Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (1813-1901) was the most distinguished Italian opera composer in the 19th century. His career and work, the antithesis of those of Wagner, represent the final flourishing of the Italian opera tradition.
Giuseppe Verdi was born on Oct. 10, 1813, in Roncole in the duchy of Parma. He early demonstrated an inclination to music. His family, being very poor, could do nothing to aid him. When he was 13, a merchant of nearby Busseto, Antonio Barezzi, took a lively interest in the young boy and encouraged him in his studies. At the age of 18 Verdi went to Milan to audition for the conservatory despite the fact that, even if he should be successful, he was already too old to be admitted. He was rejected only because of his age, but he was able to remain in Milan to continue his studies privately.
After several years of intermittent private study, the young composer obligated himself for three years to the Philharmonic Society of Busseto in 1835 in exchange for a modest stipend. Verdi composed music and directed various performances sponsored by the group; he also worked as a church musician while continuing his studies. In 1836, the year he married Margherita Barezzi, the daughter of his benefactor, he was at work on his first opera, Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, which was recommended to La Scala, Milan, for consideration in 1837.
In 1838 Verdi moved to Milan in anticipation of the production of Oberto. This year marked the beginning of a series of personal tragedies. His daughter died late in 1838. In 1839 his infant son died, leaving the young composer and his wife little taste for the moderate success of Oberto on November 17. The greatest blow fell in 1840, when his wife died. At the age of 27 Verdi found himself almost entirely alone in the world. Oberto was successful enough for the distinguished Milanese music publisher Ricordi to make an offer for the rights to publish the score, thereby commencing a personal and business relationship which lasted throughout Verdi's life. His next opera, Un giorno di regno, produced in 1840, was a complete failure.
The accounts of Verdi as a taciturn, somber man date from the time of his personal sorrows. Although always compassionate and considerate of his friends and associates, Verdi withdrew into himself, zealously guarding his privacy. Despite the adversities of fate he continued to compose, believing in his abilities. His tenacity paid off when his first major success, Nabucco, was produced at La Scala in 1842. Giuseppina Streponni, who was to be Verdi's friend, mistress, and eventually his second wife, was in the cast of the first performance.
Other successes followed in turn. I Lombardi was produced in Milan in 1843 despite the archbishop's protests. Verdi had early acquired a reputation as a strongly anticlerical, agnostic young man, fervently convinced that Italy should be liberated from any form of autocratic government, whether it be the Church or Austria. He devoted himself to a series of operas in which the causes of individual freedom, patriotism, loyalty, and nobility of the human spirit were paramount.
In 1844 Ernani, based on Victor Hugo's famous play, was produced in Venice with tremendous success. I due Foscari, derived from Lord Byron's play, followed in Rome the same year. Verdi was then 31, and the years of his triumphs had begun.
Verdi made the first of many trips to Paris in 1846 to supervise the French production of Ernani. His next major opera to enjoy popular success was Attila, mounted in Venice the same year. In 1847 he was in Florence to oversee the premiere of his first opera on a Shakespearean subject, Macbeth. His librettist was Francesco Maria Piave, his best collaborator until the advent of Arrigo Boito. Piave had already worked with Verdi on Ernani and I due Foscari. Piave was to supply Verdi with librettos for La forza del destino, Simone Boccanegra (first version), and the two undisputed masterpieces of the 1850s, Rigoletto and La Traviata.
Verdi began work on I masnadieri in 1846 and later the same year made his first visit to London. He returned to Italy via Paris, where I Lombardi in its French version was produced.
The pattern for Verdi's life seemed set. He traveled between Milan, Venice, Bologna, Florence, Rome, Naples, and Paris for the most part, making such trips as were necessary to supervise whatever work of his was being produced at the time. More often than not he was accompanied by the devoted Giuseppina. In 1849 he bought a villa at Sant'Agata, near Busseto, which was his permanent home and retreat.
New Stage of Development
Verdi's major composition in 1849 was Luisa Miller, prepared for Naples. To some, this work more than Macbeth marks a turning point in his career; the psychological insights into human behavior as well as the subtleties of musical style become more sophisticated from this time forward. With Rigoletto (originally called by its subtitle, La maledizione), produced in Venice in 1850, he achieved an international reputation. His next work, La Traviata, was a failure at its Venetian premiere in 1853, but Verdi had no qualms with regard to its merit, and his faith was vindicated. The same year Il Trovatore proved an instant success in Rome. Simone Boccanegra followed in 1856 and was produced in 1857.
That year also saw the commission of Un ballo in maschera for Naples. Always beset with censorship difficulties, Verdi nearly came to grief over this particular work. The issue was resolved only when he changed the locale from Sweden to Boston and the characters from aristocrats and noblemen to Puritan governors and citizens. He was contemptuous of such petty efforts which attempted to restrict personal liberty and freedom of expression.
In 1859 Giuseppina and Verdi were quietly married. Now considered one of the most distinguished of Italian citizens as well as the undisputed leader of the Italian theater, Verdi became a member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies in 1860, representing Busseto after Parma declared by plebiscite its intention to join the kingdom of Italy. His fame had been carried throughout Italy not only by his musical accomplishments but by use of his name as an anagram—V (ittorio) E (mmanuele), R (e) D'l (talia), that is, "Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy"—often shouted in the streets as a revolutionary slogan during the struggle for Italian independence and unification.
