Biography, operas, CDs - commemorating the 100th anniversary
composer's death on
January 27, 2001 -
by Giuseppe Verdi.
Article added in January 2001
Verdi: Viva Verdi! 1813-1901.
A 100th Anniversary Celebration. Universal, 2000, 2 CDs. With some 100
pages of information on his life and music as well as the Universal CDs
available. An excellent starting point for neophytes. Order it from
Verdi: Messa Solenne, Libera
Me, Sacred Works.
Conductor: Riccardo Chailly.
Five World Premieres. Decca, 2000.
This CD about Verdi's early sacred music
is based on material recently discovered
by Professor Dino Rizzi. Therefore, it includes five world premieres.
Order the CD from
Verdi: Oberto. Philips, 1997, 2 CDs.
Conductor: Neville Marriner. London Voices and the
Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields
With Maria Gulegina, Sara Fulgoni, Stuart Neill,
Samuel Ramey, Violeta Urmana. The best recording available of Verdi's
debut opera. Get it form
Verdi: Jérusalem. 3 CDs.
Philips, October 2000.
Conductor: Fabio Luisi.
OSR and Coeur du Grand Théâtre de Genève.
Hélène: Maria Mescheriakova.
Gaston: Marcello Giordani.
Get it from
by Giuseppe Verdi.
Verdi: Nabucco. EMI, 2 CDs.
Conductor: Riccardo Muti
Nabucco: Matteo Manuguerra,
Ismaele: Veriano Luchetti,
Zaccaria: Nicolai Ghiaurov,
Abigaille: Renata Scotto, Fenena: Elena Obraztsova,
Gran Sacerdote: Robert Lloyd,
Abdallo: Kenneth Collins, Anna: Anne Edwards. Order the double-CD from
Verdi: Rigoletto. RCA/BMG. 2 CDs.
Conductor: Georg Solti.
RCA Italiana Opera Orchestra.
Rogoletto: Robert Merrill.
Gilda: Anna Moffo. Order it from
Verdi: Rigoletto. Polygram, 1990.
Sutherland, Pavarotti, Milnes, LSO, Bonynge. Get the album from
Verdi: Il Trovatore. RCA/BMG. 2 CDs.
Conductor: Zubin Mehta.
New Philharmonia Orchestra.
Leonora: Leontyne Price.
Manrico: Placido Domingo.
Get it from
Verdi: La Traviata. RCA/BMG.
Conductor: Georges Prêtre.
Violetta Valéry: Montserrat Caballé.
Order it from
Verdi: La Traviata. EMI.
Conductor: Riccardo Muti.
Renata Scotto, Alfredo Kraus, Renato Bruson.
Order it from
Verdi: Trilogia Popolare. Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata.
RCA Red Seal/BMG, November 2000. Get it from
Verdi: Aida. EMI, 3 CDs.
Riccardo Muti, New Philharmonia Orchestra.
Aida: Montserrat Caballé,
Radamès: Placido Domingo,
Amneris: Fiorenza Cossotto,
Ramfis: Nicolai Ghiaurov,
Amonasro: Piero Cappuccilli,
Il Re D'Egitto: Luigi Roni.
Get it from Amazon.com
Verdi: Pezzi Sacri. Deutsche Grammophon, 2000.
Dirigent: Myung-Whun Chung. Verdi's late sacred works. Order it from
Verdi: The Verdi Anniversary Box. Dirigent: Riccardo
Muti. Philadelphia Orchestra, Berliner Philharmoniker.
EMI, 13 Operas on 27 CDs. Get it from Amazon.com
by Giuseppe Verdi.
of Giuseppe Verdi
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) called
himself "a peasant from Roncole". He was modest, humorous,
good-natured, economical, brusque, spirited, solitary, unapproachable and
demanded exorbitant honoraries. Verdi was born in Roncole in 1813, a
small village near Busseto in the Duchy of Parma, which was then part of
Napoleon's Kingdom of Italy. His exact birth date is uncertain.
1813 was also the year of birth
of Richard Wagner. The two composers, whose music and subject matter could not have been more different, revolutionized the opera and
continue to influence it even today. Wagner was concerned with myths and gods
whereas Verdi was more concerned with human beings and their problems.
Verdi's father Carlo (1785–1867)
was an ‘innkeeper’, his mother Luigia Uttini
(1787–1851) a ‘spinner’. Both belonged to families of small
landowners and traders. They were certainly not the illiterate peasants from which
Verdi later liked to present himself as having emerged as an autodidact.
On the contrary, Carlo Verdi furthered his son's education.
