I adore 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 lived a life with more moments of tragedy than most of us could take. As a young man he lost his wife and both his children in the space of just a few years, and his home town of Le Roncole flip flopped between occupations by various foreign nations. His life also contained great triumph however. He was near exalted by many for his operatic achievements and his funeral is still claimed to be the largest public event in the history of Italy (with some putting the figure at 300,000 in attendance).
His operas were, with two notable exceptions, anything but comedies. Those exceptions, Un Giorno di regnoand Falstaff, bookend his career, the former (his second opera) a complete disaster and the latter (his 26th and final opera) a total triumph. Verdi supplied operas that provided audiences with what they wanted, in the words of musicologists Grout and Williams, his works were "serious, gloomy, and violent; the early works in particular are typical examples of the blood-and-thunder romantic melodrama". Yet despite the improbable and overblown narratives, Verdi's works have an incredible knack for making people laugh, cry and think.
The great Italian Giuseppe Verdi had his birth certificate written in French! He was born on October 10th 1813 in Le Roncole a small town near Busseto which was at that time under Napoleonic rule. His parents weren’t wealthy, his father Carlo Verdi ran a store, and Le Roncole was hardly a cultural hub, so Verdi first took a shine to music through attending his local church. Carlo (who it must be noted wasn't nearly as impoverished as Verdi liked to suggest later in his life) kindly bought his son an old Spinet (a small type of Harpsichord) and that was the start of Verdi and music.
He quickly learned to play under the village organist Pietro Baistrocchi and when Baistrocchi left the village, Verdi took over from him at the ripe old age of 12. Le Roncole was still a bit limited culturally however, so Verdi’s parents soon sent him to live in nearby Busseto where Verdi’s musical education could continue to blossom. He came under the wing of Ferdinando Provesi, the director of Busseto’s music school, who inspired Verdi by taking him to rehearsals of the local orchestra.
As he grew towards adulthood, Verdi was encouraged to continue his studies in Milan. In 1832 he travelled there but, in his first major setback, failed to be admitted to the Royal Imperial Conservatory (largely because of his age, the maximum was 14 and he was nearly 19). He studied privately with Vincenzo Lavigna instead, a Harpsichordist with connections to La Scala, who provided Verdi a wealth of access to operatic music.
From this point onwards Verdi’s life would enter the realm of extreme success and tragedy that would itself make a perfectly decent operatic plot. Verdi returned to Busseto in 1835, replacing his old master Provesi who had recently died. He married the daughter of one of his earlier benefactors, Margherita Barezzi, and they soon had their first child Virginia. Verdi worked on his first Opera, Oberto, but life quickly took a considerable turn for the worse. Virginia died in 1838, his new son Icilio died in 1939 and though Oberto was a success at La Scala in November 1939 (a remarkable feat for a first time composer), Verdi would fall ill in 1840 and lose Margherita by June of that year (She was only 26 taken by encephalitis).
He turned out his second opera in 1840, a comic opera, which flopped so badly he didn’t tackle another comedy until near the end of his life. Verdi was crushed and had no will to work and for two years he didn’t get much done, assisting on a few revivals of Oberto about the extent of it. Bartolomeo Merelli, the impresario of La Scala who had championed Verdi’s work, wasn’t taking no for an answer however, and pushed Verdi to write what was to become the great Nabucco.
I went back home with Nabucco in my pocket. One day, one line; one day, another; now one note, then a phrase . . . little by little the opera was composed.
It was a colossal success when it opened in 1842 and thus began an absurdly productive period for Verdi, what is now known as his “Galley Years”. Over the next decade he would write some 16 operas, largely following the Italian model of opera laid out by Donizetti and Rossini before him. He began to break new ground however, both in narrative structure: Macbeth for example lacking a major love story, and in his musical forms: introducing elements of French opera.
This period was also a better one for Verdi personally. Though his enormous workload resulted in variable health, his success opened the door to Milanese society and he took up with the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, who became his lifelong companion (if not for some time his wife...). In 1847 he finally embarked on significant foreign travel, making his way to London and then Paris where he lived with Strepponi for two years. Their return to Busseto in 1849 caused something of a scandal as he and Strepponi were not married (and she had several illegitimate children including one by Merelli!).
