Giuseppe Verdi

Giuseppe Verdi is one of the most remarkable figures in history. Not only was he a master of Italian opera composition, but he was a powerful force in 19th-century European politics and an extremely successful businessman to boot. There is simply no other artist that ever lived, on his level of influence and accomplishment, that is so multi-dimensional. To put just his artistic legacy in perspective, consider that more of Verdi's operas are performed today than those of any other composer. Another way of looking at it is that if we think of these operas as live theatrical productions, which they are, more tickets are sold for Verdi's events than for those of any other dramatist except Shakespeare.

Verdi's was a very unique type of genius in a number of ways. Verdi did not come from a musical family. When he was born in the tiny hamlet of Le Roncole, near Busetto in the Duchy of Parma, his parents were not dirt poor (they owned and operated a simple tavern, which still stands, from which they made a modest living), but they were still basically illiterate peasants. The environs of Verdi's birthplace, the Po valley, however, was home to some of the most musically cultured people in all of Europe. It was almost as if the earth itself produced Verdi.

Self taught on an old spinet his father got him when he was very young, by the time he was ten years of age, Verdi was playing for the church services in the town cathedral, and at twelve he was the official organist there. Because Le Roncole had no music teacher, the boy was sent to the market town of Busetto, where he enrolled in its school and took lessons in music fundamentals and on a variety of instruments with Ferdinando Provesi (1770-1833), the director of both religious and band music for the town.

Ferdinando Provesi

Antonio Barezzi

It was not long before Verdi caught the attention of Antonio Barezzi (1787-1867), Busetto's leading merchant, an accomplished amateur musician and the president of the local filarmonici, a group of unpaid instrumentalists that provided music for weddings, funerals and all kinds of civic events. Barezzi recognized Verdi's super talent and happily paid for the lessons with Provesi, gave him a job, taught him the basics of business and took the boy in as a boarder. In short, Barezzi became a second father to Verdi and the two remained very close until the older man's death.

Soon Verdi was composing all sorts of music - marches, dances, choruses, etc. - for the exuberant filarmonici. Realizing that Verdi needed the kind of formal training that was not available locally, or even in Parma, Barezzi sent the eighteen-year-old Verdi to seek admission to the Milan Conservatory. The Conservatory faculty board, however, rejected Verdi on the grounds that he was four years over the usual age limit for admission and that  his piano technique was not orthodox. (It was also true that the

Conservatorio's rules of admission were biased against "foreigners," as those from from Parma would be considered.)

One of the Board members who favored Verdi's admission, composer Alessandro Rolla (1757-1841), was very impressed with the

youth's talent. Some weeks after the audition, Rolla recommended that Verdi take private composition lessons from Vincenzo Lavigna (1776-1836), the concertmaster of La Scala. Again with Barezzi's financial backing, Verdi rented a room in Milan and studied music from a man who regularly conducted operas at the world's most prestigious opera house. From Lavigna, Verdi attained a thorough grounding in counterpoint and fugue, and must have learned the nuts and bolts about opera performance practice, composition and orchestration - things he could not have learned better from any other source. At this time Verdi must also have started to meet people who were well connected to the Milanese musical establishment.

Verdi's studies came to an abrupt end with the death of Provesi. Summoned back to Busetto by Barezzi and other locals, Verdi was expected by them to take over Provesi's position. When he arrived, Verdi found himself embroiled in a conflict between the secular forces, who wanted him to be the director of music and the ecclesiastic party, that wanted one of their own in the position.

Alessandro Rolla

Margherita Barezzi Verdi

Bartolomeo Merelli

After much wrangling Verdi finally obtained the civic position and for the next three years, he gave lessons and composed the kind of pedestrian and forgettable music that was required. But Verdi's ambition was for composing opera in Milan and, as a matter of fact, he probably composed an opera about this time that has been lost called Rocester, to a libretto by Antonio Piazza.

Barezzi understood how Verdi felt and sympathized with him. And as if Barezzi had not given Verdi enough, he gave the composer his only daughter, Margherita, in marriage. Margherita also believed in Verdi's talent and his aims, so the two of them moved to Milan, with

Barezzi's blessing and financial support. Installed in the first city of Italian opera, the young couple attempted to raise their one surviving child, Icillio (they had previously lost a daughter, Virginia), while Verdi hustled about trying to get a commission. Impresario Bartolomeo Merelli, impressed with glowing reports about the young man's potential, gave Verdi the break he needed and in 1839 the composer's first opera, Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio, was premiered at La Scala. This opera also had a libretto by Piazza, but the verses were considerably revised by Temistocle Solera (1815-1878), a political troublemaker and one-time circus strong man, with whom Verdi would collaborate again several times. Unfortunately, Verdi's young son died before the premiere.

