Thursday, October 10, 8813

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

[Giuseppe Verdi at 73, by Giovanni Boldini, 1886]

Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (October 10, 1813, La Roncole, near Busseto, Italy [then part of the French Empire] – January 27, 1901) was enrolled in the Roman Catholic church in Latin as Joseph Fortuninus Franciscus. His father, Carlo Giuseppe Verdi, took his son to Busseto, where he was recorded in French as Joseph Fortunin Francois. When he was still a child, Verdi's parents moved from Piacenza to Busseto, where the future composer's education was greatly facilitated by visits to the large library belonging to the local Jesuit school. Also in Busseto, Verdi received his first lessons in composition.

Verdi went to Milan at 20 to study counterpoint privately while attending opera, as well as concerts of German music. Verdi's predecessors who influenced his music were Giocchino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Gaetano Donizetti, and Saverio Mercadante.

Returning to Busseto, he became town music master and, with the support of Antonio Barezzi, a local merchant and music lover who had long supported Verdi's musical ambitions in Milan. Verdi gave his first public performance at Barezzi’s home in 1830. The homeowner invited Verdi to be his daughter Margherita's music teacher and the two soon fell deeply in love.

The production of his first opera, Oberto, at La Scala Milan, achieved a degree of success, after which resident impresario Bartolomeo Merelli, offered Verdi a contract for two more works.

In 1840, Verdi's wife and children died while he was working on Un giorno di regno. The opera was a flop, and he fell into personal and compositional despair vowing to give up music.

Merelli nevertheless persuaded him to write Nabucco in 1842 and its opening performance caused a sensation, with its Act III Va pensiero chorus of the Hebrew slaves connected with Italian yearnings for unificationd (During rehearsals, workmen in the theater stopped what they were doing during the number and applauded its conclusion). When the hymn Immenso Jehova (again sung by the Hebrews to thank God for saving His people) was sung at the premiere in Milan, which then belonged to the large part of Italy under Austrian domination, the audience, responding with nationalistic fervor to the exiled slaves' lament for their lost homeland, demanded an encore of the piece. As encores were expressly forbidden by the government at the time, such a gesture was significant.

The notion of Verdi as the Risorgimento's composer has it that the slogan "Viva VERDI" was used throughout Italy to secretly call for Vittorio Emanuele Re D'Italia (Victor Emmanuel King of Italy), referring to Victor Emmanuel II, then king of Sardinia.

A large number of operas followed in the decade after 1843, a period which Verdi was to describe as his "galley years." These began with I Lombardi (1843), Ernani (1844), I Due Foscari (1844),

Giovanna d'Arco (1845), Alzira (1845),

Attila (1846),

Macbeth (1847, without a love story, breaking a basic convention in 19th-Century Italian opera), I Masnadieri (1847), and

Jérusalem (1847), a revised and renamed I Lombardi, for the fickle French audience, was produced by the Paris Opera and with the requisite ballets, became Verdi's first exercise in grand opera.

Throughout his career, Verdi rarely utilized high C in his tenor arias, citing the fact that the opportunity to sing that particular note in front of an audience distracts the performer before and after the note appears. However, he did provide high C's to Duprez in Jérusalem and to Tamberlick in the original version of La Forza del Destino (below).

Verdi began his relationship with Giuseppina (Peppina) Strepponi (two years his junior, 1815-1897), a soprano in the twilight of her career. During this cohabitation regarded as scandalous by some, Verdi bought an estate two miles from Busseto in 1848.

Verdi's fecundity continued with Il Corsaro (1848), La Battaglia di Legnano (1849), Luisa Miller (1849), and Stiffelio (1850).

During this time, the composer's parents lived with Verdi and Strepponni, but, after his mother's death in 1851, the couple made the Villa Verdi at Sant'Agata their home until death.


As the "galley years" were drawing to a close, Verdi created one of his greatest masterpieces, Rigoletto, premiered in Venice in 1851. The opera quickly became a great success, and appears as number nine on Opera America's list of the 20 most-performed music dramas in North America.

Verdi was commissioned to write a new opera by TheatroLa Fenice, Venice in 1850, when he was already a well-known composer with a certain freedom of choosing the works he would prefer. He then asked Francesco Maria Piave (with whom he had already created Ernani, I due Foscari, Macbeth, Il Corsaro and Stiffelio) to examine the play Kean by Alexandre Dumas, père, but he felt he needed a more energetic subject.

Verdi soon stumbled upon Victor Hugo's Le Roi s'Amuse. He later explained that "It contains extremely powerful positions ... The subject is great, immense, and has a character that is one of the most important creations of the theatre of all countries and all Ages."

It was a highly controversial subject indeed, and Hugo himself had already had trouble with censorship in France, which had banned productions of his play after its first performance nearly twenty years earlier (and would continue to ban it for another 30 years). As Austria at that time directly controlled much of Northern Italy, it came before the Austrian Board of Censors.