Before the age of four, Verdi began instruction with the local priests,
probably in music too. When Giuseppe was 7, his father bought him an old
spinet. The son was soon substituting as organist at the
local church of San Michele, taking the position permanently at the age of
nine. In 1823, the family moved to Busseto where, at the age of 11, Verdi entered the ginnasio
where he received training in Italian, Latin, humanities and rhetoric. In
1825, Giuseppe began taking lessons with Ferdinando Provesi, maestro di cappella
at San Bartolomeo in Busseto and director of the municipal music school and
the local Philharmonic Society.
In 1829, Verdi applied unsuccessfully for the post of organist at nearby
Soragna. He was becoming increasingly involved in Busseto's active musical
life, both as a composer and as a performer. He later recalled that from the ages of 13 to 18
marches for band by the hundred, symphonies, five or six
concertos and sets of variations for pianoforte, serenades, cantatas and
various pieces of church music.
In May 1831, Verdi moved into the house of Antonio Barezzi, a prominent
merchant in Busseto and a keen amateur musician. Verdi gave singing and
piano lessons to Barezzi's daughter Margherita (1814-1840) and the young couple became unofficially engaged.
At about the same
time, the musical world of Busseto became too small for Verdi's ambitions.
His father applied to a Bussetan charitable institution, the Monte di
Pietà e d'Abbondanza, for a scholarship to allow Giuseppe to study in
Milan. The application,
bolstered by glowing references from Provesi and others, was successful;
but no scholarship was available until late 1833. However, Barezzi
guaranteed financial support for the first year and in May 1832, at the
age of 18, Verdi traveled to Milan and applied for permission to study at
the conservatory. He was refused entry because he was four years above the usual entering age and was not a resident of
Lombardy-Venetia, but also because his unorthodox piano technique. Verdi
suffered from this "official" rejection until the end of his life. For three
years, Barezzi sponsored Verdi's private study in Milan with Vincenzo Lavigna, who had for many years been maestro
di concertatore at La Scala.
According to Verdi's
later recollections, his lessons with Lavigna involved little but strict
counterpoint. He said he did nothing but
canons and fugues. No one taught him
orchestration or how to treat dramatic music. Again, this insistence was
probably a further attempt by Verdi to fashion his image as a ‘self-taught’
composer. Contemporary evidence suggests that Lavigna encouraged Verdi to
attend the theatre regularly, and his letters of recommendation specify
study in "composizione ideale" (free composition) as well as in
counterpoint. Lavigna also helped his pupil enter into Milanese musical society.
In 1834, Verdi assisted at the keyboard in performances of Haydn's Creation
given by a Milanese Philharmonic Society directed by Pietro Massini and a
year later co-directed performances of Rossini's La
Cenerentola with Massini.
Provesi had died in 1833, leaving open the post of
musical director in Busseto. By June 1834, Giovanni Ferrari had been
appointed organist at San Bartolomeo. Encouraged by Barezzi, in 1836, Verdi was
appointed maestro di musica, that is, to the secular
portion of Provesi's post. The same year, Verdi married
Margherita Barezzi and settled in Busseto, directing and composing for the
local Philharmonic Society and giving private lessons for the next three
years. In those years, he and Margherita had two
children, Virginia (26.3.1837-12.8.1838) and
Icilio Romano (11.7.1838-22.10.1839).
But the ambitious
Verdi was looking for success in opera.
In April 1836, he renewed his contact with Massini's Milanese society by
composing a cantata for them, to words by Count Renato Borromeo, in honour
of the Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I. Verdi also composed an opera entitled Rocester,
to a libretto by the Milanese journalist and man of letters, Antonio
Piazza. During 1837, Verdi tried unsuccessfully to have the opera staged at
the Teatro Ducale in Parma. With Massini's help,
Verdi eventually arranged for a revised version of the opera, now entitled Oberto,
conte di San Bonifacio, to be performed at La Scala. In October 1838,
he resigned as maestro di musica of Busseto and, in February 1839,
left for Milan. Nine months later his first opera received its première
at La Scala.
The success of Oberto
encouraged Bartolomeo Merelli, impresario at La Scala, to offer
Verdi a contract for three more operas, to be composed over two years. The
first was the comic opera Un giorno di regno, which failed
disastrously on its first night in September 1840. Verdi composed it in the
period of the tragic loss of his wife Margherita (June 1840). In the previous two
years, they had lost their
two children. Therefore, Verdi was probably not in the right mood to
compose a comic opera. He was deeply touched and partly renounced the composition.
His next opera, Nabucco,
appeared only 18 months later. However, Verdi continued a level of professional activity by writing new music
for, and supervising several revivals of, Oberto.