This first opera was successful enough that Merelli gave Verdi a contract for three more operas for La Scala. The first of these was to be a buffa piece, Un giorno di regno (1840). Although this opera would feature a libretto by Italy's most popular librettist, Felice Romani, the work would mark the most disastrous failure in Verdi's career. With this sad turn of events, the uniqueness of Verdi's musical genius comes more

Temistocle Solera

into perspective. While Verdi was working on his comic opera, his wife Margherita died of encephalitis. This was the daughter of Barezzi, who had given the composer so much. In less than two years Barezzi's daughter and grandchildren were dead. Verdi was absolutely crushed by this and the feelings of guilt he felt concerning Barezzi caused him deep psychological problems for years to come. Gripped by a depression he could not escape, Verdi steeled himself to finish the opera. Not surprisingly, the premiere was a fiasco. Unlike a Mozart or a Donizetti, Verdi could not separate his personal feelings from his art.

Years later Verdi claimed that the loss of his family, coupled with the fiasco of Un giorno, was so personally devastating that he had vowed never to compose again and that he lived like a hermit for the next two years. We should probably not take this too literally because it is now known that Verdi was active in supervising productions of Oberto in 1841. Nevertheless, Verdi did not produce any new works until Merelli talked him into composing a new opera for La Scala in 1842. This was to be Nabucodonosor, that came to be called Nabucco, with a libretto by Solera. It is impossible to overstate the impact that this opera had on both the world of music and the state of revolutionary Italian politics. Musically it was a sensation. Nothing like it had ever been heard in the Italian opera house. It was almost as if Beethoven had come back to life and had finally learned how to compose an opera! And with its story of enslaved Hebrews and brutal Babylonians, the Milanese audience riotously identified with the downtrodden Jews, and saw their evil oppressors as the Austrians.

Up to this point, the revolutionary movement in Italy was sporadic and disjointed. Centuries of petty conflicts between the various city states assured that Italy remained, in Napoleon's words, merely "a geographic expression." But now, in the wake of the unprecedented triumph of Nabucco, productions of this opera all over Italy evoked the same response as in Milan. The chorus of Hebrew slaves, "Va, pensiero," became the unofficial anthem of the risorgimento. Suddenly Italians all over the peninsula felt united to each other because they had found a truly collective voice in the person and music of Giuseppe Verdi. One can only wonder how the history of Europe would have been different had it not been for this opera. When Verdi composed the music to Nabucco he had not thought about politics at all, but being instinctively a shrewd businessman, he seized upon the patriotic theme and incorporated it in most of his early operas, which were usually wildly successful. At the same time he became ever more sympathetic to the revolutionary cause, and the censors kept a sharp eye on every new work he produced.

Giuseppina Strepponi

Although Nabucco features several important male parts, the opera's premiere still occurred in the Bel Canto era, which meant that the work's musical and dramatic focus was firmly on the prima donna. Creating the role of Abigaille was soprano Giuseppina Strepponi (1815-1897), who was nearing the end of a successful singing career. She supposedly did not perform all that well in the premiere, but apparently she sang well enough! Strepponi had been an admirer of Verdi for some time and was instrumental in getting Oberto produced. (She had been slated to perform in its premiere, which was delayed by the tenor Moriani's illness. By the time it was staged, Strepponi was singing elsewhere.) During or immediately after Nabucco's triumphant run, Verdi and Strepponi became lovers. As with Barezzi and Lavigna, this knowledgeable and talented veteran of the tumultuous world of Italian opera revealed to Verdi  an insider's perspective of the business end of her milieu. Strepponi knew the likes and dislikes of her audience, she knew the intricacies of contracts and finances, and she surely knew how to deal with impresarios and fellow singers. To some extent she actually collaborated with Verdi in the composition
process. From the late 1840s on, Verdi lived openly with Strepponi, but as much as he loved her and needed her, he would not marry her, probably because of his complex feelings about his perceived obligations to the man he still called "father-in-law," Antonio Barezzi.