Verdi was assisted financially by the publisher Giovanni Ricordi, who championed him from the off (buying the rights to Oberto for the significant sum of 1,600 lire), and then maintained an almost exclusive contract with Verdi for the rest of his life (Giovanni would die in 1853 with first his son and then grandson taking over the business).
Verdi’s Galley years came to a close with three masterpieces in quick succession; Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata (premiering in March 1853). Tackling rich, challenging topics audiences were initially taken aback (the first night of La Traviata remains one of the greatest disasters in operatic history, as you can see from Verdi's brief letter below) but these works soon became popular smash hits around the globe. From this point onwards Verdi’s output would slow considerably.
Over the next 18 years, Verdi would produce 6 operas while reworking some of his earlier works. He went off to Paris for two years to complete, Les vêpres siciliennes, an epic work in the French grand operatic style, and he would return there in 1866 for another year to work on Don Carlos. Otherwise he didn’t travel outside of Italy significantly and alongside revising a few works he dipped his toes in the political waters with a fairly unsuccessful stint in the new Italian parliament.
The epic auto-da-fé scene from Don Carlo. Here heard in the later Italian version (hence Carlo rather than Carlos), this is Verdi tackling a French format in an essentially Italian way.
Though his output reduced in quantity, the quality had never been higher. His operas became longer, bigger and more diverse. Though he largely stuck to Romantic melodramas, his scope became greater with more characters and more subplots working alongside the traditional love triangles. Comedy mixed with romance and tragedy, Un Ballo in maschera a strong example of this more varied ideal. Unlike some of his younger contemporaries however, he didn’t ditch many of opera’s formalities remaining relatively attached to formal arias and set pieces.
This conservatism was to play against Verdi as with the passing years it became increasingly clear that Verdi’s new works weren’t the popular smash hits of his earlier days. Though today we consider them every bit the equal of his earlier work at the time none of these post-Traviata works achieved steady places in the developing Italian repertory. Wagner’s influence was seeping across the border and Italy grew ever more cosmopolitan in taste.
Verdi did little to fight this tide and effective retired to his estate at Sant’Agata, a place he had been cultivating over the last few decades. Though he remained a popular figure and supervised a range of productions of his work there would be no new operas for some 16 years. He did turn out his decidedly operatic Requiem, but otherwise these were years in which he spent more time acquiring land than he did composing.
In 1879 Ricordi began to encourage Verdi towards Shakespeare’s Othello, a work Verdi had long admired. He suggested Arrigo Boito as the librettist (a savvy choice though at times a tricky one, Boito being one of the revolutionaries that had led to Verdi retreating in the first place), and with a draft libretto in place Verdi set to writing. Otello opened in February 1887 at La Scala to Europe-wide excitement. Boito would soon set Verdi going on Falstaff, a comedy based on “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, that after a long gestation stormed the stage of La Scala in 1893.
The fabulous final scene from Verdi's final opera Falstaff
These final works demonstrate a genius who had developed over his more than 50 years of composition. Verdi created music that flowed across the Acts, a sense of continuity more similar to the rising tide of Wagner and Puccini, albeit punctuated by lyrical moments (that are old school Verdi through and through).
Verdi would compose little after Falstaff. Now enormously wealthy he devoted considerable efforts to philanthropic projects, including founding the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, a retirement home for musicians that still exists today. Strepponi would die in November 1897, and Verdi would suffer a stroke and die not long after on January 27th 1901.
Verdi and the Risorgimento
Verdi’s incredible life contains a fair amount of myth and legend, much of it propagated by the man himself. His role, and that of his music, in the movement for Italian reunification, the Risorgimento, is a matter of some interest. Italy had been a divided country for centuries, sliced into pieces by Austria, France and Spain amongst others, and there’s no doubt Verdi was a staunch Nationalist who greatly yearned to see a unified Italy (who can blame him, it can’t be much fun being ruled by a different nation every few years!), but his operas', much hyped, effect on the movement doesn’t altogether stand up to scrutiny.
