Lady of the Camellias".
Between 1855 and 1867, an outpouring of great operas followed, 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 frequently performed, operas include "Les vêpres siciliennes" (1855) and "Don Carlos" (1867), both commissioned by the Paris Opera and initially performed in French. Today, these latter two operas are most often performed in Italian. "Simon Boccanegra" was conceived in 1857.
In 1869, Verdi composed a section for a Requiem Mass in memory of Italian musical composer Gioacchino Rossini, and it was his idea to write it as a collection of pieces composed by Rossini's other Italian contemporaries. The Requiem Mass was compiled and completed in Verdi's lifetime but not performed before his death in 1901. Verdi later reworked the "Libera Me" section of The Requiem as part of a complete Requiem Mass in honor of Italian poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni, who died in 1873. The complete "Requiem" was first performed at the cathedral in Milan on May 22, 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". About one year later, when the organizers again approached Verdi, this time with the idea of writing an opera, he declined once more. They threatened to ask Charles Gounod instead, but Verdi would not budge. However, when they threatened to engage the services of the great German composer Richard Wagner, Verdi relented, and agreements were signed in June 1870. "Aida" premiered in Cairo in 1871 and was an instant success.
Verdi and Wagner, both composers being the leaders of their respective schools of music, seemed to resent each other greatly, though they never met. Verdi's comments on Wagner and his music are scarce and usually far from benevolent ("He invariably chooses, unnecessarily, the untrodden path, attempting to fly where a rational person would walk with better results"). Nevertheless, 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 Mass, Wagner, prolific and eloquent in his comments on some other composers, said, "It would be best not to say anything."
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", another opera based on 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 critics say that although masterfully orchestrated, "Otello" lacks the melodic luster, the trademark of Verdi's earlier, great, operas. In addition, it lacks a prelude, something Verdi listeners are not accustomed to. On the other hand, other critics praise it as Verdi's greatest tragic opera with some of his most beautiful, expressive music and richest characterizations.
Verdi's last opera, "Falstaff", whose libretto, also by Boito, was based on yet another Shakespeare's play "The Merry Wives of Windsor" and Victor Hugo's subsequent translation, was an international success. The score is labeled one of the supreme comic operas and shows Verdi's genius as a contrapuntist.
Many of his operas, especially the later ones from 1851 onward, are a staple of the standard repertoire. No composer of Italian opera has managed to match Verdi's popularity, perhaps with the exception of Giacomo Puccini.
In his late years, Verdi also composed several sacred works, known as Pezzi sacri, but which form no unity. During his lifetime, Verdi had called himself an agnostic. Some claim that the religious works marked his return to the Christian belief. However, after "Aida", Verdi essentially considered his career as an opera composer as over. Therefore, his turn to the "higher" sacred music made sense, also without any religious background.
Verdi was also increasingly interested in Renaissance Music, especially in compositions by Palestrina, whom he considered the father of Italian music, in analogy of Bach's importance for Germany. One also remembers that Verdi had began his musical career at age 12 with the sacred music he learned from Fernando Provesi.
In November 1897, Strepponi died at Verdi's house in Sant'Agata. On January 21, 1901, the composer suffered a stroke from which he died on January 27. First, he was buried next to his wife in Milan's Cimitero Monumentale; a month later, amid national mourning, their bodies were moved to the Casa di Riposo, the foundation for retired musicians in Milan, founded by Verdi. Before the procession left the cemetery, Arturo Toscanini conducted a massed choir which sang "Va, pensiero."
Music historians have long perpetuated a myth about the famous "Va, pensiero" chorus sung in the third act of "Nabucco." The earlier school of music historians maintained that when "Va, pensiero" was sung in Milan, then belonging to the large part of Italy under Austrian domination, the audience, responding with nationalistic fervor to the exiled slaves' 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. Thus Verdi would be regarded as a musical figurehead of the Italian unification movement, Risorgimento.
Although the audience did indeed demand an encore, the later school of music historians has revealed that it was not for "Va, pensiero" but rather for the hymn "Immenso Jehova," sung by the Hebrew slaves to thank God (Jehovah) for saving His people. This has correspondingly downplayed Verdi's role in the Risorgimento. (Rusconi, 1981) Still, during rehearsals, workmen in the theater stopped working during "Va, pensiero" and applauded at the conclusion of this haunting melody.
The myth of Verdi as Risorgimento's composer also links his name to the slogan "Viva VERDI," which was used throughout Italy to secretly call for Vittorio Emanuele Re D'Italia, referring to Victor Emmanuel II, then king of Sardinia.
"Va, pensiero" has another appearance in Verdi's folklore. Before his body was driven from the cemetery to the official memorial service and its final resting place at the Casa di Risposa, Arturo Toscanini conducted a chorus of 820 singers in "Va, pensiero." At the Casa, the "Miserere" from Il trovatore was sung. (Oxford University Press, 1993)
Verdi's music was influenced by his predecessors Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, Giacomo Meyerbeer and, most notably, Gaetano Donizetti and Saverio Mercadante. With the possible exception of "Otello" and "Aida", Verdi 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, popularized in Western Europe by pianist Franz Liszt after his tour of the Russian Empire.
Throughout his career, Verdi rarely employed the high C in his tenor arias, claiming that the opportunity to sing that particular note in front of an audience distracted the performer both before and after the note. However, he did provide high Cs to Duprez in "Jerusalem" and to Tamberlick in the original version of "La forza del destino".
Although his orchestration was often masterful, Verdi relied heavily on his melodic gift as the ultimate instrument of musical expression. 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 as a result of the lack of 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."
What might be interpreted as underestimation of the expressive power of the orchestra or failure to use it to its full capacity is namely Verdi's distinctive genius. His usage of orchestra and contrapunt is innovation: for instance, the strings doing the rapid ascending scale in Monterone's scene in "Rigoletto" accentuate the drama, and also in "Rigoletto", the choir humming six closely grouped notes backstage effectively portrays the brief ominous wails of the approaching tempest. Verdi's innovations are so unique that other composers do not use them; they remain, to this day, Verdi's signature tricks.
Criticized for using melodrama and catering to the tastes of the common folk, using a diatonic rather than a chromatic musical idiom, Verdi more than offset this by patiently seeking out plots to suit the composer's particular talents. He was one of the first to do so. 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.
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