Giuseppe Verdi: All of us have heard some of the music of Giuseppe Verdi, if only in television commercials or as background music to love scenes in "sensitive" movies of the last decade. In Italy, Verdi is everywhere, and rightly so. He was not only one of Italy's and Western music's greatest operatic and religious composers, but also an important participant in the unification of Italy. Most of Verdi's operas were designed to evoke patriotic fervor, and his incomparable Va Pensiero (Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Nabucco (1842) was the anthem of Italy's struggle against foreign domination and still arouses the emotions of Italian audiences. Even his name became the political slogan of the risorgimento: "Viva Verdi" meant not only "Long live Verdi" but also "Long live Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy" (Viva Vittorio Emanuale Rei d'Italia.)

Verdi was a musical prodigy. By 1823, at age ten (some sources say seven), he was already the organist at the San Michele church in his native village of Le Roncole in Parma, and in the next eight years he wrote hundreds of liturgical pieces for his own and other local parishes. He first took and then gave lessons in the music school of Antonio Provesi the maestro of the Philharmonia di Busseto.

In 1831 he began master-classes with Vincenzo Lavigna, the maestro al cembalo at La Scala in Milan after being rejected ("privo di talento musicale" -- "lacking in musical talent") by the famous Milan Conservatory. There are various versions of the story of his rejection -- either jealousy, awe at his talent, or plain stupidity on the part of the examiners are cited as reasons by ex post facto analysts. Nobody seems to have considered that Verdi might have had a bad day.

Verdi eventually returned to Busseto to replace Provesi, who had died, as head of the Philharmonia. There he married Margherita Barezzi in 1836. They had their first child in 1837, a daughter, and their second, a son in 1838. His first opera, Oberto premiered successfully at La Scala in 1939.

But then tragedy struck. By June of 1840 his wife and both children were dead, apparently of encephalitis, and Verdi was alone and despondent. He finished the comic Opera he was working on, Un Giorno di Regno, but it was not successful. Verdi decided to quit composing.

But one of the managers of La Scala forced Temistocle Solera's libretto of Nabucoconosor (Nabucco) on Verdi, and he was so moved by what he read that he began to compose again. He had the score ready for opening in September of 1842. Nabucco was a great success and was followed quickly by I Lombardi (1843) and Ernani (1844). Verdi composed so quickly that he soon had operas running simultaneously in all of Italy's great opera venues. In the eight years between 1842 and 1850 he completed 15 operas, many of which are still regularly performed.

And then he hit his stride with Rigoletto (1851), Il trovatore, and La traviata (both in 1853!) Many more followed in succeeding decades (the Internet link to the full list is below). Aida, perhaps his best known work, premiered in Cairo in 1871 to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal a year before.

Verdi then returned to liturgical music: some said that the death in 1873 of the author and patriot Alessandro Manzoni, who Verdi admittedly idolized, reminded Verdi of his own mortality. Verdi's great liturgical masterpiece, the Requiem mass in memory of Manzoni, was first heard in Milan's San Marco Basilica on May 25, 1874, the first anniversary of Manzoni's funeral. Verdi revised and oversaw revivals of his old operas, but of new operas there were none.

Then in May of 1877, when everyone had already despaired of ever seeing a new Verdi opera, he produced another masterpiece, Otello, and proved he could still move audiences to tears. Six years later he capped and ended his operatic production with his great comic work, Falstaff. He continued to compose religious music.

Throughout his long career Verdi confounded the analysts. Just when audiences and critics thought they could encompass what he was doing he would move opera again to a new level. He completely redefined opera at least three times. His later liturgical pieces, and especially the Manzoni Requiem, place him in the highest level of composers in that genre.

Verdi died peacefully but not happily in Milan in 1901. He had spent several years in retirement (after Falstaff, in 1893) at his country home at Sant'Agata, near his birthplace, with his second wife, singer Giuseppina Strepponi. She had performed the leading soprano role in the premiere of "Nabucco," and married Verdi in 1859. After her death in 1897, Verdi fled Sant'Agata and lived out his remaining four years, despondent and depressed, at the Grand Hotel in Milan. Crowds gathered outside the hotel after he suffered a stroke and during his final six-day illness. His funeral, at which the Manzoni Requiem mass was celebrated, was famously attended. The streets of Milan were lined with mourners, and as the cortege passed, the crowds spontaneously sang the Va Pensiero chorus.

Internet Links:




Biography and Liturgy:

Download and play Va Pensiero (requires RealPlayer):

Verdi portrait (gif image file):

Verdi Operas on video:

Verdi's biography on video:

PS -- A maestro al cembalo conducts the opera orchestra while seated at a harpsichord (cembalo) and also plays the accompaniment to the recitativi. There is a scene of Mozart serving as maestro al cembalo at the Comedy Theatre in Vienna in Amadeus. Mozart collapses at the cembalo and is carried home to his deathbed by Antonio Salieri.