Commissions and honors poured in during the 1860s. In 1861 Piave prepared the libretto for La forza del destino, commissioned for St. Petersburg, where Verdi visited to rehearse his opera; he returned the following year for its premiere. For the International Exhibition of 1862 in London he composed Inno delle nazioni. In 1864 he was elected to the French Académie des Beaux-Arts. He began the music for Don Carlo in 1865, but the opera was not produced until 1867. Negotiations with the Egyptian government for an opera to celebrate the completion of the Suez Canal were initiated in 1868; an Egyptian subject was approved the following year; and in 1871 Aida was a sensation.
When the suggestion for an opera for Cairo was broached, Verdi countered with a suggestion for a Requiem Mass to honor the memory of the composer Gioacchino Rossini, who had died in 1868. Verdi was motivated more by patriotism than by religious commitment. His plans called for a collaborative endeavor on the part of leading Italian composers. Although this project fell through, the idea of a Requiem honoring an Italian hero remained close to the composer's heart.
When Verdi was approached in 1873 concerning the possibility of writing a Requiem Mass in memory of Alessandro Manzoni, author of the greatest 19th-century Italian novel, I promessi sposi, and a leading figure for the cause of unification, he leaped at the chance. On May 22, 1874, the first anniversary of Manzoni's death, Verdi's "latest opera, " his Requiem Mass, was performed in Milan. The next year he conducted his Requiem in Paris, London, and Vienna.
King Victor Emmanuel II made Verdi a senator in 1875, and his career appeared to have been capped. He lived in semiretirement at Sant'Agata, supervising his extensive agricultural interests, traveling only on occasion to conduct one of his works. He appeared to be uninterested in future composition and had settled down to enjoy the fruits of his labors.
Collaboration with Boito
Such was not to be. Verdi first met Arrigo Boito, a distinguished man of letters and composer in his own right, through mutual friends in 1879. They were attracted to one another despite the discrepancy in years, and gradually their friends hatched a plot of sorts to entice the 68-year-old Verdi out of retirement. Boito was eager to collaborate with Verdi, and their work together was to mark one of the high points in the history of opera.
Verdi had long been dissatisfied with certain sections of Simone Boccanegra; in 1880 Boito presented Verdi with a revised libretto which he liked, and he proceeded to write the necessary new music. The new Boccanegra was produced the following year in Milan. In 1885 Boito and Verdi began work in great secrecy on Otello; although Verdi had long entertained thoughts of an opera on King Lear, his imagination was captivated by the possibilities inherent in Shakespeare's passion-ridden tragedy of the Moor. He finished Otello in 1886, and the following year saw its premiere in Milan—his first new opera in 15 years. Otello created a sensation.
In 1890 Verdi began Falstaff, the miracle of his old age and his last opera. For it Boito fashioned a libretto from portions of Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Verdi had not written a comic opera since the very beginning of his career. When Falstaff was triumphantly mounted in 1893 in Milan, Verdi was 80 years old.
Verdi's devoted wife, Giuseppina, died in 1897. The following year he published four choral pieces: the Ave Maria, Stabat Mater, Te Deum, and Laudi alla Vergine Maria. He lived in seclusion at Sant'Agata for the remaining years of his life. He died in Milan on Jan. 27, 1901, and was buried by Giuseppina's side in the chapel of the Home for Musicians, Milan. This charity, still in existence, was the chief beneficiary of his will. Verdi died a wealthy man, a millionaire in modern terms, and his bequest continued to be the major source of income for the home until recently.
Culmination of Italian Opera
Verdi's accomplishments and achievements cannot be praised too highly. He never forgot that the glory of Italian opera lay in the use of the human voice. But he turned aside from the liltingly beautiful bel cantotradition and made the voice subordinate to the overall dramatic shape of his operas. For Verdi, the drama was all that was important, and in his mature operas he rarely faltered in striking to the heart of the matter when strong, stirring stage situations were needed. He was a master psychologist in his analysis of human passion, and his musical characterizations of Rigoletto, Aida, Violetta, Desdemona, lago, and Falstaff are among the finest 19th-century creations.
Verdi was not a theoretician but entirely a practical man of the theater. A very humane individual, he refused to lead any faction against Richard Wagner, recognizing in the great German master a magnificent talent, however alien to his own convictions it might be. Verdi represents the culmination of the Italian style of opera. His works remain the mainstay of the international opera repertoire.
Further Reading on Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi
Scores for the Verdi operas are readily available in the Ricordi editions, and the operas have been recorded many times and remain ever popular and available. In English, the best writings on Verdi and his works are those by Francis Toye, Giuseppe Verdi: His Life and Works (1931; rev. ed. 1962); Dyneley Hussey, Verdi (1940); Frank Walker, The Man Verdi (1962); and Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Verdi (1970). Perceptive essays on Verdi's career and works are contained in Joseph Kerman, Opera as Drama (1956), and Donald J. Grout, A Short History of Opera (1963).