No matter what contemporary critics may say, the most important factor in the appeal of any given opera is the pleasing quality of its melodies, and Verdi had a genius for melody like no one since Mozart. At the same time, whether consciously or driven by the Zeitgeist, Verdi continually sought to enhance the dramatic element of opera, to elevate its importance closer to that of opera's musical aspect. We can clearly see this in Verdi's career-long fascination with Shakespearean subjects. For the composer's tenth opera, Macbeth (1847), which he considered special enough to dedicate to Barezzi, Verdi wanted as much an actress as a singer to portray the murderous Lady Macbeth. He wanted to compose an Il re Lear, on a number of occasions, going to the extent of developing a scenario for the mighty tragedy and having a libretto written and paid for. His last two operas, Otello (1897) and Falstaff (1893), composed out of sheer love for his art, were both set to Shakespearean subjects.

William Shakespeare

Victor Hugo

Francesco Maria Piave

Salvatore Cammarano
Verdi achieved musical and dramatic perfection with his three so-called "middle masterpieces," Rigoletto (1851), Il trovatore (1853) and La traviata (1853). In the first of these, based on a play by Victor Hugo (1802-1885), Verdi harangued and browbeat his librettist, F. M. Piave (1810-1876), until the structure of all the conventional forms and the relationship between recitative and aria had been stretched to the breaking point, but the composer obtained the theatrical effects he was after. With Il trovatore, the soaring lyricism of Salvatore Cammarano's verses
were dramatically effective in a traditional swashbuckler with a scenic structure very typical of the Bel Canto period.

With its heart-wrenching tale of a fallen woman who becomes a tragic heroine, from the popular novel then play, La Dame aux camelias by Dumas fils (1824-1895), La traviata once again shows Verdi as an artist unable to abstract himself from his personal feelings. In setting Piave's excellent libretto, Verdi simply had to be thinking about his relationship with Strepponi, who was herself considered a fallen woman by proper society. It very well could be that through the process of composition Verdi triggered a psychological catharsis whereby he came to grips with his difficult feelings about Barezzi. (In any case, Verdi and Strepponi were married several years later.)

Alexandre Dumas fils

Each one of these three operas is rich in beautiful and eminently singable tunes. The amazing thing about these melodies, however, is that they all have dramatic power as well as musical brilliance. In these operas, the music is the drama and vice versa.

Eugène Scribe

In the footsteps of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, Verdi composed two original operas for Paris, and like his predecessors, he received large sums of money and garnered considerable attention (both positive and negative) for his efforts. This was a natural move for Verdi, and definitely not just because of the money. By 1855, when he composed Les Vêpres siciliennes, to a libretto by Eugène Scribe (which the wily poet had hastily reworked from an old Donizetti vehicle, Le Duc d'Albe), Verdi was already very well to do, having astutely invested his opera fees in lush farmland in his native Po Valley.

Composing a new work for the Paris Opéra was something Verdi wanted to do, especially because it meant working with the French Grand Opera format. This entailed five acts, a ballet and a large cast and orchestra. The Italian Bel Canto style had really ceased to exist after La traviata,

so Les Vêpres and all future Verdi operas would unmistakably show the French influence (in formal style but not, of course, in dramatic impact or musical quality).

Before he would premiere a new work in Paris again, Verdi composed three more operas that showed little similarity to his old Bel Canto approach - Simon Boccanegra (1857), Un ballo in maschera (1859) and La forza del destino (1862). This last work is very revealing of the French influence and how adaptive Verdi could be for any given situation. Composed for the Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg at the request of tenor Enrico Tamberlick, a member of the Russian opera company, La forza del destino is an epic piece, like one of Tolstoy's or Dostoevsky's novels. It has a larger than usual group of principals, and a couple of scenes that serve only to bring the dramatic background into sharper relief. Despite its huge success, Verdi was not satisfied with the opera's ending. (Verdi thought there were "too many dead bodies," a sentiment not typical of the composer of Il trovatore.) In 1869, a revised version with one fewer dead body was staged at La Scala.

Enrico Tamberlick

Verdi was persuaded once more to compose a new opera for Paris as part of the city's Exposition festivities. This was to be another work created strictly according to the Grand Opera formula (in French, five acts, ballet, etc.). Verdi's distaste with the production practices of the Opéra notwithstanding, for a huge fee he composed Don Carlos (1867) to a libretto by Camille du Locle (1832-1903).
Verdi had never really scored a critical success in Paris and he hoped (in vain, as it turned out) that this premiere would be different. He put much effort into the project, which required over 200 rehearsals, and even cut the score, so the piece would end before midnight as required by protocol. (The last train to the Paris suburbs left the station at this time!) Although the opera was performed 43 times that season, it was panned by the French critics, who much preferred the new Roméo et Giuliette by one of their own, Charles Gounod (1818-1893). Disgusted with the entire experience, Verdi resolved never to compose for Paris again. Today, in either its four- or five-act Italian versions, many consider (wrongly, I think) Don Carlo to be Verdi's greatest work.

