“I adore my art... when I am alone with my notes, my heart pounds and the tears stream from my eyes, and my emotion and my joys are too much to bear.” - Giuseppe Verdi
Giuseppe Verdi (October 10, 1813 - January 27, 1901) one of the greatest opera composers that ever lived, was born in the Italian town of Le Roncole, a village in the province of Parma (Emilia-Romagna region) of Italy. Verdi and Richard Wagner (also born in 1813) are considered the two preeminent opera composers of the nineteenth century. Verdi dominated the Italian opera scene after the eras of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. His works are frequently performed in opera houses throughout the world and, transcending the boundaries of the genre, some of his themes have long since taken root in popular culture, as “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto, “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” (The Drinking Song) from La Traviata, “Va, pensiero” (The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Nabucco, the “Coro di zingari” from Il Trovatore and the “Grand March” from Aida.
When he was still a child, Verdi’s parents moved from Le Roncole to Busseto, where the future composer’s education was greatly facilitated by visits to the large library belonging to the local Jesuit school. When Verdi showed early talent, Antonio Barezzi, a music-loving grocer paid for his music education. Back then, Italy was not a united country, and a lot of it was under Austrian rule – in fact technically, Verdi was born a Frenchman, as Le Roncole was under French rule at the time of his birth.
It was in Busseto that Verdi was given his first lessons in composition. The young composer went to Milan when he was twenty to continue his studies. He took private lessons in counterpoint while attending operatic performances and concerts, often of specifically German music. Milan’s Beaumonde association convinced him that he should pursue a career as a theatre composer. During the mid-1830s, he attended the Salotto Maffei salons in Milan, hosted by Clara Maffei.
Returning to Busseto, he became the town music master and gave his first public performance in 1830 in the home of Antonio Barezzi, the music lover who had long supported Verdi’s musical ambitions in Milan. Because he loved Verdi’s music, Barezzi invited Verdi to be his daughter Margherita’s music teacher, and the two soon fell deeply in love. They were married on 4 May 1836, and Margherita gave birth to two children, Virginia Maria Luigia (26 March 1837 – 12 August 1838) and Icilio Romano (11 July 1838 – 22 October 1839). Both died in infancy while Verdi was working on his first opera and, shortly afterwards, Margherita died of encephalitis on 18 June 1840, aged only 26. Verdi adored his wife and children and was devastated by their deaths.
Nabucco, one of the earliest operas that Verdi wrote, included a chorus of Hebrew slaves longing for their country “so beautiful and lost”. Italians latched onto Verdi’s “Chorus of Hebrew Slaves” as an unofficial anthem for their divided nation that was ruled by foreign occupying powers. Verdi and his music became part of the Italian struggle for independence. Even his name became a political statement. The letters V-E-R-D-I are the first letters of the phrase “Vittorio Emanuele, Rei D’Italia”, which translates to “Victor Emanuel, King of Italy”. Victor Emanuel was the man Italians wanted to be their ruler. When Italians shouted “Viva Verdi” (long live Verdi)! their Austrian rulers didn’t know that they were talking politics, not opera, because the Austrians knew how much the Italians loved opera.
In his late thirties, Verdi composed Rigoletto (1853), and La Traviata (1853). Although the public loved them, critics were often scandalised by their subject matter - they seemed to condone rape, suicide, and free love. But Verdi was fiercely independent and himself lived openly with his second wife for ten years before marrying her. After these operatic successes had made him wealthy, Verdi bought an estate in Busseto; and in 1861 he was elected in the first parliament that convened after Italy had become a nation. In his later years he wrote Aida (1871), Otello (1887), and at the age of seventy-nine his final opera, Falstaff (1893).
Verdi composed not for the musical elite but for a mass public whose main entertainment was opera. He wanted subjects that were “original, interesting and passionate; passions about all!” Almost all his mature works are serious and end unhappily; they move quickly and involve extremes of hatred, love, jealousy, and fear; and his powerful music underlines the dramatic situations. Expressive vocal melody is the soul of a Verdi opera. There are many duets, trios, and quartets; and the chorus plays an important rule. Verdi’s style became less conventional as he grew older; his later works have greater musical continuity, less difference between aria and recitative, more imaginative orchestration, and richer accompaniments. His last three operas, Aida, Otello, and Falstaff, are perhaps his greatest. Falstaff, his final work, is a comic masterpiece which ends with a carefree fugue to the words “All the world's a joke!"
Here are the Three Tenors (Carreras, Pavarotti and Domingo) with Verdi’s “La Donna e Mobile” (Rigoletto) and “Brindisi” (La Traviata).