Composer (1813 - 1901)
Italy's most famous composer, one who is admired the world over, was born at Le Roncole, near Busseto (Parma) on October 10th, 1813 during the final years of Napoleonic domination. In fact, his original birth certificate is in French. His father Carlo was a modest village innkeeper, and his mother Luigia Uttini, was a spinner. His strong musical inclinations were evident from an early age and his musical education began with Pietro Baistrocchi, the church organist in Roncole. At the age of ten Verdi left for the larger town of Busseto. Before leaving, he had been the organist of his local church for a few years. The cultural setting in Busseto was more favourable for his education. In this town Verdi lived in the house of Antonio Barezzi, a merchant and passionate music lover, who employed Verdi to teach music to his daughter, Margherita with whom Verdi fell in love. Ferdinando Provesi, maestro of the local Philharmonic society gave Verdi lessons on musical composition and instrumental playing. However, his advanced training took place in Milan. As he was not admitted to the Conservatory of Music in Milan, being over the age limit, he chose to study counterpoint from 1832 to 1835 with Vincenzo Lavigna who had been harpsichordist at La Scala Theatre. Financial help was received from a scholarship from the Monte di Pietà of Busseto and from Barezzi who funded Verdi's first year. In Milan, Verdi frequented the theatres, getting to know the operatic repertoire of his time.
After his studies in Milan, Verdi returned to Bussetto and the following year, in 1836, Barezzi granted him the hand of his daughter in matrimony. In the same year Verdi assumed the post as Maestro of the town's music school, a post he gave up in 1838 when he and his family moved to Milan. Here, the following year, he presented his first opera at the Scala Theatre, Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio, (originally called Rocester) an encouraging success. The Milanese publishing house Casa Ricordi secured the rights to his next work, and a lifelong and almost unblemished relationship was formed. The impresario of La Scala, Bartolomeo Merelli, offered him a contract for two more operas.
The first of these was Un Giorno di Regno (Il finto Stanislao), a comic opera, performed only once in 1840. This opera was a fiasco and not surprisingly so as in 1838 and 1839 Verdi lost his two children due to illness, and in 1840 his wife died suddenly of encephalitis. Verdi lost his zest for life. He persuaded himself that there was no consolation in his art and resolved never to compose again until Merelli forced the libretto for Nabucco on him. Verdi was deeply moved by the biblical-sounding verses and the opera premièred two years later, finally revealing his true talent in all its glory. 'Va Pensiero' the patriotic chorus from this opera became well-known by the people of Italy.
In 1851 Verdi and Giuseppina Strepponi, soprano and female protagonist of Nabucco in 1842, and with whom he had been living for some years, moved from the centre of Busseto where the villagers from the small-town frowned on the unsanctioned union, to the villa Sant'Agata, not far from Busseto. Here the Maestro, at the height of his fame and wealth, began alternating his composing with the exacting job of overseeing his farms, which he had been buying up gradually.
With regard to compositions, the period up until 1853 was one of frenzied activity for Verdi when he composed and presented some fifteen operas, including Macbeth (Florence, 1847) his first Shakespearean subject. Also, he produced what are now known as 'the big three', 'RigTrovTrav' Rigoletto (Venice, 1851) Il Trovatore (Rome, 1853) and La Traviata (Venice, 1853). These were years of patriotic Risorgimento ferment and wars of national independence, struggles that Verdi adhered to and that found fervent expression in his operas, such as La battaglia di Legnano (Rome, 1849).
Verdi travelled with Giuseppina to Paris in 1853 to prepare Les Vêpres Siciliennes for l'Opéra de Paris, where it was presented two years later with modest success. Verdi remained there for some 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.
In 1859, Un Ballo in Maschera was staged in Rome and it became Verdi's biggest success since Il Trovatore six years earlier. The opera about the assassination of a Swedish king had been withdrawn entirely from Naples because of the censors and it was consequently offered to Rome. On 29th August of the same year Verdi and Giuseppina got married in Collonges-sous-Salève, near Geneva. Three years later he and his wife travelled to Saint Petersburg together to supervise La Forza del Destino which premièred in the Imperial Theatre, in November 1862.
In 1865 Verdi stood down from his post of deputy for the Italian Parliament, for which he had been elected four years earlier, and in the same year a revised Macbeth was given in Paris. However, the composer's most renowned work for the French capital was Don Carlos which was given on March 11th, 1867 and several times revised for later, Italian revivals. During the same year both Carlo Verdi, Giuseppe's father and Antonio Barezzi died. In the same year he and Giuseppina assumed the guardianship of Filomena Maria Cristina, the 7-year-old daughter of one of Verdi's cousins who was to become Verdi's heir.
Three years later Verdi agreed to compose an opera for the inauguration of the new Opera House in Cairo at the request of the Egyptian Khedive (Viceroy). Consequently, in December of 1871, Aida was premièred at the aforementioned Opera house. The European première of this opera took place to great acclaim at La Scala on February 8th of the following year. Today the opera is understandably Verdi's biggest success and is performed every autumn annually at the Pyramids of Giza in Cairo, as well as every summer in the Arena di Verona.
Verdi's works in the following years included The Messa da Requiem in 1873, in honour of Alessandro Manzoni, the great Italian poet and patriot, who died on May 22nd of the same year. This was performed at the Church of San Marco in Milan on the 1st anniversary of Manzoni's death, with Verdi conducting. In 1879 the composer-poet Boito and the publisher Ricordi prevailed upon Verdi to write another opera, Otello which was only completed in 1886. This was his most powerful tragic work. Another masterpiece, Falstaff, was completed in late 1892 and premièred triumphantly at La Scala on February 9th, a few months later. At the end of this intense and glorious musical activity, he wrote his 'Quattro pezzi sacri' (Ave Maria, Stabat Mater, Laudi alla Vergine, Te Deum).
Giuseppina, Verdi's loving companion of fifty years and untiring supporter through invariable ups and downs, died at Sant'Agata in 1897 and Verdi left Sant'Agata for ever longer stays in Milan. It was there in Milan that Giuseppe Verdi died of hemiplegia at 2.50pm on 27 January 1901 at the Grand Hotel, where he had become accustomed to staying whilst visiting the city. With him when he died were his closest relatives and friends.
A crowd gathered in the street outside as soon as his death was announced and mourning ribbons were added to Milan's flags within twenty-four hours. The street outside the Grand Hotel was covered with straw to muffle the noise from horses' hooves, carriage wheels and car tyres. As a sign of respect the city's shops and theatres closed for three days. Newspapers issued special black-bordered editions while the Italian Senate and the Chamber of Deputies (of which Verdi had himself once been a member) concerned themselves with tributes to the great man. Expressions of loss were combined with recognition of Verdi's stature as a man, a musician and an Italian, one who had not merely lived through an historic epoch in the life of the nation but in a sense had also defined it. Verdi had left instructions for a simple burial but the national mood demanded a more fitting tribute to one of Italy's leading figures.
At 6am on Wednesday January 30th, Milanese traffic was halted as a large procession moved off through the city streets with thousands of people lining its route. Puccini and Leoncavallo were some of the representatives of the leading figures of the younger generation of Italian composers who made up the central group of mourners. Verdi's body was temporarily laid to rest beside that of Giuseppina, in the Cimitero Monumentale, but plans were quickly made to remove them both to the chapel of the Casa di Riposo, the charitable institution and home of rest, founded and endowed by Verdi himself, for 100 retired musicians less fortunate than he.