From the beginning, Verdi was aware of the risks as was Piave. A letter has been found in which Verdi wrote to Piave: "Use four legs, run through the town and find me an influential person who can obtain the permission for making Le Roi s'Amuse." Correspondence between a prudent Piave and an already committed Verdi followed, and the two remained at risk and underestimated the power and the intentions of Austrians. Even the friendly Guglielmo Brenna, secretary of La Fenice who had promised them that they would not have problems with the censors, was in error.

At the beginning of the summer of 1850, some rumors started to spread that Austrian censorship was going to forbid the production, as a scandalous work.

In August, Verdi and Piave prudently retired to Busseto, Verdi's hometown, to continue the composition and prepare a defensive scheme. They wrote to the theatre, assuring them that the censor's doubts about the morality of the work were not justified but since very little time was left, very little could be done.

For the première, Verdi had Felice Varesi as Rigoletto, the young tenor Raffaele Mirate as the Duke, and Teresina Brambilla as Gilda.

The opening was a complete triumph, and the Duke's cynical aria, La donna è mobile, was sung in the streets the next morning.

Due to the high risk of unauthorised copying, Verdi had demanded the maximum secrecy from all his singers and musicians. Mirate had use of his score only a few evenings before the première and was forced to swear he would not sing or even whistle the tune of La donna è mobile.

Many years later, Giulia Cori, Varesi's daughter, described her father's performance at the premiere. Playing the original Rigoletto, her father was really uncomfortable with the false hump he had to wear; he was so uncertain that, even though he was quite an experienced singer, he had a panic attack when it was his turn to enter the stage. Verdi immediately realized he was paralysed and roughly pushed him on the stage, so he appeared with a clumsy tumble. The audience, thinking it was a gag, was very amused.

With Rigoletto's sensationalist libretto of rape and suicide, Verdi achieved musical drama as a mixture of heterogeneous elements, embodying social and cultural complexity, and beginning from a distinctive fusing of comedy and tragedy. The work's range includes the requisite banda (onstage band music, in Act I), powerful and concise declamations often based on relatively high C and C#'s in Rigoletto and Monterone's upper register, chamber music settings such as the duet between Rigoletto and Sparafucile (with prominent scorings for cello and clarinets), popular arias such as the aforementioned La donna è mobile,

urgent ariosos including Un di,

and intricate counterpoint as in Bella figlia dell'amore" (with an aria transformed into a quartet in its B section, and the A returning with phrase extensions filled by the added singers).


The emotional-functional roles in the latter are

Gilda (Rigoletto's daughter) - Soprano - "He said such words of love to me" - Despairing descant figuration

Maddalena (assassin Sparafucile's lure-them-to-their death sister) - Alto - "Ha! Ha! I bet you say that to all the girls" - coquetish countermelody

The Duke of Mantua (Mr. Love-Em-and-Leave-Em) - Tenor - "I love you" - Rapturous melody (Beautiful Daughter of Love)

Rigoletto (Humpbacked court jester to Duke) - Bass - "Told ya he was a bum" - Stern bass line

The finale's

Venti scudi

and Storm - Ah piu non ragiono -

make a potent climatic-emotional brew, featuring thunderous low chromatic strings, flashes of lightning flutes, a wind of offstage vocalise male singers in parallel diminished chords, bell chimes, and faux-Gregorian chants of inocence as Rigoletto's daughter sacrifices herself to save an undeserving cad.

Although his orchestration is often masterful, Verdi relied heavily on his melodic gift as the ultimate instrument of musical expression. In fact, in many of his passages, and especially in his arias, the harmony is ascetic, with the entire orchestra occasionally sounding as if it were one large accompanying instrument - a giant-sized guitar playing chords. Some critics maintain he paid insufficient attention to the technical aspect of composition, lacking as he did schooling and refinement. Verdi himself once said, "Of all composers, past and present, I am the least learned." He hastened to add, however, "I mean that in all seriousness, and by learning I do not mean knowledge of music."

However, it would be incorrect to assume that Verdi underestimated the expressive power of the orchestra or failed to use it to its full capacity where necessary. Moreover, orchestral and contrapuntal innovation is characteristic of his style: for instance, the strings producing a rapid ascending scale in Monterone's scene in Rigoletto accentuate the drama, and, in the same opera, the chorus humming six closely grouped notes backstage portrays, very effectively, the brief ominous wails of the approaching tempest. Verdi's innovations are so distinctive that other composers do not use them; they remain, to this day, some of Verdi's signatures.

Verdi was one of the first composers who insisted on patiently seeking out plots to suit his particular talents. Working closely with his librettists and well aware that dramatic expression was his forte, he made certain that the initial work upon which the libretto was based was stripped of all "unnecessary" detail and "superfluous" participants, and only characters brimming with passion and scenes rich in drama remained.


There followed the second and third of the three major operas of Verdi's "middle period."


Il Trovatore (1853) was produced in Rome, with a highly dramatic story of infanticide, gypsies, and Medievalisms.

Troubadour Song

Anvil Chorus

Act IV, Scene 1, No. 12 (Beginning)

Highlights from Il Trovatore appear to comic ends in the Marx Brothers A Night at the Opera.


La Traviata (1853), premiered in Venice, is based on Alexandre Dumas fils's play The Lady of the Camellias, and features free love, a drinking song, and death by tuberculosis.