The librettist Du Locle knew that Verdi was far superior to any other composer and

Camille du Locle

Antonio Ghislanzoni
proposed numerous subjects for another possible collaboration. Verdi ignored them all until the Frenchman submitted a scenario of a tale of ancient Egypt, which had been given to him by an acquaintance of his, Egyptologist August Mariette Bey (1821-1881). After a tedious back-and-forth with Du Locle and representatives of the Ottoman Viceroy in Egypt, Verdi agreed to compose an opera for the new Cairo Opera House (after being promised such an outlandish fee that it was kept secret according to the contract). The libretto for Aida (1871), however, would not be written by Du Locle who had done so much to secure the commission for Verdi. Instead the composer turned to Antonio Ghislanzoni (1824-1893), who had revised the last act of La forza del destino in 1869.

Teresa Stolz

Alessandro Manzoni

Once more Verdi was not prompted to come out of "retirement" for money. This time his decision to proceed with the project was in part because of a woman. Whether or not Verdi had an illicit sexual affair with soprano Teresa Stolz (1834-1902) is not certain. Giuseppina Strepponi Verdi surely suspected some hanky-panky, probably because she had once been in a similar situation with the composer years before. In any case, La Stolz (who had, like Ghislanzoni, been a part of the La Scala revision of Forza) got Verdi's creative juices running to the point where he spent an unusual amount of time with her, working towards the 1872 La Scala premiere of Aida, in which she created the title role. Given the difficulty of this part, and Verdi's perfectionist attitude, she must have been very good indeed!

was an international blockbuster. In a way, it was a throwback to the Bel Canto style, with a "Grand Opera" backdrop. It certainly compares favorably with the three "middle" works discussed above in musical excellence. Perhaps Verdi's relationship with Stolz did trigger a kind of inspirational renewal. Who knows? We note with interest, however, that upon the death of Italy's greatest novelist, Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873),  Verdi composed his famous Requiem, and that the soprano part was created by Teresa Stolz, who performed the piece numerous times in many European cities under the personal direction of the composer.

On the recommendation of publisher Giulio Ricordi (1840-1912), Verdi agreed to employ the services of Arrigo Boito (1842-1918) to revise the libretto for an 1881 La Scala production of Simon Boccanegra. Giulio Ricordi was a tough, intelligent, self confident, hard nosed businessman who was also a very keen judge of artistic talent. It was he who engineered the partnership between Verdi and Boito that would lead to the composer's last two operas (and make a ton of money for the Casa Ricordi). But this was no easy task.

Giulio Ricordi

Arrigo Boito

Francesco Tamagno
For one thing, Verdi was still angry at Boito for a published remark the writer had made years before about the "altar" of Italian art being "stained like the walls of a brothel." Verdi took this personally and, like any good Italian, he did not let go of grudges easily. Verdi was also extremely rich by now and he was content to manage his landholdings and to live quietly with Giuseppina. By persuading Verdi to involve Boito with the Boccanegra revision, Ricordi got the composer to get used to working with, and trusting, the younger man. As for composing again, Ricordi reckoned correctly that Verdi would be unable to resist the temptation of setting a dramatic subject as powerful as Shakespeare's Othello.

With a masterful adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy by Boito, the La Scala premiere of Otello (with a young cellist named Arturo Toscanini in the pit) was a stunning success. Just as Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia of 1816 eclipsed Paisiello's 1782 version, so did Verdi's Otello of 1887 drive Rossini's three-tenor version of 1818 from the repertoire. Verdi's opera had one major tenor part, the title role, created by Francesco Tamagno. This tenor had a huge voice and sung in a style that anticipated Caruso. Because of this, Otello is not performed as much as it should be, and when it is produced, the lead is performed by tenors that routinely sing Wagnerian roles.

Giuseppe Verdi

Ricordi did not have to persuade Verdi to work with Boito on his final opera. Verdi gladly collaborated with Boito again, and for the first time in over half a century turned to a comic subject, again based on  Shakespeare, premiering Falstaff at La Scala in 1893. With its vigorous rhythms, complex orchestration and continuous stream of melody, but no real arias, the work is similar to some of the operas of Richard Strauss, but is still very Italianate in character. It hardly sounds like the work of a man in his 80th year.

This final work is so typical of Verdi, whose career spanned several stylistic periods of music, in which his works always were fresh. In a century of great musicians, after Beethoven's death in 1827, Verdi was head-and-shoulders the world's dominant musician.

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