Giuseppe Verdi was born on 10 October 1813 in Le Roncole near Busseto in the province of Parma, Italy. He became interested in music at a very early age and at nine he was playing on the local church’s organ. Since he was too young to gain admission into the Milan Conservatory he studied privately, under Vincenzo Lavigne, a famous Milan composer. While in Milan, the intellectual centre of Italy, Verdi took every opportunity to go to concerts and operatic performances, and make friends with influential aristocrats who were impressed by his compositions.
In 1833 he returned to Busseto where he became a conductor at the local Philharmonic Society. The twenty year old also worked as an organist until he gained a sponsor; a local merchant and music lover, Antonio Barezzi. In 1836 he married Barezzi’s daughter, Margherita. Together they had two children, a girl Virginia and a boy Icilio, but both died in infancy in 1838 and 1839 respectively; Margherita also died in June 1840.
In 1838, at the age of twenty-five, Verdi completed his first opera, Oberto, conte di san Bonifacio, premiered in the La Scala opera house. It was received well enough for the impresario, Bartolommeo Merelli to offer Verdi a three opera contract, which he accepted. Verdi’s second opera, a comedy, Un giorno die Regno (King for a day), was a complete disaster; but his third, Nabucco (Nabucodonosor), premiered in September 1842, brought him instant fame.
Verdi and Shakespeare
Verdi went on to write twenty-eight works including I Lombardi (The Lombards in the First Crusade), later renamed Jerusalem. The latter had been revamped to suit Parisian conventions, such as the inclusion of extensive ballets; thus making it Verdi’s first French-style of a grand opera. But his most original and important work during this period was his Macbeth, naturally based on William Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
Its importance lays in the fact that it was the first play to be adapted into an opera. It was also Verdi’s first non-romantic work; thus breaking Italian operatic convention. Macbeth premiered on 14 March 1847 and was very successful despite it being totally different from anything had had gone on before. Verdi later wrote two more Shakespeare adaptions, his last two operas: Otello (1887), based on Othello, and Falstaff (1893) based on The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Lovers and librettos
One of the reasons behind Verdi’s mammoth creative output was that writers like Arrigo Boito and others wrote his librettos (texts). For example, the soprano, Giuseppina Strepponi (pictured), assisted Verdi with his Nabucco in 1839, especially for her own part of Abigaille. She was extremely gifted and popular on and off the stage, but in the mid-1840s she suffered vocal problems and was forced to retire. Verdi and Strepponi had become lovers in 1839 and lived together on his estate, the Villa Verdi. They eventually married, in secret, on 29 August 1859. But, even before Strepponi died, on 14 November 1897, Verdi’s attention had turned to another soprano, Teresa Stolz.
Between 1865 and 1877 Stolz had appeared in several of Verdi’s premiers including Aida in 1872; and Requiem, first performed in the San Marco Church on 22 May 1874 with Verdi conducting. She lived with him until his death in 1901. He had suffered a stroke on 21 January and died six days later. His funeral service in Milan saw one of the largest public assemblies of any event in the history of Italy.
See also Stella’s article on Richard Wagner.