Le Roncole, October 10, 1813 – Milano, January 27, 1901

Giuseppe Verdi

Giuseppe Verdi (Le Roncole – Busseto, 1813 – Milan, 1901) was born into humble origins, a fact he was proud of for all of his life, preferring by far compliments about his (very real) agricultural skills over those for his work as a composer. He was an impressive figure, not only musically but from a human and civil point of view, having been an avid follower of Mazzini (indeed the ‘Viva Verdi’ remains celebrated by Italian patriots, which also meant Viva Vittorio Emanuele King of Italy, which the Austro-Hungarian occupants knew very well). After learning the basics of music, with the help of a benefactor, whose daughter he later married, he moved to Milan (in a modest house in Porta Ticinese) with the intention of entering the conservatoire. Although these years were very difficult, punctuated with the death of his wife and children, in 1839 he presented his first opera, Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio, at La Scala with success. The manager of the famous theatre enjoyed it so much that he immediately commissioned a second opera, a comedy called Un giorno di regno which was slightly disastrous given that it was written under the strain of a mourning family. Fortunately, for his contemporaries and for posterity, he was commissioned to write a third: Nabucco (1942) which was a triumphant success. The Va’ Pensiero (one of the choruses in the opera and the piece that convinced the composer to write the entire work, despite the great pain he had endured) remains famous today among the cultured and elite. From this moment, his composing activities became more frequent and so began the phase Verdi called his ‘prison years’ – the period of intense work which resulted in the creation of about one opera a year. (I Lombardi alla prima crociata, 1843; I due Foscari, 1844; Ernani, 1844;  Alzira, 1845; Giovanna d’Arco, 1845; Attila, 1846; I Masnadieri, 1847; Macbeth, 1847; Il corsaro, 1848; La battaglia di Legnano, 1849; Luisa Miller, 1849; Stiffelio, 1850). Closing off the middle of the century was the popular so-called trilogy (Rigoletto, 1852, Trovatore and Traviate, 1853) in which some would say he reached his full expressive maturity; with this success and fame also came additional financial security which allowed him to compose with greater ease. In the next 50 years he presented more subtle and stylistic works, not necessarily of greater quantity but certainly of great difficulty. The stylistic world was changing, and with it the tastes of the public (for example, Il Simon Boccanegra (1857) in its first edition was not a success) and so his writing style had to evolve. This stylistic refinement (after dabbling in a French phase with Les vêpres siciliennes (1855), for which he also wrote an Italian version, I Vespri Siciliani) came to fruition with two stages of success. The first with Un ballo in maschera (1859) and La Forza del destino (1862) and the second with two of the absolute Verdi masterpieces, Don Carlos (1867) and Aida (1871). After Aida, the composer retired into silence, only broken by the Messa da Requiem (1874) written for the death of Alessandro Manzoni. From this silence emerged Arrigo Boito, the composer and poet from the Scapigliatura movement, and this collaboration produced two great masterpieces: Otello (1887), and Falstaff (1893), the last comic work from the very old maestro. In it, he was able to show surprising modernity and vitality of language, which significantly influenced later generations (Puccini in particular). In addition to the operatic repertoire, Verdi left us a large body of sacred music and some chamber works, most famously the piece for quartet and piano, Waltz in F major, which Nino Rota orchestrated for the soundtrack to Gattopardo by Luchino Visconti.

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