Celebrating Verdi’s 200th birthday!
Born in October 1813 in the Italian village of Le Roncole near Busseto (Parma province), Giuseppe Verdi spent his early years studying the organ and by the age of seven, he had become an organist at San Michele Arcangelo. In 1823, Verdi moved to Busseto and attended the music school. A few years later Verdi studied composition in Milan and in May 1836, he married childhood sweetheart, Margherita Barezzi. Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, was performed at La Scala in November 1839 and ran for multiple performances. Ricordi publishing house took note and Verdi won a contract for three additional operas to be produced for La Scala. But over the course of a few months, Verdi would lose his daughter, his son, and his beloved wife to illness. His next opera Un Giorno di Regno was a complete failure and Verdi sank into depression vowing not to write another note of music.
Verdi’s next opera changed everything. At dress rehearsals for Nabucco at La Scala, carpenters making repairs gradually stopped hammering and, seating themselves on scaffolding and ladders, listened with rapt attention to what the composer considered a lackluster chorus rendering of Va, pensiero. At the close of the number, the workers pounded the woodwork with cries of “Bravo, bravo, viva il maestro!” The opening of Nabucco was a triumph and also introduced Verdi to his future second wife, the noted soprano Giuseppina Strepponi.
Verdi was famous, commanding a higher fee than any other composer of his time. He traveled to Venice to begin work on a new opera for the Teatro la Fenice. This introduced him to librettist Francesco Maria Piave. This productive partnership would last for twenty years. Initially composing in the bel canto style, Verdi continually experimented to produce his own operatic genre. Verdi’s artistic signature was the marriage of dramatic characterization and vocal power. The next few operas following La Traviata further cemented Verdi as the Italian opera composer; Simon Boccanegra (1857/1881), Un Ballo in Maschera (1859), La Forza del Destino (1862), Don Carlos (1867) and Aïda (1871). But age was starting to take its toll. Once on the cutting edge of opera, Verdi was now seen as the old guard with Germany’s Richard Wagner pushing the envelope of opera and theatre. One of Verdi’s critics was Arrigo Boito but clearly the maestro saw something in Boito that intrigued him. The two would find common ground as Boito revised La Forza del Destino and Simon Boccanegra and would eventually write the full libretti for Verdi’s final operas Otello and Falstaff.
Verdi and Giuseppina retreated to their country home in Sant’ Agata. A pragmatist to the end, Verdi planned for his estate after his death that included a retirement home for musicians. In 1895, work began on Casa di Riposo per Musicisti that would continue to receive Verdi’s posthumous royalties for seventy-five years. In January 1897, Verdi suffered a mild stroke and in November of the same year, Giuseppina died. After her death, Verdi surrounded himself with friends and in January 1901 died from a massive stroke.
Verdi’s death left all Italy in mourning. Poet and playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio declared that Verdi “sang and wept for all”. Verdi continues to be revered throughout the music world as one of the greatest operatic composers and, more particularly, in Italy as a patriotic hero.