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  • Nationality: Italian
  • 1813 - 1901
  • You might know him for: the operas Rigoletto, La Traviata, Aida and Il Trovatore

Giuseppe Verdi is probably the most famous and best known Italian opera composer of the 19th century. He was the son of a poor grocer and tavern owner and was born on 10. October 1813 in Le Roncole in the province of Parma. He tried his hand at the village organ at an early age and got music lessons from the organist. Soon he attracted the attention of Antonio Barezzi, a merchant from the neighbouring town of Busseto, who became his sponsor and paid for his musical education with Vicenzo Lavigna in Milan at the “La Scala”.

In 1835 Verdi returned to Busseto, was appointed master of music in the village and married Margherita Barezzi, his sponsor`s daughter. His first opera “Oberto” was produced at “La Scala” in 1839 and was sufficiently successful to secure a commission to write three more. But shortly after the family had moved to Milan, Verdi`s daughter and son died and a year later his beloved wife too. He was overcome by such overwhelming despair that he vowed never to write another opera. But a libretto, based on the story of Nebuchadnezzar, attracted his attention and interest. He set to work again and called the opera “Nabucco” (1842), which was his breakthrough to fame.

Verdi was born in a politically divided country. At the time of his birth he was a citizen of France which had occupied northern Italy. Years later he became an Austrian citizen as the Habsburg monarchy had become master in the north, whereas the south was ruled by the Spanish Bourbons. It is quite possible that the Nabucco-chorus released patriotic feelings in the composer and that the Italian public applied the prayers of the Jews for redemption from captivity to their own situation. His succeeding three operas “I Lombardi” (The Lombards on the First Crusade - 1843), “Ernani” (1844) and “I due Foscari” (The Two Foscaris - 1844) all presented opportunities to express patriotic sentiments despite Austrian censorship. “Long live V-E-R-D-I” became a kind of national slogan as it stood also for “Vittorio Emmanuele Re d`Italia” - Victor Emmanuel later became king of a politically united Italy.

The years to come were less successful for Verdi, although he had sufficient work to do as every year the theatre directors demanded new compositions for the carnival season. He himself called this time his “years in the galleys”, as he felt like a slave working for the opera houses. The composition of “Macbeth” (1847) was an important step forward. He looked for and demanded new, varied and daring subjects and finally found Francesco Piave, a theatre poet, who became his most important librettist for many years. He found suitable material in Victor Hugo`s play “Le Roi s`amuse”, which included a malicious court jester – the triumphant success of “Rigoletto” (1851; name given for censorship reasons) brought worldwide fame. “Il Trovatore” with its heroic action and “La Traviata” (both 1853) increased his fame. From 1855 until 1870 his main occupation was writing works for the Paris opera and Italian theatres, thus composing the operas “Vepres Siciliennes” (The Sicilian Vesper), “Don Carlos”, Simone Boccanegra” and “Un ballo in maschera”.

In 1861 Italy became a united kingdom. A year later Verdi represented his country`s musicians at the Great Exhibition in London; for that occasion he composed a cantata. Also in 1862 his next opera “La Forza del Destino” was performed in St.Petersburg in his presence and in 1871 “Aida” was performed in Kairo to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. While the former opera increased his popularity the latter crowned his fame.

Verdi had reached the summit of his career. He retired to his estate in Busseto where he wanted to spend the autumn of his life with his second wife Giuseppina. But the publisher Tito Ricordi convinced him to write one more work, which was “Othello” (1887). After an extremely successful European tour even one more opera was to follow. Based on Shakespeare`s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” a perfect comic libretto ad been written – the opera “Falstaff” was first performed at “La Scala” in Milan in 1893. Afterwards Verdi turned to writing ecclesiastical choral compositions and published four pieces in 1897 under the title “Quattro pezzi sacri”. Thus ended his compositional creativity. He died on 27. January in Milan.

Verdi is by far the most performed opera composer worldwide. The unique power of his compositions is not only based on his music but originates also from the colourful appearance of masked, disguised and singing people. As an Italian he could not but give priority to the human voice over the orchestra. It is also to his credit that he managed the transformation of opera into music drama – an achievement that influenced succeeding opera composers to an extent that was only paralleled by Wagner.

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