Giuseppe Verdi | Biography

Biography

More than 150 years after his death, the works of Giuseppe Verdi form a major part of today’s opera repertoire. The Drinking Song from La traviata, The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco and ‘La Donna è mobile’ from Rigoletto are as well known in popular culture as they are in the world of opera. Father and daughter relationships are a recurrent theme in his work, as are the subjects of injustice, oppression and religious hypocrisy. A profoundly serious man, his final opera was a brilliant comedy. Verdi liked to give the impression that he came from a peasant background. However, he benefited hugely from an ambitious, middle-class father, who arranged music lessons and many other opportunities for him. Verdi began his education before he was four. When he was seven, his father bought him a spinet. By the age of nine, young Giuseppe was the resident organist at the church of San Michele, Roncole. Aged ten, he moved to Busseto to further his education. From 1831, he lodged at the home of Antonio Barezzi, a successful merchant and keen amateur musician. There he gave singing and piano lessons to Barezzi’s daughter Margherita. Barezzi sponsored his further musical studies in Milan before Verdi returned to Busseto in 1836 as maestro di musica. In the same year, he married Margherita, and they soon had two children. Tragically, Verdi’s children died in infancy, and his wife died soon after, leaving him distraught. With his personal life shattered and his professional life disrupted by grief, he turned his focus to composing opera. Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, had achieved a modest success in Milan in 1839. On the basis of this, he was commissioned to write three operas for La Scala. The first, Un giorno di regno (1840), was a flop, but his follow-up, Nabucco (1842), was such a sensation that Verdi had a stream of new commissions. By 1853 he had written sixteen new operas. These include many of his most popular works, such as Macbeth, Rigoletto, Il trovatore, La traviata, Un ballo in Maschera, La forza del destino, Don Carlos, Aida, and Otello. Verdi produced revivals of his older works, and travelled to Venice, Milan, Rome, Naples, Florence, Trieste, Paris and London to supervise stagings. He tried to take control of his artistic legacy by accompanying his opera scores with books of stage directions. In 1847, Verdi went to Paris to supervise the production of his opera, Jérusalem. He ended up living there for two years, with the soprano Giuseppina Stepponi, who would be his lover until his death. When they returned to Italy in 1849, they caused a scandal because they were not married. However, this did not deter Verdi or Strepponi, and they set up a permanent home in Sant' Agata, near Busseto, in 1851. They married secretly in 1859, finally bowing to social pressure. By the time La traviata was first performed in 1853, Verdi was the most frequently performed Italian opera composer in Europe. He could command large fees for his work, demand the best singers, and choose the best venues in which to premiere his operas. However, in the years following, his rate of production slowed considerably. During the next 16 years he produced only six new operas. Some, including Don Carlos (1867) and Les vêpres siciliennes (1855), were considerably longer works than he had written before. Others, such as Simon Boccanegra (1857), needed extensive reworking after unsuccessful premieres. Italian opera had long employed formulas and set structures. This was partly the result of the sheer volume of work required to satisfy public demand. Verdi’s early outpouring of operatic works had enabled him to develop his own approach, away from the norm. Although he did not throw away the rule book entirely, he changed what was needed in order to fulfil his own vision. He composed with specific singers' voices in mind so that their roles fitted them like gloves, and continued to base most of his operas on successful plays and novels. During the late 1850s, Verdi showed signs of frustration with writing for the theatre. Between 1858–1861, he stopped composing altogether. He seems to have got back on track with La forza del destino (1861), but only finished Aida (1871) under duress. Aida was originally commissioned for 1869, and Verdi completed it only after the company threatened to replace him with composer Richard Wagner.  Verdi wrote no new operas for 16 years after Aida. Of his non-operatic works, his 1874 Requiem is the pinnacle. However, he was not quite finished with opera. In 1887, he composed Otello. And in 1893, at the age of 80, he composed his last and possibly greatest opera, Falstaff, based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV. It is a comedy, quite different to much of Verdi’s other subject matter. Even more unusually, it ends happily, with the song ‘Tutto nel mondo è burla’ (Everything in the world is a joke). It was premiered in a flood of publicity — a measure of Verdi’s stature as the elder statesman of opera across the world. It is impossible to overestimate Verdi’s popularity and influence both during and after his lifetime. At his funeral in 1901, conductor Arturo Toscanini conducted a vast assembly of musicians from all over Italy at the state funeral. His death was declared an occasion for national mourning. Many thousands of mourners conducted a sombre procession through Milan, accompanied by ‘Va pensiero’ from Nabucco. It remains the largest public gathering in the history of Italy.