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Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi
1813 - 1901

Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was the most distinguished Italian opera composer in the nineteenth 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.

Early Works

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 travelled 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.

Requiem Mass

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.


The deeply moving, character-filled, atmospherically rich music of this prolific Italian composer has been quoted in at least 206 feature films. Almost all of his most beloved operas have received several full television and film productions: Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball), Falstaff, Otello, Il trovatore, La traviata, Rigoletto, Macbeth, Don Carlos, Aida, La forza del destino, Attila, Giovanna d'Arco, Luisa Miller, Nabucco, Ernani, and Simon Boccanegra. As early as 1909, excerpts from Rigoletto were realized in D.W. Griffith's A Fool's Revenge, and parts of Aida were used in two films of that same name made in 1911. Productions of Un ballo in maschera and Falstaff were made for television in 2001.

Verdi's powerfully gripping Requiem has been excerpted in To Kill a Priest (1988), Den Enfaldige mördaren (The Simple-Minded Murderer, 1982), and a full performance was realized in Giuseppe Verdi: Messa di Requiem (1967). For Luchino Visconti's Il Gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963), composer Nino Rota orchestrated Verdi's Valzer in fa maggiore (Waltz in F Major), originally written "per cembalo" when the composer was in his youth, judging from the simplicity of the elements in the piece. The Valzer was discovered by Rota in the possession of a Roman antiquarian, and was orchestrated for strings, flutes, and piano for the film soundtrack.

A brief excerpt from a Verdi aria is played on a wheezy church organ as the returning Prince Salina (Burt Lancaster) enters with his entourage. The Valser begins on a shot of farmers working on a hillside and follows the cross-fade into a large ballroom. The guests are greeted at a reception line, people gossip, ladies fan themselves (the Sicilian night is very hot), Colonel Pallipacini and his officers are introduced to the notables. The music flows from the balconies into a garden where the Colonel, surrounded by admiring women hanging on his every word, speaks of Garibaldi as looking like an archangel: "I wept like a little baby." Verdi's waltz cadences at the end of the Colonel's exaggerated speech, and another waltz with lovely romantic harmonies in the style of the period by Nino Rota, begin as the scene shifts back into the ballroom. This piece is followed by a wonderful folk-style mazurka in a minor key. In several more scenes, the Prince suggests that he will be dying soon, and blesses the marriage of his nephew Don Trancredi (Alain Delon) and Angelica (Claudia Cardinale). Angelica asks the Prince to dance with her and back in the ballroom the Verdi waltz is struck up once again. Everyone looks on and the Prince and Angelica glide gently across the room. In the following scenes, contrast is continually made between the happy music and the self-congratulatory speeches of the military men and their ideas for maintaining order in the newly unified Italy.


Italian composer. He was born into a family of small landowners and taverners. When he was seven he was helping the local church organist; at 12 he was studying with the organist at the main church in nearby Busseto, whose assistant he became in 1829. He already had several compositions to his credit. In 1832 he was sent to Milan, but was refused a place at the conservatory and studied with Vincenzo Lavigna, composer and former La Scala musician. He might have taken a post as organist at Monza in 1835, but returned to Busseto where he was passed over as maestro di cappella but became town music master in 1836 and married Margherita Barezzi, his patron's daughter (their two children died in infancy).

Verdi had begun an opera, and tried to arrange a performance in Parma or Milan; he was unsuccessful but had some songs published and decided to settle in Milan in 1839 where his Oberto was accepted at La Scala and further operas commissioned. It was well received but his next, Un giorno di regno, failed totally; and his wife died during its composition. Verdi nearly gave up, but was fired by the libretto of Nabucco and in 1842 saw its successful production, which carried his reputation across Italy, Europe and the New World over the next five years. It was followed by another opera also with marked political overtones, I lombardi alla prima crociata, again well received. Verdi's gift for stirring melody and tragic and heroic situations struck a chord in an Italy struggling for freedom and unity, causes with which he was sympathetic; but much opera of this period has political themes and the involvement of Verdi's operas in politics is easily exaggerated.