In 1942, the success of Nabucco was
unprecedented in Milan. The prisoner's choir by the Hebrew slaves, Va,
pensiero, unofficially became the second anthem of Italy and, today, is still
often played at numerous public events. In the following decade until March 1853,
the première of La traviata, Verdi produced 16
operas, an average of one every nine months. In comparison, Donizetti produced
70 operas in 25 years. Nonetheless, Verdi's most prolific period with
excessive work caused his health to break down frequently. At the same time, he had achieved financial
security. In 1844,
he began to acquire property and land in and around Busseto. The success
of Nabucco opened doors in Milanese society. Verdi met the soprano Giuseppina
Strepponi, who was to become his lifelong companion.
Apart from a brief visit to
Vienna in 1843, Verdi remained within the Italian peninsula until March
1847, when he went to London and Paris to supervise
the premières of I masnadieri respectively Jérusalem, his first operas to be commissioned from outside
Italy. With Giuseppina Strepponi, Verdi stayed about two years in Paris,
interrupted by a visit to Milan during the 1848 uprisings and a trip to the
short-lived Roman Republic to supervise the première of La battaglia
di Legnano in 1849. Verdi returned with Strepponi to Busseto in
mid-1849. The couple was still unmarried and caused a local scandal.
Giuseppina had several affairs and three illegitimate children. She was
even called a whore. Verdi only married her in 1859 in Collonges sur
Salève near Annecy. In 1851, the couple moved
to the nearby farm of Sant'Agata, land once owned by
At the beginning of his operatic career,
Verdi's main stylistic influences were his immediate Italian predecessors. Rossini, the point of reference a decade earlier, was now rather outdated in
the field of serious opera. However, echoes of the Rossinian model remain
e.g. in overtures such as Giovanna d'Arco and La battaglia di Legnano,
owes something to Rossini's Mosè. The most important of Verdi's
first influences was Donizetti, the most successful
composer then active in Italian opera. In the late 1840s, the French models
increasingly influenced Verdi's aria forms. Also non-operatic
French theatre, in particular the mélodrame tradition, had an
impact on Verdi, e.g. in the final scene of Stiffelio.
Verdi had composed his first four
operas for the relatively large stage of La Scala in Milan. Ernani
(1844), however, was written for the more intimate
context of Venice’s La Fenice. It was a step from the monumental
historic opera dominated by the choir towards the musical drama in which
the psychological characterization of the protagonists was at the center. Alzira
and Attila were other operas in this direction. With Macbeth,
which premièred in Florence in 1847, Verdi turned to Shakespeare. It was
a new turn in his career. Orchestration and harmony reached an
unprecedented level. Verdi also exploited music of the ‘genere fantastico’ (the fantastic or supernatural
I masnadieri and Il
were essentially conceived before Macbeth. It was with Rigoletto that
Verdi once more broke new ground. It included a new expansion of genres, which e.g. saw
further use of comic opera styles within a serious context. Rigoletto
was based on Victor Hugo's Le Roi s'amuse (1832). The Austrian
censors first refused the depiction of royal misbehaviour. Then, Verdi's
librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, switched the place of the action from
Paris to Mantua and made of the French king a duke. For tactical reasons,
the court jester, Tribonet in the original version, became Rigoletto (from
the French rigolo: funny) and the title hero of the opera. In Rigoletto,
the orchestration is powerful and differentiated. Formal structures are
dissolved. The initial success at La Fenice in Venice could be repeated
outside Italy. Since then, it has been one of the most performed operas by Verdi.
started life as a sequel to Rigoletto, this time with an outcast
female protagonist - the gypsy Azucena - claiming sympathy. As Salvatore
Cammarano unexpectedly died in 1852, it was up to Leone Emmanuel to finish
the libretto according to Verdi's wishes. Il Trovatore is based on
the drama El Trovador (1836) by the Spanish writer Antonio Garcia
Gutiérrez. The opera evolves in an atmosphere of obsession, violence and
melancholy. But the drama's
operatic manifestation proved very different from Rigoletto. In Il
Trovatore, there is no "fusion" of genres, all the main characters express themselves in the
traditional forms of serious Italian opera such as arias, duets, etc. The achievement of the opera lies in
this restriction of formal discourse, the emotional energy of the drama
being constantly channeled through the most tightly controlled, formal
units. Verdi also used dreams, tales and memories with a strong symbolic
character. The success of Trovatore is a reminder of the fact that
the composer did not evolve in a straight line.
After Rigoletto and Il
traviata, "the one who deviated from the right way", is the
last opera of Verdi's "trilogia popolare". It is again anomalous
in the sense that it gestures
towards a level of "realism" very rare in Verdi's earlier operas (perhaps Stiffelio
is its nearest cousin). La
traviata concentrated on the inner life of its protagonists. According
to the Harenberg Opernführer, its failure at the première was due
to the fact that Verdi offered Italian society a mirror of its absence of
morality. Furthermore, only the leading female singer was up to the job at
the première night in 1853, whereas the tenor and the baritone were
failures. The libretto by Piave was based on Alexandre Dumas' La Dame
aux camélias (1852). But the second production in Venice in
1854 was a triumph. At the same time, La
traviata became a favorite object of parody, the most famous being the
film A Night at the Opera by the Marx Brothers.
