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Classical Composers A-Z: Giuseppe Verdi

Peter Wintersgill presents a pen-portrait of the great Guiseppe Verdi, composer of some of the best-loved of all operas.

10th October, 1813, in Le Roncole, near Busseto in the Ducy of Parma.

Innkeeper and grocer.

Mother and Family

Brought up in a poor home in a small, obscure village, but heard plenty of music from early childhood, e.g. barrel organs and travelling fiddlers.

Showed signs of early musical talent. Joined the local church choir aged seven, had lessons from the organist. Was appointed organist at age 10.

Moved to Busseto aged 13 to live with a friendly merchant, who realised his potential and sent him to have lessons with Provesi, cathedral organist at Busseto. He practised on the merchant's piano and made friends with his eight-year-old daughter Margherita. Became Provesi's assistant aged 16.
Won a scholarship to Milan, but was turned down by the Conservatorio at 19, so for two years had private lessons from Lavigna, who played in the orchestra at La Scala

Early Adult Life
Returned to Busseto at 21. Married Margherita when he was 22 and she was 17. He was paid an allowance for three years by Busseto Philharmonic to direct local concerts.

Returned to Milan in 1838 and wrote his first opera Oberto in 1839, which was a great success. His wife and two children died the following year, which caused him great distress. Not surprisingly the comic opera he was composing at the time was a flop, but Nabucco (1842) was a triumph. One of the soloists was an attractive soprano of 27, Giuseppina Streponni, who became his second wife.

Some of his operas got him into trouble with the censors, for either political or religious reasons. One was Lombards at the First Crusade (1842) which contained a rousing patriotic song, which fired off protests against the Austrian occupation of Northern Italy.

He wrote four operas in fifteen months, then Macbeth in 1847. The Robbers (I Masnadieri) was written for London, where it was staged at His Majesty's theatre in the Haymarket, the old home of Handel's operas, with Jenny Lind and Luigi Lablache. The Lombards was re-written, called Jerusalem, and staged in Paris.

Up till now he had been unsettled, moving between Milan, Rome and other places, but now (1849) he bought a villa, St. Agata, in Busseto, where he lived for the rest of his life.

This was a very productive time, he wrote Rigoletto, the Jester, in 1850, Il Trovatore, The Minstrel, in 1851 and La Traviata, the Lady gone Astray, in 1853. He then continued with Les Vepres Sicilienes, the Sicilian Vespers in 1854 for Paris, then Un Ballo in Maschera in 1857, which ran into trouble with the censors, as did Rigoletto.

Later Adult Life
In 1860 he was persuaded to enter parliament, which he did for five years after the end of the War of Independence.

His next three triumphs were for the export market, La Forza del Destino in 1862 for St. Petersburg, Don Carlos in 1866 for Paris and Aida in 1870 for Cairo. He then wrote his only chamber work, the string quartet in E minor in 1873. The same year he wrote the Requiem in memory of the writer Manzoni, which is among the greatest of all requiems. The premiere in Milan in 1874 was followed by performances in Paris, London and Vienna.

He was made a senator by King Victor Emmanuel, but never
took his seat.

His output decreased with advancing years, especially after the age of 70. He did however write an Ave Maria for soprano and strings in 1879 and a Pater Noster in 1880. After no opera for 14 years he wrote Othello in 1886, his finest opera yet; the premiere was at La Scala in 1887, taking everyone by surprise, the cast having been sworn to secrecy.

His last opera, also from Shakespeare, was Falstaff, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor. The premiere was at La Scala in 1893 when he was nearly 80.

He finally retired then. His wife died in 1897 aged 82. He then managed to write the Four Sacred Pieces in 1898, Ave Maria, Stabat Mater, Laudi Alia Vergine Maria and Te Deum. The premiere was conducted by Toscanini, then aged 30.

He died of a stroke in Milan on 27th January, 1901, aged 87.


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