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The Italian Opera Composer, Giuseppe Verdi's Works and Life

Giuseppe Verdi: Overview 

  • Born: October 9, 1813 - Le Roncole, Italy 
  • Died: January 27, 1901 - Milan, Italy
  • Historical Period: The Romantic era
  • Musical Media: Opera, Chamber music, Choral, Songs, Keyboards

    Italian composer, Giuseppe Verdi

    Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi or Giuseppe Verdi was a man of major operatic talents, belonging to the Romantic era of music. Born in the year 1813, Verdi was well known for his off-beat and unique career. Along with his skillful creation of melody and the heavy usage of theatricals in his work, his own style, distinctly different from traditional Italian operas, garnered great fame. After a long and varied life, the Italian master passed away in 1901. 

    His major works include:

    • Rigoletto 
    • Il trovatore 
    • La traviata 
    • Don Carlos 
    • Aida 
    • Requiem Mass 
    • Otello 
    • Falstaff 

    Giuseppe Verdi: The Man Who Pushed Boundaries of Melodic Freedom

    Verdi’s mother, Luigia Uttini, and father, Carlo Giuseppe Verdi, were extremely simple people who lived a modest life. When Verdi was four, his musical talents were already revealing themselves as he was given a spinet. At the age of 10, he was already in the secondary school or Ginnasio in Busseto.

    Verdi subsequently caught the attention of Antonio Barezzi, who was a merchant who could appreciate good music. Taking Verdi to his home in order to help the young prodigy realize his potential, Barezzi sent him to Milan for higher education.

    The year 1832 saw Verdi applying to the Milan Conservatory but his admission was rejected due to over age. Eventually, Verdi had the privilege to study under the famous composer Vincenzo Lavigna, who was also an associate of the La Scala opera house. 

    Giuseppe Verdi married Antonio Barezzi’s daughter Margherita in 1836. The couple had two children, both of whom died in their infancy. 

    Verdi wrote Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio, over four years, performed for the first time at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan in 1839. It was based upon a libretto by Antonio Piazza and Verdi completed the opera with help from musician Giulio Ricordi. Although not among his most significant works, it was successful enough for Verdi to gain a commission for three more operas at the Teatro alla Scala. 

    After Oberto came Un giorno di regno, premiering at the at Teatro alla Scala in 1840. Unfortunately, it was a flop, panned by both the audience and the critics. Worsening the situation was the death of Margherita, Verdi’s beloved wife, in the same year. 

    The now-depressed composer lost all hope and vowed to retire from musical composition. Bartolomeo Merelli, who was an Italian impresario and librettist, comforted Verdi and inspired him to resume writing. Verdi composed Nabucco in 1842, and its first performance showered him with accolades. There is a legend that Giuseppe Verdi was actually persuaded to start composing again by the words of the "Va Pensiero", a chorus of the Hebrew slaves. 

    Following this came I Lombardi Alla Prima Crociata in 1843 and Ernani in 1844. Verdi composed his early masterpiece, Macbeth, in 1847. Although considered one of his most important pieces, this wasn’t a love story and thus, was completely against the established style of 19th-century Italian opera. 

    In 1847, Verdi’s I Lombardi, was suitably revised for the Paris opera at the Salle Le Peletier under the title of Jerusalem and this became the Italian composer’s first innovation utilizing the French grand opera style. 

    Next, Verdi wrote his most prominent and famous piece, Rigoletto. Premiering at the La Fenice opera house in Venice in the year 1851, its libretto by Francesco Maria Piave was based on Victor Hugo’s play “Le roi s'amuse.” Marking the beginning of Verdi’s middle-period creations, Rigoletto was a defined change from a typical Italian aria format to a more coherent and contemporary musical style. The story rushes toward its conclusion with a sense of moral indecisiveness. 

    An opera marked by its perfect assimilation of comedy with tragic events, Rigoletto's music varied along the length of its performance. From the song, La Donna è Mobile to the quartet Bella Figlia dell'Amore, the variations were many. 

    Since Rigoletto was strongly based on Victor Hugo’s controversial and infamous play, “Le Roi s’amuse”, it underwent tremendous edits to satisfy the censorship of the era. 

    Il Trovator was produced in Rome and La traviata in Venice in the year 1853. La traviata was based on “The Lady of the Camellias” by Alexandre Dumas.

    Verdi, at 38, had an affair with the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi. Though their association was deemed scandalous by many at the time, they eventually married in the year 1859.  

    Un Ballo in Maschera performed in the year 1859, La forza del destino in the year 1862, were other compositions by the prolific composer, Verdi. Furthermore, his repertoire expanded to include Les vêpres siciliennes from 1855 and Don Carlos from 1867, both of which were initially staged in French.

    The year 1869 saw Verdi write a part of a Requiem Mass in memoriam of Gioacchino Rossini, a famous Italian composer. Although this was completed while Verdi was alive, its performance didn’t happen until after Verdi’s demise in 1901. 

    Many historians and critics consider Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida to have been as a commissioned piece to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt in the year of 1869. However, according to the musical scholar, Julian Budden, Verdi turned down such ode. Consequently, when it was suggested that eminent German composer Richard Wagner would do the composition, Verdi signed an agreement in 1870 and Aida debuted in 1871 in Cairo to great success. Parts of Aida are identifiable with the works of Russian composer Mikhail Glinka, popularized by pianist Franz Liszt. 

    Otello was Verdi’s next notable piece and his penultimate opera. Based on Shakespeare's great tragedy, it was staged for the first time in Milan in the year 1887. There are stark differences here compared to his previous works. These include a lack of melodic patterns and the absence of a prelude. Despite these differences, it’s considered one of his most meaningful and expressive compositions.

    Falstaff, Verdi’s final composition that premiered in 1893 at La Scala, Milan was based on a libretto by Arrigo Boito which was in turn, based on Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor. It achieved far-reaching and international acclaim. The latter years of his life had him composing sacred works referred to as Pezzi sacri. Renaissance music interested Verdi greatly, particularly those of Palestrina, who, according to him, was the father of Italian music. 

    The musical scope and interests of Giuseppe Verdi were significantly affected by the previous masters such as Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, Saverio Mercadante, Mikhail Glinda, and Franz Liszt. 

    Verdi hardly ever employed the high C in his arias, as he believed that singing that particular note led to distractions for the performer. Nonetheless, there was the presence of high Cs in Jerusalem and also in the original version of La forza del destino. His reliance on his melodic gift was tremendous and obvious.

    Giuseppe Verdi was a pioneer in Romantic-era musical compositions. As an Italian, he contributed hugely putting Italy on the global map with regard to operatic fame and greatness. Not only for his iconic Rigoletto but also for his other works which included adaptations of William Shakespeare’s great plays, Verdi, established himself as a composer comparable to the likes of Wagner, Beethoven, and Schumann.



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