After a series of operas
considered less important, Aida,
which premièred in Cairo in 1871, was another triumph and a milestone in
Verdi's career. The composer was originally asked to compose it for the
opening of the opera season in Cairo, in relation to the official
opening of the Suez Canal. But Verdi initially refused. Only in June 1870,
after the opening of the Suez Canal, did he accept after the librettist
Antonio Ghislanzoni had spent a long period persuading him. Verdi's Aida is
based on the story La Fiancée du Nil by the French Egyptologist
Auguste Mariette. Verdi demanded an enormous fee and strictly surveyed the
entire production. Due to the French-German War of 1870, the première had
to be postponed because all the decorations and costumes were made in
Paris and could not leave the city because of the German siege. Verdi was
not present at the opening night in Cairo. He concentrated on the European
première at La Scala in Milan in 1872 where it became an even greater
triumph than in Egypt. Aida distinguishes itself by a colorful
score and an intimate chamber drama structure. With the exception of
the scene of triumph in the second act, the opera concentrates more strongly
than the ones before on the inner conflicts of its key figures. However,
until the radical new interpretation by Hans Neuenfels in Frankfurt am
Main in 1981 (and even until today, e.g. in Verona), sumptuous and
spectacular production which put the accent on the mass scenes have
After Aida, there
was to be no Verdian operatic première for 16 years. However, the creative
stagnation was not complete. In 1873, while
supervising performances of Aida at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples,
Verdi wrote and had privately performed the String Quartet in E minor. In 1874,
he composed the Messa da Requiem in honour of Alessandro Manzoni.
Among the reasons for the absence of new operas was the increasing
financial security Verdi enjoyed, which made work cease to be a necessity.
He concentrated on the development of his substantial land holdings and, increasingly,
on various charitable causes. He also spent
considerable time supervising and directing performances of Aida
and the Requiem. In 1875, he undertook a tour to Paris, London and
Vienna with the Requiem. At the same time, his personal life was
overshadowed by a continuing public scandal caused by his relationship with the soprano Teresa Stolz, who had been the first
Leonora in the 1869 version of La forza del destino and the first Aida
in the Milanese première of that opera in 1872. Verdi also wrote
the soprano solo in the Requiem for her. Matters between her, Strepponi and
Verdi came to a head in 1876 but eventually resolved with the status quo
intact, Stolz remaining a close friend of Verdi and his wife Strepponi.
But the most serious
obstacle to continued creative activity was Verdi's increasing disenchantment with the direction of newly-cosmopolitan Italy. Early in
the 1870s, Verdi was asked for advice about a revised curriculum for the
reformed Italian conservatories. His suggestions were austere in the
extreme: students should submit to daily doses of fugue and study only the
old Italian masters; budding composers must attend few performances
of modern operas and avoid becoming fascinated either by their many
beauties of harmony and orchestration or by the diminished 7th
chord. On many other occasions, Verdi showed his discontent with the
cosmopolitan direction Italian music was taking, in particular its newest fascination for the
German music and opera and for the symphony. Verdi's self-imposed
retirement was a result of the decline of the popularity of his early
operas, revised or not. By the 1860s, they were outdated and only
rediscovered in the Verdi renaissance in the late 1920s.
After Aida (1871), Verdi
rearranged Simon Boccanegra (1857) and Don Carlos (1867). In
their new form, both works reveal the direction Verdi intended to
take in order to create a new type of opera. In 1887, he put his ideas
into practice with the première of Otello in Milan. After the
death of Piave, Arrigo Boito had become his new librettist. Otello
was another triumph at La Scala. Verdi's new style was marked by a refined
interplay between orchestra and canto. The text accentuated the
psychological and musical dimension. For Otello, Verdi has been
unjustly accused of copying Richard Wagner.
In 1889/90, together with
librettist Arrigo Boito, Verdi created what became his last opera: Falstaff.
It premièred at La Scala in 1893 and was based on Shakespeare's The
merry wives of Windsor. Text and music leave an impression between
ironic play and philosophical self-reflection. Falstaff, created at
the age of nearly 80, is a commedia lirica, which had only very
common with his earlier works, almost entirely tragedies. Verdi also
alternates scenes in which all protagonists have their word at the same
time with recitative passages. Ordinary arias and duets were almost
eliminated. Falstaff is a comic ensemble opera which, once more,
surprised and enchanted the public.
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 mark his return to the Christian belief.
However, after Aida, Verdi pretty much 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 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.
This article is based on the information provided by the CDs on the
left, by the Harenberg Opernführer and, last but not least, by
Grove Online. -
by Giuseppe Verdi.