First and foremost the stories of the instant impact of “Va Pensiero”, the hebrew chorus from Nabucco(Verdi’s third opera and one written at a time when Verdi had enough personal problems that Italy probably wasn’t the first thing on his mind) are essentially fiction. The tune it is claimed was taken up from the first performance as a battle song against the Austrian rulers. In reality it was nothing of the sort and it was only claimed by the Risorgimento years later.
Analysed with hindsight it’s also easy to write political motives into a good deal of Verdi’s early operas even if they aren’t really there. Both Ernani and I Lombardi have considerable revolutionary content, but neither seems to have been perceived as dangerously political at the time either by censors or audiences. For example, Milan was a turbulent place in the 1840s and when the Austrians reclaimed the city in 1848 they clamped down on any activities and ideas that might lead to civil unrest: yet La Scala presented Ernaniand Nabucco over the next two seasons! This is not to suggest that these operas don’t contain plenty that might stir up an audience, but it seems that the audiences of that time did not associate these works with the current political climate. Perhaps the exception that proves the rule in Verdi's output is La battaglia di Legnano, an overtly political work that quickly fell foul of the Austrian censors.
Verdi was undeniably a keen supporter of the unification movement, he wrote extensive letters to his librettist Piave detailing his opinions, and it is not surprising as a result that his music would come, even retroactively, to be seen as political. The legend goes that in 1859, with the Austrian occupation coming to its end, crowds would shout “Viva Verdi”. A secret cry of - Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia -- “Long live Vittorio Emanuele, King of Italy”. True or not, Verdi became a symbol of the Risorgimento, and that association is now frequently applied to his operas. That doesn’t mean however, that they’re all loaded with coded messages encouraging the downfall of the government...
The area Verdi was born in suffered considerable unheaval. At his Birth it was French occupied, by his teens the Austrians were in control. Little wonder he was so keen on Italian Unification! This meant that when he wanted to travel to Milan he had to get a passport. His passport makes for delightful if not very flattering reading:
Verdi wasn’t just a great composer, he was also a pretty good cook! Strepponi, his wife, wrote the following about a trip to the theatre. Verdi hoped to go incognito but was spotted, “They began to shout “Viva, Verdi”, and everyone, from the boxes to the pit, stood up to salute the Great Composer from Le Roncole. If only they knew how well he composes risotto alla Milanese, God knows what ovations would have been showered on his shoulders."
Despite his early life in the church, or perhaps because of it, Verdi was no great fan of clerics (They turn up as villains in several of his opera's including the particularly beastly Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo). One incident of note occurred when he was young and serving as an altar boy. The tale goes that he became lost in the music and failed to hear instructions from a priest. The priest kick him, knocking him down the altar stairs and Verdi cried “May God strike you with lightning!”
Eight years later a church was struck by lightning killing four priests including the one that Verdi had cursed. Spooky no doubt and perhaps this event would later influence the potent curse in Verdi’sRigoletto.
Verdi very nearly came to live in London in 1847. I masnadieri had been a tremendous success and the impresario Benjamin Lumley offered Verdi the position as director of the Queen’s Theatre, also known as the Theatre of the Italians (and today Her Majesty's Theatre where Phantom of the Opera has played for 25 years!). It never came to pass though Verdi was keen, particularly as Strepponi was a genuine Anglophile. Instead Verdi spent two years in Paris but not before writing this about London, “With this constant smell of coal I feel I am always aboard a steamship”. The Queen's Theatre would burn to the ground two decades later in 1867.
The bulk of Verdi’s output was in opera but he left a lasting mark with his unusual Catholic Requiem. Originally Verdi was only to write a small part of a Mass to commemorate Rossini, but after that fell apart, Verdi decided to write a complete requiem himself in spite of the fact that Verdi didn’t much love the church.
He did it in honour of Alessandro Manzoni, an Italian poet and novelist with strong ties to the Italian unification movement. Verdi wrote of Manzoni in terms he scarcely used to describe anyone else, in one case writing, “I would have gone down on my knees before him if we were allowed to worship men. They say it is wrong to do so, and it may be, although we raise up on altars many that have neither the talent nor the virtue of Manzoni and indeed are perfect scoundrels.”