Giuseppe Verdi: A Beautiful Italian Musical Mind

  August 16, 2021   Read time 3 min
Giuseppe Verdi: A Beautiful Italian Musical Mind
The leading Italian composer of opera in the 19th century, Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi is noted for operas such as Rigoletto (1851), Il trovatore (1853), La traviata (1853), Don Carlos (1867), Aida (1871), Otello (1887), and Falstaff (1893) and for his Requiem Mass (1874).

Giuseppe Verdi (b. Oct. 9/10, 1813, Roncole, near Busseto, duchy of Parma [Italy]—d. Jan. 27, 1901, Milan, Italy); Born to a poor family, Verdi showed unusual musical talent at an early age. A local amateur musician named Antonio Barezzi helped him with his education. At Barezzi’s expense Verdi was sent to Milan when he was 18. He stayed there for three years, then served as musical director in Busseto for two years before returning to Milan. By 1840, just as he had established a reputation and begun to make money, he was discouraged by personal tragedies. Within a three-year period his wife and both of his children died.

Verdi overcame his despair by composing Nabucodonoser (composed 1841, first performed 1842; known as Nabucco), based on the biblical Nebuchadnezzar (Nebuchadrezzar II). Nabucco succeeded sensationally, and Verdi at age 28 became the new hero of Italian music. The work sped across Italy and the whole world of opera; within a decade it had reached as far as St. Petersburg and Buenos Aires, Argentina.

There followed a period (1843–49) during which Verdi drove himself to produce nearly two operas a year. His aim was to make enough money for early retirement as a gentleman farmer at Sant’Agata, close to Roncole, where his forebears had settled. To “produce” an opera meant, at that time, to negotiate with an impresario, secure and edit (often heavily) a libretto, find or approve the singers, compose the music, supervise rehearsals, conduct the first three performances, deal with publishers, and more— all this while shuttling from one end of Italy to the other in the days before railroads.

Though masterpieces were unlikely to emerge from a schedule like this, Verdi’s next two operas were wildly successful: I Lombardi alla prima crociata (1843; The Lombards on the First Crusade) and Ernani (1844). The latter became the only work of this period to gain a steady place in the opera repertory worldwide. His other operas had varying receptions. Verdi drew on a wide range of literature for his works of the 1840s, including Victor Hugo for Ernani, Lord Byron for I due Foscari (1844; The Two Foscari) and Il corsaro (1848; The Corsair), Friedrich von Schiller for Giovanna d’Arco (1845; Joan of Arc), I masnadieri (1847; The Bandits), and Luisa Miller (1849), Voltaire for Alzira (1845), and Zacharias Werner for Attila (1846). Only with Macbeth (1847), however, was Verdi inspired to fashion an opera that is as gripping as it is original and in many ways independent of tradition. Verdi knew the value of this work and revised it in 1865.

By that time he was receiving lucrative commissions from abroad—from London (I masnadieri) and Paris (Jérusalem, a thorough revision of I Lombardi, 1847). La battaglia di Legnano (1849; The Battle of Legnano), a tale of love and jealousy set against the Lombard League’s victory over Frederick Barbarossa in 1176 CE, was Verdi’s response to the Italian unification movement, or Risorgimento, which spilled over into open warfare in 1848, the year of revolutions.

The prima donna who created Abigaille in Nabucco, Giuseppina Strepponi, who also had helped Verdi as early as 1839 with Oberto, ultimately became his second wife. The new richness and depth of Verdi’s musico-dramatic characterization in these years may have developed out of his relationship with Strepponi. She is often evoked in connection with the portrayal of Violetta in La traviata (The Fallen Woman). With Strepponi Verdi moved back to Busseto in 1849 and then to Sant’Agata.

In the meantime he had composed three operas that remain his best-known and best-loved: Rigoletto (1851), Il trovatore (1853; The Troubadour), and La traviata (1853). Rigoletto makes an important technical advance toward a coherent presentation of the drama in music, especially in the famous third act; there is less distinction between the recitatives (the parts of the score that carry the plot forward in imitation of speech), which tend toward arioso (melodic, lyric quality), and the arias, which are treated less formally and dovetailed into their surroundings, sometimes almost unobtrusively

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