The Italian opera composer Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) was one of the first composers of the romantic movement in Italy.
Gaetano Donizetti was born in Bergamo on Nov. 29, 1797. He received his first instruction in music from an uncle, but the beginning of his formation as a composer came in 1806, when he was accepted as a free student in the Lezione Caritatevoli, a school supported by the church of S. Maria Maggiore for the training of musicians and choristers for its services. The director was Simon Mayr, a German who had settled in Bergamo in 1805. Although not known today, his music was held in high esteem in his lifetime. Mayr's influence seems to have been decisive. He kept young Donizetti in the school although his voice was not of the necessary quality, even writing works for student performances in which these vocal defects could be avoided.
Following this training, Donizetti went to Bologna in 1815 to study with Padre Mattei, a student of Padre Martini and a teacher of Gioacchino Rossini. Mayr gave Donizetti financial support as well as letters of introduction. Donizetti's first publication, a set of variations on a theme by Mayr, appeared in 1815.
Donizetti's first three operas date from 1816 and 1817 and were not performed during his lifetime. His first opera to be performed was Enrico di Borgogna, given in Venice in 1818. From this time until 1844 he produced operas of all types at a fantastic pace. In 1827 he agreed to compose 12 operas for Venice within a 3-year period. This speed in production shows in many works that perfunctorily filled the established forms of the day. His works all allow the singer ample opportunity for display with cadenzas and brilliant coloratura writing. Many of his librettos deal with violent passions that are not always turned to best dramatic effect. However, works like L'elisir d'amore (1832), Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), La Fille du régiment (1840), and Don Pasquale (1843) have gained a place in the repertory for themselves and an important historical position for their composer.
Although now known primarily for his operas, Donizetti produced a large number of compositions in other genres. In addition to 71 operas, he composed cantatas, sacred works, symphonies, string quartets and quintets, and numerous works for piano solo, voice and piano, and piano and other instruments.
Donizetti's fame quickly spread throughout Italy; he went to Paris, where he wrote five operas, and to Vienna, where he became principal court conductor in 1842. His last years, 1844-1848, were spent in rather severe circumstances because of the progressive deterioration of his health, both physical and mental.
Two biographies of Donizetti are Herbert Weinstock, Donizetti and the World of Opera (1963), and William Ashbrook, Donizetti (1965), both containing numerous documents, lists of works, and librettos. Donizetti's place in early-19th-century music is discussed in Alfred Einstein, Music in the Romantic Era (1947), and Donald J. Grout, A Short History of Opera (2 vols., 1947; 2d ed. 1965). □