Un di felice

Ah fors e lui
Sempre libera


1855 to 1867 brought more operas :

Les Vêpres Siciliennes (1855),

Le trouvère (1857, revised version of Il Trovatore with a ballet added),

Simon Boccanegra (1857),

Aroldo (1857, revised version of Stiffelio),

Un Ballo in Maschera (1859, the year in which and Verdi and Giuseppina finally married),

La Forza del Destino (commissioned by the Imperial Theatre of Saint Petersburg for 1861 but not performed until 1862),

a revised Macbeth (1865), and

Don Carlos (1867), as with Vespers (above) commissioned by the Paris Opera and initially given in French, but now most often performed in their revised Italian versions.

In 1869, Verdi was asked to compose a section for a Requiem in memory of Gioacchino Rossini and proposed that this should be a collection of sections composed by other Italian contemporaries of Rossini. The work was compiled and completed, but not performed in Verdi's lifetime.


Verdi's Aida (1871) -- a story of interracial love, Ancient Egypt, and entombment) -- is sometimes thought to have been commissioned for the celebration of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, but, evidently Verdi turned down the Khedive's invitation to write an "ode" for the new opera house he was planning to inaugurate as part of the canal opening festivities. The opera house actually opened with a production of Rigoletto. It was later in 1869-70, when the organizers again approached Verdi (but this time with the idea of writing an opera), that he again turned them down. When they warned him that they would ask Charles Gounod instead and then threatened to engage Richard Wagner's services, Verdi began to show considerable interest, and agreements were signed in June 1870.

Act I, Scene 1: Celeste Aida (Heavenly Aida)

Act II, Scene 2: Marcia

B section melody,

opening phrase:

Sol Do Re Sol Re Mi Mi Mi Mi Fa Do Mi Re Do Re Mi Mi Re Do Re Mi Mi Re Mi Mi Do Re Re

with an alternation of I and V chords, often in first and second inversions, and some V7's, ultimately leading to vi (v of ii or II) and II (V of V).

With the exception this opera (particularly in Acts III and IV) and his final two, Verdi was free of Wagner's influence. Although respectful of Gounod, the Italian was careful not to learn anything from the Frenchman whom many of Verdi's contemporaries regarded as the greatest living composer. Some strains in Aida suggest at least a superficial familiarity with the works of the Russian composer Mikhail Glinka, whom Franz Liszt, after his tour of the Russian Empire as a pianist, popularized in Western Europe.


String Quartet (1873)


In 1874, Verdi reworked his Libera Me section of the Rossini setting and made it a part of his own complete Requiem, honoring the famous novelist and poet Alessandro Manzoni, who had died in the previous year. The full work was first performed at the cathedral in Milan, on May 22, with the commanding bass drum solo of the Dies Irae resounding.

A rivalry continued with Wagner, whom Verdi never met, but perceived as a rival of a totally different school fo musical thought. Indeed, the two composers seemed to resent each other greatly. Verdi's comments on Wagner and his music are few and hardly benevolent ("He invariably chooses, unnecessarily, the untrodden path, attempting to fly where a rational person would walk with better results"), but at least one of them is kind: upon learning of Wagner's death, Verdi lamented: "Sad, sad, sad! ... a name that will leave a most powerful impression on the history of art."

Of Wagner's comments on Verdi, only one is well-known. After listening to Verdi's Requiem, the great German, prolific and eloquent in his comments on some other composers, said, "It would be best not to say anything."

[Verdi in 1876]

[Verdi in Vanity Fair (1879)]

During the following years Verdi worked on revising some of his earlier scores, most notably new versions of Don Carlos, La Forza del Destino, and Simon Boccanegra.

Otello, based on William Shakespeare's play, with a libretto written by the younger composer of Mefistofele, Arrigo Boito, premiered in Milan in 1887. Its music, lacking a prelude, is "continuous" and cannot easily be divided into separate "numbers" to be performed in concert. Some feel that although masterfully orchestrated, it lacks the melodic lustre so characteristic of Verdi's earlier, great, operas, while many critics consider it Verdi's greatest tragic opera, containing some of his most beautiful, expressive music and some of his richest characterizations.

Verdi's last opera, Falstaff -- another Shakespeare play (The Merry Wives of Windsor) to another Boito libretto -- was an international success and an impressive comic opera showing Verdi's gifts as contrapuntalist.

The ailing Strepponi died suddenly on November 14, 1897. Less than four years later, while staying at a hotel in Milan, Verdi had a stroke on January 21, 1901, grew gradually more feeble, and died six days later, on January 27, 1901.

Prior to his body being driven from the cemetery to the official memorial service and its final resting place at the Casa di Riposo, Arturo Toscanini conducted a chorus of 820 singers in the Miserere from Il Trovatore.

Many of his operas, especially the later ones from 1851 onwards are a staple of the standard repertoire. No composer of Italian opera has managed to match Verdi's popularity, perhaps with the exception of Giacomo Puccini.

[8815 Emmett - Dixie / 8813 Verdi / 8813 Wagner]