The period Verdi later called his ‘years in the galleys’ now began, with a long and demanding series of operas to compose and (usually) direct, in the main Italian centres and abroad: they include Ernani, Macbeth, Luisa Miller and eight others in 1844-50, in Paris and London as well as Rome, Milan, Naples, Venice, Florence and Trieste (with a pause in 1846 when his health gave way). Features of these works include strong, sombre stories, a vigorous, almost crude orchestral style that gradually grew fuller and richer forceful vocal writing including broad lines in 9/8 and 12/8 metre and above all a seriousness in his determination to convey the full force of the drama. His models included late Rossini, Mercadante and Donizetti. He took great care over the choice of topics and about the detailed planning of his librettos. He established his basic vocal types early, in Ernani : the vigorous, determined baritone, the ardent, courageous but sometimes despairing tenor, the severe bass; among the women there is more variation.

The ‘galley years’ have their climax in the three great, popular operas of 1851-3. First among them is Rigoletto, produced in Venice (after trouble with the censors, a recurring theme in Verdi) and a huge success, as its richly varied and unprecedentedly dramatic music amply justifies. No less successful, in Rome, was the more direct Il trovatore, at the beginning of 1853; but six weeks later La traviata, the most personal and intimate of Verdi's operas, was a failure in Venice - though with some revisions it was favourably received the following year at a different Venetian theatre. With the dark drama of the one, the heroics of the second and the grace and pathos of the third, Verdi had shown how extraordinarily wide was his expressive range.

Later in 1853 he went - with Giuseppina Strepponi, the soprano with whom he had been living for several years, and whom he was to marry in 1859 - to Paris, to prepare Les vêpres siciliennes for the Opéra, where it was given in 1855 with modest success. Verdi remained there for a time to defend his rights in face of the piracies of the Théâtre des Italiens and to deal with translations of some of his operas. The next new one was the sombre Simon Boccanegra, a drama about love and politics in medieval Genoa, given in Venice. Plans for Un ballo in maschera, about the assassination of a Swedish king, in Naples were called off because of the censors and it was given instead in Rome (1859). Verdi was involved himself in political activity at this time, as representative of Busseto (where he lived) in the provincial parliament; later, pressed by Cavour, he was elected to the national parliament, and ultimately he was a senator. In 1862 La forza del destino had its première at St Petersburg. A revised Macbeth was given in Paris in 1865, but his most important work for the French capital was Don Carlos, a grand opera after Schiller in which personal dramas of love, comradeship and liberty are set against the persecutions of the Inquisition and the Spanish monarchy. It was given in 1867 and several times revised for later, Italian revivals.

Verdi returned to Italy, to live at Genoa. In 1870 he began work on Aida, given at Cairo Opera House at the end of 1871 to mark the opening of the Suez Canal (Verdi was not present): again in the grand opera tradition, and more taut in structure than Don Carlos. Verdi was ready to give up opera; his works of 1873 are a string quartet and the vivid, appealing Requiem in honour of the poet Manzoni, given in 1874-5, in Milan (S Marco and La Scala, aptly), Paris, London and Vienna. In 1879 the composer-poet Boito and the publisher Ricordi prevailed upon Verdi to write another opera, Otello; Verdi, working slowly and much occupied with revisions of earlier operas, completed it only in 1886. This, his most powerful tragic work, a study in evil and jealousy, had its première in Milan in 1887; it is notable for the increasing richness of allusive detail in the orchestral writing and the approach to a more continuous musical texture, though Verdi, with his faith in the expressive force of the human voice, did not abandon the ‘set piece’ (aria, duet etc) even if he integrated it more fully into its context - above all in his next opera. This was another Shakespeare work, Falstaff, on which he embarked two years later - his first comedy since the beginning of his career, with a score whose wit and lightness betray the hand of a serene master, was given in 1893. That was his last opera; still to come was a set of Quattro pezzi sacri (although Verdi was a non-believer). He spent his last years in Milan, rich, authoritarian but charitable, much visited, revered and honoured. He died at the beginning of 1901; 28,000 people lined the streets for his funeral.










This web page was last updated on: 16 December, 2008